China · China travel · Travel

Nanjing- the seat of emperors and kings

Nanjing, as many people know, used to be the capital of China before Beijing. What most don’t know, including myself, is that it was the capital of 10 different dynasties or regimes. It was the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC as well as the Ming Dynasty and the Taiping and it was also the capital of several smaller kingdoms during China’s long history. I didn’t know this until I visited the Ming Xiaoling Tomb, the burial place of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, who founded the Ming Dynasty. The tomb is one part of a large open air compound situated on the side of Zijin Mountain.

Unfortunately, Nanjing has twice had its lofty status stolen by Beijing, the most recent being with the creation of the PRC in 1949.  The first was during the Ming Dynasty. The first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang reigned in Nanjing for 30 years until his death in 1398, after which his grandson succeeded him as his designated heir. The Hongwu Emperor’s youngest son launched a successful coup against his nephew and moved the capital to Beijing in 1402. So while Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, is the emperor who’s buried in Nanjing in the Ming Xiaoling Tomb; all the other Ming emperors are buried in or near Beijing.

The Ming Xiaoling Tomb, as I mentioned, is an impressive attraction. As an emperor, his burial site obviously wasn’t simple but instead was a grand site adorned with long pathways, giant animal and human guardian statues, and a giant stone tortoise located near the entrance. This tortoise (bixi) features a 8.78m stele on its shell and is surrounded by its own open-air stone chamber. Then there is the Sacred Way, a long pathway flanked by 12 pairs of 6 stone animals, including regular animals like camels, lions, and horses, and mythical creatures like the unicorn-like qilin and xiezhi. After these animals is the Wengzhong Path featuring giant (it seems here every statue is giant) human statues of 4 generals and 4 officials. After you’ve passed these statues, you must pass through a giant stone gate, cross either of two small stone arched bridges and then a large red entrance gate with an elaborate Ming-style roof and three arched doors studded with large iron “knobs”, the first gate to the Ming Tomb. Inside are more buildings including the Imperial Tablet Hall featuring a stele with an inscription by a Qing emperor, praising Zhu Yuanzhang. An imposing fortress looms right at the end, where you enter a staircase at the base and walk to the back where the emperor is buried. Unfortunately, you can’t see the grave because the actual grave is unmarked in a small forest on a slope behind the fortress. On the top of the fortress, the inside had a few counters selling trinkets which seemed tacky, though the roof had a nice colorful design.

Near the Ming Xiaoling entrance are several museums, with the 10 Dynasty Museum being one of them. There is a subway station near the entrance and a pleasant walk of several minutes along a tree-lined road will take you to the Ming Xiaoling Tomb area.
I unfortunately missed visiting another major grave in the area. Sun Quan, the Emperor of Wu during the time of the Three Kingdoms, is buried nearby in Plum Blossom Hill. Chan Cheng, Zhang Ziyi’s lover in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, played him in the movie Red Cliff that was released as two movies in 2008. I saw the signs leading to his grave, but I didn’t know who he was until later. This being China and especially Nanjing, it wasn’t surprising that this city was dripping with history.
Speaking of history, this mountain didn’t just have the tombs of an emperor and a king, but the “Father of modern China.” The mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, revolutionary, KMT founder, and one-time president of the ROC, is just about 20 minutes walk away from the Ming Xiaoling tomb. The fact that his mausoleum is built at the same place where the Ming Hongwu Emperor was buried is more than a coincidence, though it was the decision not of Sun personally, but the ROC government I was told.


Crossing the bridge to enter the Ming Xialong compound. You can see how green this hill is, a rarity for a lot of Chinese cities. On the right is a lion statue, one of many animal statues on the Stone Elephant Road/Sacred Way.

Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang is buried in the hill behind this wall.


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