In the Changping District of Beijing, about 50 kilometers from Tian'anmen Square, 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and their empresses were laid to rest.
The imperial burial site, once even larger than the capital itself, is now commonly known as the Ming Tombs.
In 2003, the area was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Two tombs, those of Changling and Dingling, are open to the public, while Zhaoling is under temporary restoration and will be open soon. Originally, six other tombs were open on a limited basis to scholars and special guests of the government, but that privilege ended last year after three candleholders in the Siling tomb were stolen.
The Sacred Way, the official entrance to the tombs, remains open to visitors. The road leads directly to Changling, the tomb of Emperor Yongle (1360-1424), who moved the capital of the Ming Dynasty from Nanjing to Beijing. Paths leading to the other tombs fan out from the Sacred Way.
A red memorial archway at the southern starting point of the path is surrounded by four ornamental pillars. Commonly known as the "Big Red Palace," the archway, or the Stele Pavilion of Power and Holiness, was built to commemorate Yongle Emperor. A stone stele engraved with the emperor's lifetime chronology stands in the pavilion.
On both sides of the Sacred Way are 18 pairs of stone sculptures, including animals, mythical creatures, civil officials and military officers. They guard the spirits of the burial site, according to ancient beliefs.
Changling is the biggest of the 13 tombs. Ling'en Palace, the main hall, is an outstanding representative of Ming Dynasty architecture.
Unlike traditional Chinese-style construction, the interior of the palace is hardly painted, except for the ceiling. Nanmu pillars, brackets and beams are in their original colors, giving the palace a solemn atmosphere.
The palace is now an exhibition hall to display the relics discovered in Dingling. A sculpture of Emperor Yongle in the middle somehow affects the whole view, not to mention the custom of visitors "worshipping" the statue with banknotes to bring luck and fortune.
Maybe they have their reasons. After all, Ling'en means "would be blessed if worshipping." Subsequent emperors after Yongle all went to worship him in the hall and pray for his blessing.
Yongle was the most successful emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who reigned during what is now considered a peak period of the dynasty. He might also be the lucky one because his tomb escaped destructive archeology.
Emperor Wanli (1563-1620) was not so lucky. His tomb, Dingling, was the only one that was excavated about 60 years ago, and the dig destroyed a great number of cultural relics. To this day, many believe that the exploration of Dingling is one of the greatest travesties of Chinese archeology.
The underground grave chamber is now open to the public, but the coffins and relics displayed there are all replicas. Some of the relics unearthed are now displayed at the Dingling Museum next to the crypt.
In the 1950s, author/historian Guo Moruo (1892-1978) and Wu Han (1909-69) proposed to excavate the Ming tombs. Despite some controversy, the government approved the project.