Avenue of Animals, China

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There is usually a Sacred Way or Divine Road leading to the mausoleums of China’s emperors. Each emperor was known as the ‘Son of Heaven’. The emperors came from heaven to earth through the Sacred Way and they would also deservedly return to heaven via the same route. Among the many Sacred Ways in China, the one leading to the Ming Tombs is the best preserved and complete.

Ming Tombs

The Ming Tombs are located 50 kilometres north-west of Beijing, in a broad valley to the south of Tianshou Mountain. This is where 13 of the 16 Ming emperors are buried. Each tomb was located between a hill and a stream, taking the feng shui (heavenly wind and earthly water) into account. Construction of the tombs took more than 200 years, beginning in 1409 and ending in 1644 with the fall of the Ming Dynasty. The main tomb, Changling, is that of the powerful Emperor Yongle, who died in 1424.

The Triumphal arch, constructed in 1540, stands at the southern end of the mausoleum area. It is the earliest and largest stone archway existing in China today. It is 14 metres high, and is decorated with designs of clouds, waves and divine animals.

About one kilometre to the north-east stands the Great Red Gate, the outermost gate of the entire necropolis. The Great Red Gate marks the beginning of the 7 kilometre long Sacred Way, passing the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion. Inside the stele pavilion is a 454 tonne Bixi (a tortoise-like animal) carrying a stone tablet, called a ‘stele’. This stele is the largest in China. It was carved in memory of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.

Sacred Way

The Sacred Way is lined with 18 pairs of marble figures, each carved from whole stones. Erected in situ in AD1435, they consist of 12 human figures (civil and military officials and courtiers) and 24 animals (lions, camels, xiezhi, elephants, qilin and horses). There are four figures of each animal – two standing and two squatting. The animals are supposed to change guard at midnight.

is Wengzhong. Apparently a Herculean giant called Wengzhong distinguished himself during the Qin Dynasty with great service. After he died, a bronze statue was carved in his likeness. After that, all bronze men (and then stone statues) standing guard at palaces and imperial tombs came to be known as Wengzhong.

The different animals each had their symbolic significance: The lion symbolised awesome solemnity. The camel and elephant suggested the vastness of the territory controlled by the court. The xiezhi (a mythological unicorn) was supposed to possess a sixth sense to tell right from wrong, and was put there to keep evil spirits away. The qilin, one of the four ‘divine animals’ (the other three are dragon, phoenix and tortoise), was represented at the tombs as an auspicious symbol. The horse, being the emperor’s mount, was indispensable.

These giant stone figures are the best preserved and most skillfully carved of their kind. However, a close look at the elephant sculpture shows that its legs bend the wrong way. This is because the artists had not actually seen an elephant, and was recreating the likeness from pictures.

Further information

Thirteen Tombs
Shisan Ling
Tel: +86 21 6067 1156
Open 8am – 5.30pm daily
Admission Y20 per tomb