Some 50 kilometers to the northwest of Beijing, the great Yanshan mountain range parts abruptly like a theater curtain, opening into an enclosed basin of around 40 sqkm of peaceful, scenic countryside. When the great Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle arrived here early in the 15th century, he realized that he had at last found the ideal place for himself and his successors to practice rutu wei’an (入土为安), a traditional Chinese funeral practice. Over the next two centuries, a total of 13 imperial mausoleums (or shisanling 十三陵) were completed in the valley. The complex has in modern times undergone considerable restoration work, and while only three of the tombs are now open to public view, a visit to the site provides
an insight into the styles and obsessions of the age, as well as making for a pleasant day out in a picturesque valley away from the busy central suburbs.
Sacred Way 神道
Almost better known than the tombs themselves is the Sacred Way, the 7km pathway leading to the central tomb that was the official approach for the imperial coffins. In the middle of what is now an isolated field, visitors will find a large marble paifang gate, composed of six pillars and five entrances. This is the first of three archways, which were constructed in 1540. They are the largest of their kind that exists in China today. Following paifang is the Great Red Gate, or dahongmen.
A short walk leads to the Shengong Shengde Stele Pavilion, which houses a great stele (an upright stone pillar bearing an inscription) resting on the back of an enormous tortoise. Beyond the pavilion stands an odd but fascinating series of six animals and human statues on either side of the path.
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This post first appeared here on April 18, 2012.