Spirit path to the tomb of the first Ming emperor

Journey to the Purple Mountain and the burial of the first Ming emperor.

Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (the first Ming emperor), Nanjing, begun 1381. Speakers: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re standing at the monumental entranceway of the tomb of the first Ming emperor.

Dr. Kristen Brennan: [0:11] The Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was somebody who had come to power in the Nanjing area, established Nanjing as the seat of his power.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] Nanjing means “South Capital,” and this is opposed to the northern capital of China, which is today known as Beijing.

Dr. Brennan: [0:27] This idea of establishing a power base in the south. Keep in mind, prior to this we had the Mongol dynasty, the Yuan dynasty, which was based in the north, in the area of Beijing now. When Zhu Yuanzhang established his court here, this was meant to be the cosmopolitan courtly center.

Dr. Harris: [0:44] We’re now in a square pavilion known as the Square City. Inside, we see an enormous stone stele, [and] at its base, a tortoise.

Dr. Brennan: [0:53] Called “bixi.” This tradition goes way back, this idea that they carry this commemorative stele into the afterlife. That’s something that we see in tombs for hundreds of years. This is something that his fourth son, the Yongle Emperor, wanted to inscribe on stone so that his virtues would be extolled for eternity.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] All the great things about the emperor, all of his virtues are listed here.

Dr. Brennan: [1:18] You can actually still make out the inscription today. This idea of commemorating his virtues, his merit, and for him to be remembered like this forever.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] We have this long tradition in Chinese history of a sacred way, of a pathway that leads to the tomb. The tomb is a tumulus, a large mound of earth. As we process down the spirit path, we encounter six pairs of animals.

Dr. Brennan: [1:45] Then four pairs of first military and then civil officials.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] There are two sets of each kind of animal. The first time you encounter the animal, it’s kneeling. The second time you encounter it, it’s standing.

Dr. Brennan: [1:57] They’re not just normal animals. We have a combination of power animals — lions, camels, elephants, these large animals of royalty, horses, which were used for tribute, imperial steeds — but in between each of those real-life animals, we also have mythical creatures.

[2:12] We have a xiezhi, righteous beast, qilin, which is a mythical unicorn, and these are all omens. These are all righteous animals that suggest the benevolence of this emperor. Then four pairs of first military and then civil officials.

Dr. Harris: [2:28] The two parts of the support of the empire.

Dr. Brennan: [2:32] The wen and the wu, this idea of the military and civil, these arms of the government supporting the emperor. They’re all lined up here at the ready, as we’re moving up the path, up this what they’re called the Wenzhong Path, leading up to the mausoleum.

[2:47] This one’s a little bit unique simply because it’s not a direct path. We have a little turn in between the animals and the officials. That’s because there are other tombs in this area, and perhaps why Zhu Yuanzhang’s tomb was also placed here, near the tombs of previous emperors who based their capital in Nanjing.

Dr. Harris: [3:03] We’ve just walked through one of several gates and we’re approaching the second stele.

Dr. Brennan: [3:08] This stele is by a Qing dynasty emperor, the dynasty that followed the Ming, and this emperor, the Kangxi Emperor, wrote in 1699 that, in honor of the Ming Dynasty emperor Hongwu, [that] he ran the state better than the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty emperors.

Dr. Harris: [3:24] Not only are we processing along a path, but we’re also moving up. We’ve ascended three levels to this sacrificial hallway.

Dr. Brennan: [3:33] This would be the main area for sacrifices. We saw buildings and structures along the side for smaller sacrifices and for additional rituals. This is the main sacrifice hall as we proceed closest to the tomb.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] Now, we have descended the stairs from the sacrificial hall platform and approach a red gate.

Dr. Brennan: [3:51] This gate’s important because it marks the procession from the ritualistic space to something that’s a little bit more like the residence.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] This reminds us of thousands of years of Chinese tradition of understanding the afterlife as life continuing very much in the way that it did in the earthly realm. Now, we’re passing over a bridge.

Dr. Brennan: [4:14] This bridge is this idea of ascending into the realm of the immortals. We know that we’re getting close to the tumulus because we’re moving over this very gently sloping bridge and then met with this foreboding wall.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] With a small entryway and a giant tower on top.

Dr. Brennan: [4:31] That red is not just an auspicious yang, or masculine energy, the color of blood. It’s this life-giving color, but it’s also a reference to the Ming imperial family.

[4:43] The surname of the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was Zhu, which is the word for vermilion. It became the imperial color.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] Let’s walk through that entryway and up those stairs and see what we find. We can see a crenellated wall, that reminds us of a fortress.

Dr. Brennan: [5:00] This idea is specifically to protect the emperor in the afterlife. We can see the tumulus held in by a retaining wall — the emperor, the empress, his concubines, all in this giant mound.

Dr. Harris: [5:12] None of this has been excavated. Likely, the emperor and his family were buried with fabulous grave goods.

Dr. Brennan: [5:20] Even though we haven’t even gotten inside the tomb, we still can see from the architecture how these rituals continued over time. This idea of pleasing the ancestors and of caring for the deceased in the afterlife.

[5:34] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Hongwu Emperor,”]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris, "Spirit path to the tomb of the first Ming emperor," in Smarthistory, December 29, 2020, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/tomb-ming-emperor/.