The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang, who made Nanjing his capital, under the reign title of Hong Wu. He was on the throne for thirty-one years and was buried in Xiaoling in Nanjing after his death. The second emperor was Zhu Yunwen, Zhu Yuanzhang's grandson, whose reign title was Jian Wen during the four years he was on the throne. Zhu Yunwen's uncle, Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan, who was in Beijing at that time, sent troops southward to seize the throne for himself. After a war of several years, Zhu 135 finally occupied the Ming capital of Nanjing and became emperor. As Zhu Di occupied Nanjing, the palace was ablaze and Emperor Jian Wen (Zhu Yunwen) disappeared without a trace. Some say he burned himself, others say he became a monk. Still, no one knows. [Source: China.org]

After Emperor Cheng Zu (Zhu Di) ascended to the throne in Nanjing, he changed his reign title to Yong Le. Staying in Beijing for many years, he had taught Emperor Zhu Di the strategic, military importance of what is now China's capital. In the 4th year of the Yong Le reign (1406), one million laborers were sent to begin building projects in Beijing. In the 5th year of the Yongle reign, Empress Xu died. Since Emperor Zhu Di did not plan to build a mausoleum in Nanjing, he sent Zhao Yu, a high official, Liao Junqing, a diviner, and other people north to choose auspicious sites for imperial burial grounds --- the Ming Tombs outside of Beijing today. The last tomb (Siling) was built during the reign of Chong Zhen (the last emperor of Ming). Thirteen of sixteen Ming emperors were buried there, except for Emperor Jing Tai, who was buried in the western suburb of Beijing.

Emperor Ren Zong, the first son of Emperor Zhu Di, was on the throne for only one year followed by Emperor Xuan Zong, the first grandson of Zhu Di, who reigned for ten years. In history, of course, this period was called the reigns of Emperor Ren Zong and Emperor Xuan Zong. In fact, however, the two emperors did not make great contributions to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). They mostly enjoyed the fruits of the work of their predecessors. But they did follow Emperor Zhu Di and knew how difficult it was to win and keep the throne. Besides, they knew something about their society, so after they ascended to the throne, they used manpower and material resources sparingly and did other beneficial things for the people. After the reign of Emperor Xuan Zong, all succeeding emperors were raised in the palace in Beijing. They seldom left their palaces, therefore they knew nothing about how difficult it was to establish and exercise power. They led dissipated lives, did not care much about affairs of state, and were accustomed to the flatteries of officials, though they often refused to listen to sincere advice offered. They lived in luxury and spent money like water.

Ming Dynasty Rulers (Name: Reign Title, Reign Dates): 1) Taizu: Hongwu (1368–98); 2) (Huidi): Jianwen (1399–1402); 3) Chengzu: Yongle (1403–24); 4) Renzong: Hongxi (1425); 5) Xuanzong: Xuande (1426–35); 6) Yingzong: Zhengtong (1436–49); 7) Daizong: Jingtai (1450–56); 8) Yingzong *: Dienshun (1457–64); 9) Xianzong: Chenghua (1465–87); 10) Xiaozong: Hongzhi (1488–1505); 11) Wuzong: Zhengde (1506–21); 12) Shizong: Jiajing (1522–66); 13) Muzong: Longqing (1567–72); 14) Shenzong: Wanli (1573–1620); 15) Guangzong: Taichang (1620); 16) Hsizong: Dianqi (1621–27); 17) (Ssuzong): Chongzheng (1628–44). *Restored to throne [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies mingstudies.arts.ubc.ca; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia ; Books: "Cambridge History of China" multiple volumes (Cambridge University Press); "Chronicle of the Chinese Emperor" by Ann Paludan.

Power and Lifestyle of the Ming Emperors


Ming emperors usurped unprecedented personal power as the Confucian bureaucracy began to suffer from inertia. They increased their authority by granting themselves the power to dismiss any prime minister who opposed them. "The Ming," wrote military historian Jack Keegan, "in effect militarized China and created a hereditary military class; it was under the Ming that China embarked on it only sustained effort of overseas expansion, and its largest effort to control the steppe by direct offensive action; five great expeditions were mounted north of the Great Wall, which was also then rebuilt in the form we see it today." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The Chinese emperors often kept themselves secluded from their subjects and were largely confined to their palaces. Some emperors rarely left their palaces except to go hunting or visit their ancestors graves. The Ming dynasty ruler, Emperor Wam-li, virtually imprisoned himself within the Forbidden City with his wives and concubines. Even his ministers of state were not allowed to address him directly and whenever he traveled the roads were cleared so no one could see him.

In the 16th century Matteo Ricci wrote: "The kings... abandoned the custom of going out in public...When they did leave the royal enclosure, they would never dare to do so without a thousand preliminary precautions. On such occasions the whole court was placed under military guard. Secret servicemen were placed along the route over which the King was to travel and on all roads leading into it. He was not only hidden from view, but the public never knew in which of the palanquins of the cortege he was actually riding. One would think he was making a journey through enemy country rather than among multitudes of his own subjects."

Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang)


Zhu Yuanzhang (born: 1328, ruled 1368-1398), the man who led the rebellion that toppled the Mongols, created the Ming Dynasty and became its first emperor at the age of 40. He established the Chinese capital in the southern city of Nanking. During his 30-year rule China was reunified once again under a Chinese leader and traditional Chinese rites, music, costumes and ritual vessels were revived. .

Emperor Zhu created a network of secret police and used it to consolidate his power throughout the country. He also had a violent side. A bit insecure about his lowly origins and his upbringing with Buddhist monks, he once ordered the execution of two Buddhists after they sent him a congratulatory message that used the word "birth" (sheng) which the Emperor construed as a pun on "monk" (seng). On another occasion, he ordered the execution of 15,000 people in Nanking when he suspected a rebellion over his policies might be brewing.

Emperor Zhu was also not very fond of the scholar-bureaucrat class. On many occasions he ordered high officials to be stripped and beaten to death by court eunuchs while their colleagues, dressed in their full ceremonial robes, looked on in horror. Once Zhu had 10,000 scholars and their families put death during a purge of his administration.

After Hongwu

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “In 1398, Jianwen succeeded his grandfather, Hongwu, as the second emperor of the Ming dynasty. This was a controversial move that had greatly angered Jianwen’s uncles, whose power he quickly moved to reduce. His uncle Zhu Di, a successful military veteran who helped keep the Mongols out of China, seized control of the northern part of the country and launched a rebellion to take the rest. After fighting Jianwen for three years, Zhu Di and his supporters invaded the imperial capital of Nanjing in 1402. Although the city went down quite easily, Zhu Di had a bit of a problem: Jianwen’s palace was destroyed during the invasion, and nobody could find his body. Zhu Di claimed that his nephew accidentally died in the palace fire, but others believed that the old emperor had escaped and left China. Four days after Jianwen allegedly died in the fire, Zhu Di declared himself the Yongle emperor. Yongle wanted his predecessor’s reign completely erased from history, going so far as to rewrite himself in historical records as Hongwu’s successor. He also launched a bloody purge across the southern side of the country, wiping out the former government’s supporters. Despite the official story of Jianwen being dead, it seems that Yongle might have believed otherwise. In 1405, when he commissioned Zheng He’s first expedition to explore the world, Yongle told the renowned explorer to look for information about Jianwen. The old emperor never popped up during Zheng He’s travels, however, and whether he really died that day in Nanjing remains a mystery.” [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “In Zhu Yuanzhang's last years (he was named T'ai Tsu as emperor) difficulties arose in regard to the dynasty. The heir to the throne died in 1391; and when the emperor himself died in 1398, the son of the late heir-apparent was installed as emperor (Huidi, 1399-1402). This choice had the support of some of the influential Confucian gentry families of the south. But a protest against his enthronement came from the other son of Zhu Yuanzhang, who as king in Beijing had hoped to become emperor. With his strong army this prince, Chengzu (Ch'eng Tsu) , marched south and captured Nanking, where the palaces were burnt down. There was a great massacre of supporters of the young emperor, and the victor made himself emperor (better known under his reign name, Yongle). As he had established himself in Beijing, he transferred the capital to Beijing, where it remained throughout the Ming epoch. Nanking became a sort of subsidiary capital.

Yongle Emperor

The Yongle Emperor (ruled 1403-1424) seized power from Zhu Yuanzhang's son with the help of a powerful group of court eunuchs. One of China's greatest emperors, he sent a great 300-ship armada to the Indian Ocean and Africa, restored the capital to Beijing, built the Forbidden City with a million workers, and invaded Mongolia and Vietnam.

Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, “Zhu Di (1360-1424), who would be called Yongle (Perpetual Happiness), is often compared to Peter the Great; the analogy fits in terms of brilliance, ambition, historical importance and brutality. Like Peter the Great, Yongle was a study in contradictions. A devout Tibetan Buddhist to the point of fanaticism, he ruthlessly executed not only his enemies but also their families and friends, sometimes in great numbers. And like Peter, he encouraged cultural openness, maintaining diplomatic ties with the Mamluk Empire based in Egypt and Syria, the Timurid Empire of Iran and Afghanistan and the Ashikaga shogunate in Japan. He also took full advantage of the accomplished workshops, populated by craftsmen from all of Asia, that the Yuan emperors had built. [Source: Roberta Smith, New York Times, April 1, 2005]

The great Yongle (pronounced YOONG-LUH) ruled China from 1403 to 1424. His father Zhu Yuanzhang, was the first Ming emperor, and a commoner who seized the throne after playing a leading role in the rebellion against the Mongol emperors of the Yuan Dynasty. Yongle, his fourth son, Smith wrote, “was not supposed to succeed him, and he didn't. The son of an older brother was named emperor when Yongle's father died in 1398, but after three years of civil war, Yongle drove him from the throne. He then set about laying the cultural, political and physical foundations that would sustain China for centuries to come. During his relatively brief reign, he moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing and vastly expanded the Forbidden City that 22 successive emperors would call home. He completed the Grand Canal connecting the Yangtze River to northern China and sent out six large armadas for trade and exploration. At home, he commissioned scholars to write an encyclopedia of classical and contemporary knowledge, which eventually numbered more than 11,000 volumes. His centralization of power and money was a particular spur to the decorative arts. Yongle's reign is considered the classic period for white porcelains and brought a revival of excellence in carved cinnabar lacquer.

After Yongle

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“Yongle's successor died early. Under the latter's son, the emperor Xuanzong (Xuande, Hsuan Tsung, 1426-1435), fixed numbers of candidates were assigned for the state examinations. It had been found that almost the whole of the gentry in the Yangtze region sat at the examinations; and that at these examinations their representatives made sure, through their mutual relations, that only their members should pass, so that the candidates from the north were virtually excluded. The important military clique in the north protested against this, and a compromise was arrived at: at every examination one-third of the candidates must come from the north and two-thirds from the south. This system lasted for a long time, and led to many disputes. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“At his death Xuanzong left the empire to his eight-year-old son Yingzong (Zhengtong, 1459-64), who was entirely in the hands of the Yang clique, which was associated with his grandmother. Soon, however, another clique, led by the eunuch Wang Zhen, gained the upper hand at court.The Mongols were very active at this time, and made several raids on the province of Shanxi; Wang Zhen proposed a great campaign against them.”

The next to years or so “were filled with struggles between cliques, which steadily grew in ferocity, particularly since a special office, a sort of secret police headquarters, was set up in the palace, with functions which it extended beyond the palace, with the result that many people were arrested and disappeared. This office was set up by the eunuchs and the clique at their back, and was the first dictatorial organ created in the course of a development towards despotism that made steady progress in these years.

Indulgent Ming Emperors and Ming Eunuchs

While the eunuchs ran China in much of the Ming period, the emperors indulged themselves in their individual passions. One emperor was so into carpentry, for example, that he was overjoyed when an earthquake destroyed much of his palace and he had an opportunity to use his skills.

Some Ming emperors had more than 9,000 maids of honors at their disposal as well as countless servants and concubines. The emperor's women remained on the court payroll even after they passed their primes and the emperors were no longer interested in them. When imperial funds ran low, the court collected taxes and tributes instead of cutting back on expenses.

Ming Emperor Xuande's eunuchs

The Wanli Emperor (Zhu Yijun) ruled China from 1572 to 1620, the longest reign among all the Ming dynasty emperors, in the late Ming dynasty, overseeing a period of steady decline and described as “famously neglectful”. During the reign of Zhu Houzhao, Chinese were not allowed to raise or eat pigs because “Zhu” is a homophone for “pig." Xuande, the fifth Ming ruler, reportedly killed three Mongols with his own bow.

Vast amounts of resources were spent building tombs for the Ming emperors north of Beijing. The second largest tomb, built for Emperor Wanli took half a million workers over six years to build. Before he died the emperor held a huge party in the necropolis. The tomb for Emperor Yongle took 18 years to build. Sixteen concubines were reportedly buried alive inside with the dead emperor. See Ming Tombs, Places.

Eunuch Wang Zhen and the Ransoming of Emperor Yingzong

On his great campaign against the Mongols, the eunuch Wang Zhen took young emperor Yingzong, who had reached his twenty-first birthday in 1449, with him. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: The emperor had grown up in the palace and knew nothing of the world outside; he was therefore glad to go with Wang Zhen; but that eunuch had also lived in the palace and also knew nothing of the world, and in particular of war. Consequently he failed in the organization of reinforcements for his army, some 100,000 strong; after a few brief engagements the Oirat-Mongol prince Esen had the imperial army surrounded and the emperor a prisoner.

The eunuch Wang Zhen came to his end, and his clique, of course, no longer counted. The Mongols had no intention of killing the emperor; they proposed to hold him to ransom, at a high price. The various cliques at court cared little, however, about their ruler. After the fall of the Wang clique there were two others, of which one, that of General Yu, became particularly powerful, as he had been able to repel a Mongol attack on Beijing. Yu proclaimed a new emperor—not the captive emperor's son, a baby, but his brother, Daizong, who became the emperor Jingtai. The Yang clique insisted on the rights of the imperial baby. From all this the Mongols saw that the Chinese were not inclined to spend a lot of money on their imperial captive. Accordingly they made an enormous reduction in the ransom demanded, and more or less forced the Chinese to take back their former emperor. The Mongols hoped that this would at least produce political disturbances by which they might profit, once the old emperor was back in Beijing. And this did soon happen. At first the ransomed emperor was pushed out of sight into a palace, and Jingtai continued to reign. But in 1456 Jingtai fell ill, and a successor to him had to be chosen. The Yu clique wanted to have the son of Jingtai; the Yang clique wanted the son of the deposed emperor Yingzong. No agreement was reached, so that in the end a third clique, led by the soldier Shih Hêng, who had helped to defend Beijing against the Mongols, found its opportunity, and by a coup d'état reinstated the deposed emperor Yingzong

“This was not done out of love for the emperor, but because Shih Hêng hoped that under the rule of the completely incompetent Ying Tsung he could best carry out a plan of his own, to set up his own dynasty. It is not so easy, however, to carry a conspiracy to success when there are several rival parties, each of which is ready to betray any of the others. Shih Hêng's plan became known before long, and he himself was beheaded (1460).

Zhengde: the Emperor Who Liked to Dress Up and Kidnap Women

Zhengde, (Wuzong, 1505-1521) is known best for his extravagant lifestyle and weird antics. .Mark Oliver wrote in Listverse: “Zhengde became emperor when he was 13 years old, and he wasn’t quite done with the days of childhood. He still liked to make believe, and because he was the emperor, everyone else had to go along with it. “He would force his ministers to dress up as merchants so that he could pretend he was a commoner visiting their shops. This, under Emperor Zhengde, was an imperial duty. Anyone who would not play make-believe with him was removed from their post. “He built a 200-room building called the “Leopard Quarter” next to the imperial zoo. He and his friends would spend their time there drinking and hunting the animals in the zoo, pretending they were in the jungles chasing wild game.[Source: Mark Oliver. Listverse, January 12, 2017]

“Zhengde also told his people that he had an identical double named General Zhu Shou. He would give orders for them to pass on to Zhu Shou. Then he would change his clothes and come back out, now forcing everyone to call him Zhu Shou. His men would have to tell him his own orders, and he would pretend to be surprised. For an imaginary person, Zhu Shou was actually a pretty capable general.

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “ With the help of his friend Jiang Bin, Zhengde enjoyed kidnapping women and raping them. In one infamous incident, after fighting a rebellious prince, Zhengde and his men raped an untold number of virgins and widows as they made their way across the city of Yangzhou. One historian said, “His violence plunged the city into such a panic that families grabbed any young men available to marry their daughters.” Zhengde eventually abducted so many women that there was no room in the Imperial Palace to keep all of them. His “Leopard Quarter,” a second palace complete with a zoo, was where he spent much of his time. The emperor’s taste for sex was endless, and it was even rumored that he had a sexual relationship with his eunuch Wang Wei. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

“In autumn 1520, when he was 29 years old, Zhengde became sick after getting drunk and falling off a capsized boat and almost drowning. He never recovered from his illness and died several months later in the comfort of his Leopard Quarter. While his reign might have been short of any actual accomplishments, Zhengde’s larger-than-life personality and free spirit were celebrated in many works of literature after his death.”


Jiajing: The Emperor Nearly Killed by His Concubines

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “While many Chinese emperors survived assassination attempts by family members or rivals, only one of them was nearly killed by his concubines. Emperor Jiajing, the successor to Zhengde, reigned from 1521 until 1567. Although China enjoyed great stability under his long rule, Jiajing was also a very cruel man. In 1542, a group of Jiajing’s concubines decided that they would put an end to his tyranny. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

“On November 27 of that year, while Jiajing was sleeping alone in a concubine’s room, 18 of his other concubines suddenly came in and ambushed him. While some girls drove hairpins into Jiajing’s crotch, others wrapped a silk cord around his neck and tried to strangle him. The emperor eventually fell unconscious, but he survived the attack because his concubines couldn’t tighten their cord hard enough to kill him.

“While her husband lay unconscious, Empress Fang had all of the conspirators behind the assassination plot immediately executed. After recovering from his close brush with death, Jiajing moved out of the Imperial Palace and dabbled with Daoist magic at a self-designed palace near old Zhengde’s Leopard Quarters. He then spent the next 25 years of his rule generally ignoring his duties, devoting himself instead to having sex with virgins and drinking “magic” potions made from bodily fluids.”

Taichang and His Mysterious Death

Tristan Shaw of Listverse wrote: “The death of Taichang, a Ming-era emperor who ruled for little more than a month in 1620, is said to be one of the dynasty’s greatest mysteries. After taking the throne on August 28 of that year, Taichang suddenly fell sick a few days later. Within two weeks, he had become so weak that he couldn’t sleep or walk. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]


“By September 25, Taichang was desperate to try anything. Li Keshao, a man recommended to the emperor by 13 of his officials, gave and personally prepared for Taichang a special red pill. Miraculously, the emperor began to recover after taking Li’s pill. He could sleep again, and he regained his appetite as well. When the evening came, Taichang relapsed and was given another pill. A second dose failed to improve his condition, however, and the emperor died by early morning.

“Taichang’s sudden death caused a great deal of controversy. Some cried of a conspiracy, accusing Li and the 13 officials who had visited Taichang the day before his death of assassinating him. It seemed strange that Li, a man with no real medical training, was allowed to give his mysterious red pills to Taichang.”

“It soon surfaced that Taichang was given a laxative by an eunuch around the time that he started to get sick. There was also a rumor, earlier denied by Taichang himself, that an old concubine of his father named Zheng had deliberately worsened his health by sending off eight palace maids to have sex with him. Zheng, a palace woman who wanted to become empress, was alleged to have acted in a plot with another palace woman and some other power-hungry officials to get rid of Taichang. Whether Taichang died from taking Li Keshao’s medicine, either accidentally or deliberately, has never been established.”

Chongzhen Emperor, the Last Ming Emperor

The Chongzhen Emperor (1611 – 1644), personal name Zhu Youjian, was the 16th and last emperor of the Ming dynasty. "Chongzhen", the era name of his reign, means "honorable and auspicious". He once nearly converted to Christianity. Zhu Youjian was the fifth son of Zhu Changluo, the Taichang Emperor. His mother, Lady Liu, was a low-ranking concubine of the Taichang Emperor. When Zhu Youjian was four years old, his mother was executed by his father for reasons unknown and was buried secretly. Zhu Youjian was then adopted by his father's other concubines. [Source: Wikipedia +]

All of the Taichang Emperor's sons died before reaching adulthood except for Zhu Youxiao and Zhu Youjian. Zhu Youjian grew up in a relatively lonely but quiet environment. After the Taichang Emperor died in 1620, Zhu Youxiao succeeded his father and was enthroned as the Tianqi Emperor. When the Tianqi Emperor died in October 1627, Zhu Youjian, then about 16 years old, ascended the throne as the Chongzhen Emperor. His succession was helped by Empress Zhang, despite the manoeuvres of Wei Zhongxian to keep dominating the imperial court. +


From the beginning of his rule, the Chongzhen Emperor did his best to salvage the Ming dynasty. His efforts at reform focused on the top ranks of the civil and military establishment. However, years of internal corruption and an empty treasury made it almost impossible to find capable ministers to fill important government posts. The emperor also tended to be suspicious of his subordinates, executing dozens of field commanders, including the general Yuan Chonghuan, who had directed the defence of the northern frontier against the Manchu-led Later Jin dynasty (later the Qing dynasty). The Chongzhen Emperor's reign was marked by his fear of factionalism among his officials, which had been a serious issue during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor. Soon after his brother's death, the Chongzhen Emperor immediately eliminated Wei Zhongxian and Madam Ke, as well as other officials thought to be involved in the "Wei-Ke conspiracy". +

The Chongzhen Emperor faces peasant rebellions and Manchu invasions from the north.In April 1644, when rebel forces were advancing on Beijing, their leader Li Zicheng offered the emperor an opportunity to surrender, but the negotiations produced no result. Rather than face capture by the rebels, the Chongzhen Emperor gathered all members of the imperial household except his sons. Using his sword, he killed Consort Yuan and Princess Kunyi, and severed the arm of Princess Changping. The empress hanged herself. Tthe Chongzhen Emperor was said to have walked to Meishan, a small hill in present-day Jingshan Park. There, he either hanged himself, or strangled himself with a sash. By some accounts, the emperor left a suicide note which said, "I die unable to face my ancestors in the underworld, dejected and ashamed. May the rebels dismember my corpse and slaughter my officials, but let them not despoil the imperial tombs nor harm a single one of our people."According to a servant who discovered the emperor's body under a tree, however, the words tianzi (Son of Heaven) were the only written evidence left after his death. The emperor was buried in the Ming tombs.

The Manchus were quick to exploit the death of the Chongzhen Emperor: by claiming to "avenge the emperor," they rallied support from loyalist Ming forces and civilians. The Shun dynasty lasted less than a year with Li Zicheng's defeat at the Battle of Shanhai Pass. The victorious Manchus established the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing dynasty as ruler of all China. Because the Chongzhen Emperor had refused to move the court south to Nanjing, the new Qing government was able to take over a largely intact Beijing bureaucracy, aiding their efforts to displace the Ming.

Ming Tombs as a Reflection of the Hierarchy and Reputation of the Emperors Inside Them

Generally speaking, the scale and grandeur of imperial mausoleums depend on seniority in imperial families. The scale of the ancestral mausoleums must be larger than for descendants. The Thirteen Ming Tombs, however, did not follow that rule. Some imperial tombs for descendants are larger than those of their ancestors. After Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of Ming, died, he was buried in Xiaoling in Nanjing. His son, Emperor Zhu Di, the emperor who consolidated the reign of Ming, was buried in Changling in Beijing. [Source: China.org]

The tombs of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Emperor Zhu Di were both built on a grand scale. Later some imperial tombs of descendants also reached that scale, as a tomb built during an emperor's lifetime generally was on the grand scale since tomb construction was supervised by the emperor. Thus, all the buildings of living emperors' mausoleums were likely to be tall and magnificent. In most cases, a mausoleum built by descendants was smaller in scale, with the buildings roughly built.

The tombs of Emperor Ren Zong and Xuan Zong were comparatively small. Emperor Ren Zong said in his testament, "I did not make great contributions to Ming and I can not bear to lay heavy burdens on the people. After my death, my mausoleum should be roughly built." After Emperor Ren Zong died, Emperor Xuan Zong, acting on his father's testament, decided the scale of Xianling. Emperor Xuan Zong built his own Jingling mausoleum during his lifetime, but the scale of Jingling was smaller than that of Xianling. The book Changping's Mountains and Rivers says, "Xianling was constructed on a small scale; Jingling was even smaller than Xianling." From the foundation remains of the Soul Tower and high, castle-like walls, the scale of the two mausoleums can still be seen. They were both most simply built.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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