The Ming Dynasty Ancestor Tomb in Huai An

The Ming Dynasty Ancestor Tomb in Huai An

By Eric N. Danielson

Back in 2008 I published an article about the Ming Dynasty Ancestor Tomb (Ming Zu Ling) in an online journal called China Heritage Quarterly, which is published by Australia National University.

Here is the full citation for the article:

Eric N. Danielson, “The Ming Ancestor Tomb,” China Heritage Quarterly, No. 16, December 2008. (Online journal published by Australia National University at

Although I  was happy to have it published in such a prestigious place, there were several defects that I was unhappy with. First of all, although I had invested considerable effort in making all the place names and citations bilingual with Chinese characters inserted into appropriate parts of the text, the editor chose to remove all the Chinese characters and instead published an English only version.  I felt this detracted from the authenticity of my research in the eyes of many China experts.  In addition, since I did not yet have a professional digital camera when I last visited the tomb site, no photographs were published with the article to illustrate it. 

As a means of rectifying some of these deficiencies, I have chose to republish the whole article here complete with the Chinese characters which were in the original version sent to the publisher.  

In addition, I have scanned digital photos of the printed Chinese source material used in my research. Furthermore, you can now find a full gallery of digital photos of the site taken during my third and most recent visit there in June 2012 in this separate posting on my blog:

Please find below the full text of the bilingual version of the article. Enjoy!

The Ming Ancestor Tomb (Ming Zu Ling) [明祖陵]

Eric N. Danielson



Of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors, all but one were given elaborate tombs that still stand today. The founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuan Zhang (1328-1398), aka Hong Wu (1368-1398), is buried at Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] in Nanjing, while 13 others starting with the third Ming emperor Zhu Di (1360-1424), aka Yong Le (1403-1424), are buried at the Shi San Ling [十三陵] site in Changping County of the Beijing municipality, 50 km. northwest of the Beijing city center. One Ming emperor, Zhu Qi Yu (1428-1457), aka Jing Tai (1450-1457), was posthumously punished by being denied a tomb at Shi San Ling [十三陵] and was instead buried in the Western Hills of Beijing. The only Ming emperor without any known tomb at all is the second ruler Zhu Yun Wen (1377-1402), aka Jian Wen (1399-1402), who mysteriously disappeared in July 1402 when the army of his rival Zhu Di captured the imperial capital city of Nanjing. Since his body was never found, speculation as to his fate spawned many myths and legends, including the possibility that the Yong Le emperor’s purpose in launching the seven sea voyages led by the Muslim Admiral Zheng He was to find where his rival Jian Wen might be hiding. Local residents of the Ban An District of Chongqing [重庆] insist that their Jian Wen Peak is the place where Zhu Yun Wen died, and they have even erected an ancestral temple there in his honor.

For the most part, the 15 Ming ruler’s tombs have been previously well studied. The thirteen Ming emperors’ tombs in Beijing (Shi San Ling) [十三陵] and the tomb of the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuan Zhang, in Nanjing (Ming Xiao Ling) [明孝陵] are all well known and have been documented in such works as Ann Paludan’s, The Ming Tombs, published in 1991 by Oxford University Press. The Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] tomb in Nanjing was recently described at great length in Eric N. Danielson’s, Nanjing and the Lower Yangzi, published by Times Media Ltd. of Singapore in 2004.

Some Lesser Known Ming Imperial Tombs

However, there are several other important Ming Dynasty imperial tomb sites that have not been written about at all in English and are hardly known to anyone but the local inhabitants. Even the Chinese language sources on these other tombs are scarce. These lesser known tombs are significant because they comprise three of the five Ming imperial mausoleums that possess a Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] of stone statues, (shi xiang) [石像] or (shi ke) [石刻], out of a total of 18 Ming imperial tomb sites in China. Unlike the Eastern Qing Dynasty imperial tombs (Dong Qing Ling) at Zun Hua Xian in Hebei, and the Western Qing Dynasty imperial tombs (Xi Qing Ling) at Yi Xian in Hebei, each of which has its own sacred way [神道], the 13 Ming imperial tombs in Beijing (Shi San Ling) [十三陵] all share one collective sacred way [神道]. Four of the five Ming imperial tombs possessing sacred ways [神道] are outside of Beijing, and two of these are in Jiangsu province.

These lesser known Ming imperial tombs include the Huang Ling [皇陵] tomb of the first Ming emperor’s parents in Fengyang, Anhui. Zhu Yuan Zhang’s father Zhu Wu Si, and his mother, Chen Shi, are both buried here in a mausoleum constructed in the same style as that befitting an emperor, complete with a Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] of stone statues, (shi xiang) [石像] or (shi ke) [石刻], depicting real animals, such as stone tigers (shi hu), stone ram’s (gui yang), and other mythical animals, as well as civil officials (wen chen) and military officers (wu jiang). Fengyang was Zhu Yuan Zhang’s childhood hometown. Originally the family could not even afford to buy a coffin when his father died in 1344. The construction of this elaborate mausoleum after Zhu established the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing [南京] in 1368 was a major emotional catharsis for him in rectifying the shame of a horrible incident of his youth. Fengyang is also the site of Zhong Du, the ruins of the first Ming emperor’s attempt to build completely from scratch a central capital city in his home town.

Another lesser known Ming imperial tomb is the Xian Ling [显陵] mausoleum of the Prince Xian of Xing (Xing Xian Wang) Zhu You Guan and his wife in Zhong Xiang county [钟祥县], Hubei province. Although he himself never attained the throne, Zhu You Guan (1476-1519) is remarkable for having been both the son of an emperor, Zhu Jian Shen, who ruled as the Emperor Xian Zong (1465-1488), and the father of an emperor, Zhu Hou Cong, who ruled as the Emperor Jia Jing (1522-1567). Zhu Hou Cong insisted that his father Zhu You Guan be posthumously raised to the honorary position of emperor, while his mother, who was still living, was raised to the honorary position of empress. After his mother died in 1538 construction on the Xian Ling mausoleum began the next year in 1539.

Today the relics of Xian Ling [显陵] are possibly the most impressive and most well preserved of any Ming imperial tomb. Furthermore, it is significant for being one of only five Ming imperial tombs that possess a Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] of stone statues, (shi xiang) [石像] or (shi ke) [石刻]. The other four are Huang Ling [皇陵] in Fengyang, Anhui; Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] in Nanjing [南京], Jiangsu; Shi San Ling [十三陵] in Beijing, and the Ming Ancestor Tomb (Ming Zu Ling) in Huai An, Northern Jiangsu.

Two other little known Ming royal tombs are those of two princes buried in the western Hubei city of Jingzhou, Zhu Bo (1371-1399) and Zhu Zhi (1377-1424). Both princes were sons of the first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuan Zhang, and each came under the suspicion of the second Ming Emperor Jian Wen Di (1398-1402) after he ascended the throne. Zhu Bo was known as the Prince Xian of Xiang (Xiang Xian Wang), the same title later held by Zhu You Guan (1476-1519), father of Emperor Jia Jing (1522-1567). Zhu Bo committed suicide after being accused of treachery by Jian Wen Di, and was buried in an underground tomb beside Tai Hui Taoist Temple (Tai Hui Guan) in Jingzhou. His tomb was excavated and restored in 1987, and the underground palace chambers can now be entered by visitors. Zhu Zhi was known as the Prince of Liao (Liao Jian Wang). His even larger tomb lies on Ba Ling Shan, 24 km. northwest of Jingzhou. This tomb has also been excavated and can be entered by public visitors. Zhu Zhi’s underground palace consists of five chambers. These two princes tombs are described in detail in Eric N. Danielson’s, The Three Gorges and the Upper Yangzi, published in 2005 by Times Media Ltd. of Singapore.

The main focus of this essay is to present a study of the history and current conditions of the Ming Ancestor Tomb (Ming Zu Ling) [明祖陵] located in Xu Yi County (Xu Yi Xian) [盱眙县] of the Huai An Municipality (Huai An Shi) [淮安市] of northern Jiangsu [江苏] province, a rather isolated area known variously as Su Bei [苏北], Huai Yang [淮扬] or Jiang Bei [江北].

The Sources

As far as the author has been able to find, no complete English language description of this important historic site has ever been published before. The standard English language work on the Ming tombs, Paludan (1991), makes no mention of it at all. Ann Paludan’s later work, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors, published in 1998, does contain several photos of Ming Zu Ling with brief captions, but no significant description of it in the text. Photos of two stone statues at Ming Zu Ling with a brief photo caption appear on p.172 as part of an essay on “Eunuch Power.” The caption’s information is not only vague, but inaccurate, stating that the site was “flooded by irrigation works in the mid-17th century,” and “rediscovered in the late 1960s.”

Even the Chinese language sources on Ming Zu Ling can be counted on one hand. The first modern day study of the site was a slim 26 pp. volume written by Li Shi Yuan [李世源] entitled, Ming Zu Ling [明祖陵], and published by the Jiangsu Renmin Chubanshe [江苏人民出版社] in November, 1988. This was only shortly after the reconstruction and restoration of the site had been completed. The Preface [] (Xu) written by Qiu Shu Sen [邱树森] is dated November 1987, while the Afterward/Postscript [后记] (Hou Ji) written by Li Shi Yuan [李世源] is dated October 30, 1987, indicating that the research and writing were completed in 1987, the year before the work’s actual publication.

The next significant Chinese publication did not follow until over 15 years later when Chen Lin [陈琳] published a 17 pp. essay entitled, “Ming Dai Di Yi Ling – Ming Zu Ling [明代第一陵 明祖陵],” as a chapter in a larger book edited by Cao Qi Rui called, Huai An Yuan Lin[淮安园林], which was published in Beijing by the Zhongguo Wenshi Chubanshe [中国文史出版社] in 2004. Two years earlier some color photographs of Ming Zu Ling had appeared in a glossy coffee table publication devoted to all of the Ming imperial tombs in China, entitled Da Ming Di Ling Tu Jian[大明帝陵图鉴](Illustrated Handbook of the Mausoleum of Emperors of Ming Dynasty), which was published by the Jiangsu Gu Ji Chubanshe [江苏 古籍出版社] (Jiangsu Ancient Book Publishing House) of Nanjing [南京] in 2002. However, this latter source contains almost no text and does not provide anywhere near a complete history of the site. There is also a Chinese language travel guide book devoted to Xu Yi County which contains eight pages on Ming Zu Ling, but again these are mostly photos with captions rather than text containing any significant information. Written by Xu Cang Yin, Xu Yi[盱眙] was published in Beijing by the Renmin Ri Bao Chubanshe [人民日报出版社] in 2003.

All told this makes a total of four known published Chinese language sources on the site, of which only two contain a complete history of the site while the two others mainly consist of photos with captions. Therefore the account that follows is based primarily on Li Shi Yuan (1988) and Chen Lin (2004). These published sources have been augmented by two first-hand field studies of the site made by the author in August and October of 2005.

Additional sources of information available at the site itself include a Chinese language inscription on a modern stone tablet (shi bei) [石碑] erected in 1996; Chinese language displays in the site’s Exhibition Hall (Zhan Lan Guan) [展览馆]; the site’s brochure; and the site admission ticket. All of these sources are in Chinese. They uniformly conform to an official history of the main events in the site’s history, somewhat contradicting information published by Chen Lin (2004) and Li Shi Yuan (1988).

The Tomb’s Location

Ming Zu Ling is in the center of northern Jiangsu Province [江苏] beside the spot where the Huai River (Huai He) [淮河] flows into Hongze Hu [洪泽湖], one of the five biggest lakes in China. It is called the first Ming Dynasty tomb (Ming dai di yi ling) [明代第一陵]. Originally it was located near the ancient town of Sizhou, but the area is now called Xu Yi County (Xu Yi Xian)[盱眙县] of Huai An Municipality (Huai An Shi) [淮安市]. Ming Zu Ling is located a short distance northwest of the very small Xu Yi [盱眙] county town. Known as the mountain town (shan cheng), it is surrounded on three sides by small hills, while the fourth side faces the waters of the Huai River (Huai He) [淮河] and Hongze Hu [洪泽湖] lake.

The Sizhou/Xu Yi area was once located on the Ancient Grand Canal (Gu Yun He) [古运河] during the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties. Before being straightened out into a more direct south to north route in the Yuan Dynasty, the Grand Canal ran northwest from the city of Huai An [淮安], past Sizhou, to the former imperial capital cities of Kaifeng [开封] and Luoyang [洛阳] in Henan province, before flowing northeast again from the Yellow River (Huang He) to the town of Linqing [临清] in Shandong province, where the route of the Ancient Grand Canal [古运河] merges with that of the modern-day Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal [京杭大运河]. Before 1949 the Ming Zu Ling site was in Anhui Province, but after 1949 the border of Jiangsu province was moved westward to include all of Hongze Hu.

Today Xu Yi [盱眙] town is located two-hours by bus along a highway from the center of Huai An [淮安], a fairly large city on the modern-day Hangzhou-Beijing Grand Canal (Jing Hang Da Yun He) [京杭大运河]. This means a one-day round-trip visit would take at least four hours in transportation time alone. The Jiangsu provincial capital city of Nanjing [南京] is 147 km. away from the Ming Zu Ling site to the southwest. The Xu Yi bus station also has busses to Nanjing, which might make a convenient alternate way to approach the Ming Zu Ling site. If it is a three-hour drive between Nanjing and Xu Yi, then total travel time would be six hours, and allowing for two hours at the site, it might be possible to make this an eight-hour day-trip from Nanjing.

A taxi trip to Ming Zu Ling from the Xu Yi town center takes about 20 minutes and costs only 15 Rmb each way. Of course it costs much more including the driver’s two hours of waiting time while you explore the enormous site. Heading out of Xu Yi town, you follow the eastern shore of the Huai River (Huai He) [淮河], which is full of barge traffic here. A few minutes after leaving the town, you cross the Huai He Da Qiao [淮河大桥], a very long and very high bridge over the Huai River (Huai He) [淮 河]. According to a shi bei [石碑] at the eastern end of the bridge it was built in 1977, right after the end of the Cultural Revolution (Wen Hua Da Ge Ming) [文化大革命] in 1976. To your right the Huai He [淮河] flows into Hongze Hu [洪泽湖]. Wooden houseboats can be seen tied up in rows down below. The long bridge actually crosses multiple channels of the Huai He [淮河], divided by only narrow strips of land. Later you also have to cross another bridge, the Liu Zi He Da Qiao, over the Liu Zi He. A small bus stop sign on the left of the road after crossing the Liu Zi He says ‘Si Zhou’. Based on this sign it would be logical to assume that this is the way to the ruins of the submerged ancient town of Sizhou, known as ‘China’s Pompeii.’ Soon you turn off the main road a t a spot where signs point toward the small town called Ming Zu Ling Zhen, which is not at exactly the same place as the tombs but a bit further away.

The parking lot and main entrance are at the South Gate (Nan Da Men) [南大门]. This is a pretty desolate place as far as visitor facilities. There are absolutely no restaurants or shops to buy food or drinks, no drinking water, so be sure to bring your own supplies, especially on a blazing hot day like when I was there. There is no town and no hotels anywhere within walking distance. The Ming Zu Ling town is not within sight of here. Most importantly, there is no transportation available back to Xu Yi town from here unless you arrange to have your transport wait for you until you are ready to return, otherwise you will be stranded in a very isolated place.

It may seem strange to find such an elaborate Ming imperial tomb located in the middle of the countryside, nowhere near a major city. According to one story, a Dao Shi (Taoist Monk) told Hong Wu that the feng shui of this location was very good, so that’s why this spot was chosen. Another story says that a Dao Shi had made a prediction to Zhu’s father when he was in Xu Yi that one day his son would become emperor.

However, it was also the place where Zhu Yuan Zhang was conceived, and where his grandfather had died, just before Zhu’s family moved from Sizhou, Jiangsu to Fengyang in Anhui. Chen Lin (2004) says that Xu Yi “gave birth to Huangdi di yi wang,” meaning that in his view it was the true birthplace of Zhu Yuan Zhang. According to Chen Lin, Zhu Yuan Zhang’s grandfather’s hometown was Jurong, in southern Jiangsu, and later his grandfather and father moved to Sizhou town in northern Jiangsu. Later, after his grandfather died in Sizhou, Zhu Yuan Zhang’s father moved from Sizhou to Fengyang, and during the trip Zhu Yuan Zhang was born. Fengyang, Anhui has the Ming Huang Ling [皇陵] tomb of Zhu Wu Si, Zhu Yuan Zhang’s father, and his mother, Chen Shi. They are buried in the same tomb.

The Construction of Ming Zu Ling (Jian Zhao Shijian)

There are conflicting accounts of exactly when the construction of Ming Zu Ling started. Li Shi Yuan (1988) and Chen Lin (2004) both seem to believe construction was started by Zhu Yuan Zhang during the first year of his reign as the Hongwu emperor in 1368 (Hongwu yuan nian), but according to the site’s admission ticket, construction started in 1385, the 18thyear of the Hong Wu reign.

According to Chen Lin (2004), in 1385, 18th year of the Hongwu reign, Zhu Yuan Zhang asked his son Zhu Biao Li to inspect the quality and progress of the construction of Ming Zu Ling, which Chen believes had already started in 1368. Chinese scholars differ over whether this event marked the actual start of construction or merely an inspection on its progress. By 1388, the 20th year of the Hongwu reign, the first major building, the Xiang Dian Hall, had been finished.

Sources agree that the whole site was finally completed in 1413, 11th year of the Yong Le reign of the third Ming emperor Zhu Di. If one believes the project started in 1368, then the whole project required 45 years to finish. However, if the project did not actually begin until 1385 then it only required 28 years to complete. In any case, Zhu Yuan Zhang did not live to see the final completion of his own ancestors’ tomb.

The site was originally surrounded by three walls (san dao cheng qiang), outer and middle walls made of earth, and an inner wall made of red bricks.

It was built to show respect to Zhu Yuan Zhang’s three ancestors (san zu); his grandfather (zu fu) Zhu Chu Yi, his great grandfather (gao zu) Zhu Bai Liu, and his great great grandfather (zeng zu) Zhu Si Jiu. Zhu Yuan Zhang’s father was not included in the Ming Zu Ling tomb because he was buried in the separate equally elaborate tomb known as Huang Ling [皇陵], constructed for him and Zhu’s mother in Fengyang, Anhui.

Because construction of Ming Zu Ling was started by Ming Tai Zu (Hong Wu) just after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the tomb design revived Tang and Song style as a means of rebellion against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Furthermore, the newly established Ming dynasty had not yet developed their own architectural style. The tomb site was designed in Tang and Song style with the round tomb mound in the center of a square walled area with four gates, one facing in each of the compass directions, east, west, south, and north. Along the south-north axis were built the stone statues (Shi Xiang) [石像] of the Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道]. The 21 pairs of stone statues at Ming Zu Ling were carved in the styles of the Tang and Song dynasties. This revival of Tang and Song styles was brief, for after Ming Zu Ling they were not used again, making these unique examples.

Comparing the stone statues at Zhu Yuan Zhang’s tomb of Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] in Nanjing [南京] with those at his ancestor’s tomb of Ming Zu Ling, it is strikingly noticeable how the latter are much more graceful, detailed and ornate, with apparently much better craftsmanship and artwork. The lions and horses at Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] tend to look fat, chunky, and clunky compared to those at Ming Zu Ling. On the other hand, Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] has some exotic animals that Ming Zu Ling does not, such as camels and elephants. Since Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] and Ming Zu Ling were constructed roughly during the same time period, it is tempting to surmise that Zhu Yuan Zhang ordered the most talented craftsmen and stone masons to work on the Ming Zu Ling site, thus depriving his own tomb of the best artisans.

The Destruction of Ming Zu Ling

Sources seem to agree on the date and nature of the site’s destruction. According to Li Shi Yuan (1988), in 1680, 19th year of the Kang Xi reign of the Qing Dynasty, the whole site was flooded under water when the Yellow River (Huang He) [黄河] overflowed its banks, changed course, and poured into the bed of the Huai River (Huai He) [淮河]. The combined waters of these two rivers then created Hongze Hu [洪泽湖], after silt from the Huang He [黄河] cut off the Huai River’s previous route to the sea. The ancient town of Sizhou was completely submerged underwater at the same time, much like Pompeii was buried under the lava of Mt. Vesuvius. The site’s admission ticket agrees that in 1680, the 19th year of the Kang Xi reign, the Huang He [黄河] changed course its course into the Huai He [淮河] and flooded the site of Ming Zu Ling. Chen Lin (2004) agrees that during 1680, 19th year of the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty, the Yellow River (Huang He) [黄河] changed its course and flowed into the Huai River (Huai He) [淮河].

Rediscovery and Reconstruction:

The Ming Zu Ling site lay underneath the waters of Hongze Hu [洪泽湖] for nearly 300 years before its rediscovery in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, Chinese language sources are strangely inconsistent in documenting the exact date of its rediscovery. The official history which appears printed on the site’s admission ticket, inscribed on a new stone stele (shi bei) [石碑] inside the site’s entrance gate, and displayed in the Exhibition Hall (Zhan Lan Guan) [展览馆], states that the site was rediscovered in the spring of 1963. However, Chen Lin (2004) states that the rediscovery happened one year later, in the spring of 1964. The Preface (Xu) [] to Li Shi Yuan (1988) written by Qiu Shu Sen, and dated November 1987, inexplicably says that Ming Zu Ling was rediscovered in 1966.

According to Chen Lin (2004) in the spring of 1964 there was a drought brought on by lack of rain, causing the Huai He [淮河] to run dry and the edges of Hongze Hu [洪泽湖] to recede. As a result, Ming Zu Ling suddenly resurfaced after having been submerged underwater for nearly 300 years. Local residents accidentally discovered a long line of ancient Tang and Song style stone statues laying along the muddy shore of Hongze Hu [洪泽湖].

Although people were excited by the rediscovery of this long forgotten monument, reconstruction of the tomb site was delayed by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (Wen Hua Da Ge Ming) [文化大革命] (1966-1976). In 1976 the long-delayed repair (xiu fu) of the site finally began. It took ten years before the reconstruction of the site was completed in 1986, 306 years after it had first been submerged underwater.

One of the first steps was to build the very long Huai He Da Qiao [淮河大桥] bridge over the Huai River (Huai He) [淮河] in 1977 so that men, supplies and equipment could easily be transported from Xu Yi town on the east side of the river to the Ming Zu Ling site on the west.

In 1978 the reconstruction project received more funding, and then they built a 2,700 meter-long dam (wei di) all around the site in order to keep out the waters of the Huai He [淮河] and Hongze Hu [洪泽湖]. The wall is 20 meters wide at the bottom but only 6 meters wide at the top. It seems to be about 15 meters high, but the side of the wall tapers at an angle towards the top.

In 1982 the stone statues which had been underwater were rebuilt by workers who pieced back together the broken pieces, and reassembled the Sacred Way (Shen Dao). The original Golden Water Bridge (Jin Shui Qiao) [金水桥] was broken into too many small pieces (yi zhi) [遗址] to put back together so it was later replaced with a new one. Some original pieces of the bridge are on display in the site’s exhibition hall.

Meanwhile, in 1982 Ming Zu Ling was designated as a provincial cultural protection unit. In 1996 its status was raised to that of a national cultural protection unit.

The South Gate (Nan Da Men) [南大门]

A new red wall with three-portal gate surrounds the Ming Zu Ling site. Although the original tomb was surrounded by three walls (san dao cheng qiang) with four gates, it now only has one wall with one main entrance at the South Gate (Nan Da Men) [南大门]. The original North Gate (Bei Men) [北门] was not rebuilt when the site was reconstructed. However, there is a West Gate (Xi Men) heading in the direction of Ming Zu Ling Town. Admission tickets cost 30 Rmb to enter the site. Two modern stone tablets (shi bei) [石碑] with Chinese inscriptions standing immediately inside the South Gate are dated March 1982 and January 21, 1996, marking the dates when it was made first a provincial and then later a national cultural protection unit. The newer of the two stone tablets (shi bei) [石碑] bears a lengthy Chinese language inscription giving the official history of the site, including events dated 1385, 1413, 1680, 1963, 1976, 1982, and 1996. This same official history is repeated in the displays contained inside the Exhibition Hall (Zhan Lan Guan) [展览馆]. Unfortunately, none of the original historic inscribed stone tablets (shi bei) have survived from before the site was flooded in 1680.

Exhibition Hall (Zhan Lan Guan) [展览馆].

The first building you encounter near the south gate is a spectacular exhibition hall (zhan lan guan) [展览馆] containing some amazing exhibits, including a scale model of the tomb site, photographs documenting the excavation of the relics, and maps of its original design. The Chinese language introduction explains the official history of the site, duplicating the information inscribed on the 1996 stone tablet (shi bei) outside, beginning with the start of construction of the site in 1385, and its completion in 1413. Later it was submerged under water in 1680, and suddenly rediscovered in 1963. Reconstruction was delayed by the ten-year Cultural Revolution and work did not begin until 1976. It was made a provincial cultural protection unit in 1982, and a national cultural protection unit in 1996. As discussed earlier in this essay, some of these dates are disputed by various Chinese scholars. Unfortunately for most foreign visitors, none of the displays here contain any information in English. A wide selection of Chinese language books about the site are on display inside a glass case in the rear of the exhibition hall, but most are not available for sale.

Book Shop (Shu Dian) [书店]

Next door to the exhibition hall [展览馆] is a small bookshop (shu dian) [书店] well-stocked with extremely rare Chinese language publications documenting the history and excavation of the site. None of these publications can be found anywhere else, so if you can be sure to buy them here. A later thorough online search of all major library catalogs and online book sellers turned up absolutely nothing on Ming Zu Ling, even when using the ISBN numbers of publications for sale at the site. The book shop may occasionally also have some drinks and snacks for sale. Unfortunately, it keeps unpredictable hours of operation. When I arrived I was the only visitor at the site, and the book shop was closed for a three-hour lunch break that starts at 11:00 a.m. and lasts until 2:00 p.m. For many visitors, this three hour closure in mid-day may mean that they are unable to buy souvenirs or food and drink. If possible, time your visit accordingly to arrive earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon.

The Sacred Way Stone Statues (Shen Dao Shi Xiang) [神道石像]

Walking through a large forested area north of the Exhibition Hall (Zhan Lan Guan) [展览馆], you eventually come to a second new three-portal Red Gate (Da Hong Men) [大红门] with orange tiled roof. Just beyond this gate is where the spectacular Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] lined with stone statues begins. Among the stone statues are depicted both real and mythical types of animals, as well as military and civilian officials dressed in early Ming costumes, and several types of decorative stone columns. There is some bilingual signage in this area, but the English translations are of dubious quality. The statues stand outside in a completely open green field which can be oppressively hot in summer, so be sure to wear a hat or bring a shade umbrella.

The Ming Zu Ling tomb is significant as being one of only five of the 18 Ming imperial tombs that have a Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] with stone statues (shi xiang) [石像]. The five Ming imperial tombs that do have a Shen Dao [神道] include Ming Zu Ling; Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] in Nanjing; Huang Ling [皇陵] in Fengyang, Anhui; the Xian Ling [显陵] tomb of Zhu You Hang, the father of Zhu Yuan Xi who became the Emperor Jia Qing, located in Zhong Xiang county [钟祥县], Hubei province; and one collective sacred way [神道] for all of the 13 Ming imperial tombs at Shi San Ling [十三陵] in Beijing.

The Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] at Ming Zu Ling runs from south to north. The total distance from the first pair of qylin statues to the tomb mound (Bao Cheng) is only about 330 meters. The length of the actual Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] is only 200 meters long, not counting the Imperial City (Huang Cheng) [皇城] to the north of it, and the 100 meters distance between Imperial City (Huang Cheng) [皇城] and the Tomb Mound (Bao Cheng) [宝城]. The site of the Imperial City [皇城] ruins is about 30 meters wide from north to south. Compared with Tang and Song imperial tombs the Sacred Way (Shen Dao) at Ming Zu Ling is shorter than that at previous imperial tombs. Another difference is that the statues are close together, not spread far apart, as they are at the Northern Song (Bei Song) imperial tombs in Gongyi Shi (巩义市); a county-level city belonging to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital of Henan province.

Along the Sacred Way (Shen Dao) [神道] there are 21 pairs of stone statues, for a total of 42 statues. This is more than either the sacred way at the Ming imperial tombs of Shi San Ling [十三陵] in Beijing, or the Eastern and Western Qing imperial tombs in Hebei province, all of which only have 18 pairs of stone statues.

The Ming Zu Ling stone statues begin with two pairs of four Qylin, six pairs of 12 stone lions (shi shi), followed by a pair of stone columns (Hua Biao) decorated in Tang and Song style. After these Hua Biao columns come a series of statues related to horses, including a pair of Horse Officers (Ma Guan), a pair of Horse Servants (Qian Ma Shi Zhe) connected in one piece of stone to the stone horse statues, a pair of horses with saddles on top (An Ma), and finally a pair of horse officers (Ma Guan). After the section devoted to horses and horse officers comes the Golden Water Bridge (Jin Shui Qiao) [金水桥].

Crossing this foot bridge you come to the final section containing exquisite stone statues of various military and civil officials. This section begins with two pairs of Civil Officers (Wen Chen), followed by two pairs of Military Officers (Wu Jiang), and finally two pairs of Servants (Jin Shi), also known as Eunuchs (Tai Jian).

Collectively these stone statues are also known as Xiang Shen Zhi Yi. They are remarkable for each being carved from a single block of natural stone, and for following the styles of the Tang and Song dynasties.


The stone animals begin with four of what are called “Kylin,” but look very different from the Qi and Liang Dynasty Qylin found in Danyang and Nanjing. These qylin have bulging round eyes, ribbed fish scale skin, and long sharp fang-like teeth. The Ming Zu Ling Qylin are 2.51 meters tall, 3.12 meters long, and 0.82 meters wide. Each one weighs 12.15 tons.

Each pair of Qylin are 4.28 meters apart across the sacred way, and the distance from one pair of Qylin to the next pair is 3.86 meters up the path way. These Qylin only have one horn, like a unicorn. Tian Lu have two horns. If they have no horns they are called Bi Xie. The ones at Ming Zu Ling don’t seem to have horns but they are called Qylin. After this only emperor’s tombs were allowed to have Qyilin statues.


After these first four Qylin come 12 stone lions (shi shi). Each lion is 2.5 meters tall, 1.83 meters long, and 0.8 meters wide. They each weigh 12.25 tons.

The space between the stone lions is 4.30 meters across and 3.65 meters in between each pair. After the Ming Dynasty the stone lions became smaller.

Hua Biao Columns

After the lions come four stone Hua Biao columns in two different styles. The two Tang style columns are 6.5 meters tall with lotus and flower decorative patterns. The two Song style columns are 5.8 meters tall and decorated with flames. The latter has lotus on its base but not on the main column.

There are two pairs of stone columns (hua biao), one pair in Tang Style, 6.5 meters tall with flower patterns, the other in Song Style, each 5.8 meters tall with lotus patterns.

Originally the Hua Biao were used to raise and lower the coffin, but later they became only a decorative symbol. Pairs of Hua Biao columns appear at all five of the Ming imperial tombs’ sacred ways (shen dao).

Military and Civil Officials Statues

After the four Hua Biao columns the statues of military and civil officials begin. There are a total of ten pairs of stone men. Each one is carved from a single block stone.

The civil and military official statues are in Tang style, because at the beginning of Ming there was not yet any policy regarding the clothing worn by officials. In the third year of Hongwu, 1370, the Ministry of Rituals (Li Bu) began the process of establishing a new policy regarding court official dress, but it was not until 30 years later in 1400, the second year of Jian Wen, that a new Ming style of court dress was finished. By that time it was too late to change the style of the stone statues at Ming Zu Ling, so the clothing of the court officials reflects that of the Tang rather than the Ming, including their hats (wen chen wu xiang mao) (wu jiang tou kui) and their belts (su dai).

Horse Officers and Horses

First there are two stone scholars known as Horse Officers (Ma Guan). One of them is missing his head. Each man is 2.91 meters tall.

After these come two Horse Servants (La Ma Shi Zhe). These are possibly the two most fascinating and unusual stone statues at the site, as they show the officials actually connected to the horses (An Ma or Putong Ma) standing beside them, with each statue formed out of one massive piece of stone. Each man is 2.9 meters high, while the horse beside him is 2.65 meters tall. The base of the whole statue is 0.35 meters tall. Together the horse and servant weigh 24 tons. These statues are unique in China. There are no other examples like this at any other tombs.

Two more standing scholars known as Horse Officers (Ma Guan) one with the front of his face and front half of his body chiseled off, the other seemingly featuring a new head that has replaced his original one, as it is bright white.

After these last two horse officers come two Horses of Heaven (Tian Ma). These statues depict horses that were reserved only for the use of the Emperor and Empress themselves. Each horse statue is complete with a saddle and harness. These horses are 2.65 meters tall.

Finally there come two stone Civil Officials (Wen Chen) in court dress. These two are each 3.04 meters tall and weigh 5.83 tons. According to their dress they were probably officials of the lowest fifth rank (Wu Ping). These statues are in Tang style, because at the beginning of Ming there was not yet any policy regarding the clothing worn by officials.

Golden Water Bridge (Jin Shui Qiao) [金水桥]

At this point the Sacred Way is divided by a canal running from east to west, which is crossed by three parallel single arch, hump-back stone bridges (Jin Shui Qiao) [金水桥]. All three are obviously brand new. Standing on the summit of the high arches provides an excellent view of the sacred way in either direction. Some relics of the original Jin Shui Qiao [金水桥] can be seen on display in the Exhibition Hall (Zhan Lan Guan) [展览馆].

The Second Half of the Shen Dao

On the north side of the three Jin Shui Qiao [金水桥] bridges stand twelve more very life-like larger than life statues of people, six on each side of the Shen Dao. First come four scholars, followed by four warriors, and then four lesser ranking civil officials.


The first four civil officials (Wen Chen) of this second half of the Shen Dao are referred to as “Courtiers.” Only officials over the third rank (San Ping) could cross the Golden Water Bridge (Jin Shui Qiao) [金水桥], so these had to be second rank (Er Ping) or first rank (Yi Ping) officials. Each one is shown wearing a jade belt (yu su dai) and mandarin’s gown (yuan lin shan) and hats known as wu xiang mao. They are 3.25 meters tall and weigh 8.75 tons each.

Military Officials

After this come the four Military Officers (Wu Jiang), each dressed in chain mail armor (Kui Jia) and holding a long sword. Each Military Officer (Wu Jiang) wears a special hat called a Tou Kui. They are 3.42 meters tall, and weigh 10.5 tons.

Eunuchs (Tai Jian or Jin Shi)

Finally come four Eunuchs. These Eunuch statues seem to have been more badly damaged than any others at the site, possibly illustrating continued animosity towards these much hated historical figures, who were often known for abusing the power of their positions and manipulating the actions of the emperors behind their backs. One Eunuch is missing his entire head and the whole front half of his body. Another is missing his face and the front half of his head. A third is also missing his face. Only one of the four is completely intact without any significant damage. Each of the four is 2.9 meters tall. Including the missing parts, each one should weigh 5.83 tons. The Eunuchs mark the end of the Sacred Way, after which comes a wide open flat area where the four ceremonial halls once stood. There are no remains of these structures left standing, but the outlines of where they once stood have been marked on the ground.

The Imperial City (Huang Cheng) [皇城]

In between the Sacred Way and the Tomb Mound (Bao Cheng) [宝城] were a group of buildings known as the Imperial City (Huang Cheng) [皇城]. There were five Zhen Dian halls facing south, six rooms on both the east and west sides, and ten Zhi Fang halls on the north, forming a square court yard. North of the Shen Dao you can still see the foundations and stone pillar pedestals of four halls that once stood side by side. These ruins or relics of the Zhen Dian Halls are known as the Zhen Dian Yi Zhi [遗址]. This area is about 30 meters wide from north to south. According to Chen Lin (2004) this is also where the Sacrificial Hall (Xiang Dian) once stood, although this is debatable, as it may have also stood directly in front of the Tomb Mound (Bao Cheng) [宝城].

The Tomb Mound (Bao Cheng) [宝城]

There is a distance of 100 meters between the ruins of the Imperial City (Huang Cheng) [皇城] and the Tomb Mound (Bao Cheng) [宝城]. Unlike the Ming Xiao Ling [明孝陵] mausoleum, there is no Sheng Xian Qiao (Becoming Immortal Bridge) [升仙] here, nor is there a Ming Tower (Ming Lou) [明楼], as all the other Ming imperial tombs have at this stage.

At the far northern end of the central axis stands a bronze incense burner and a stone altar, atop which are three wooden ancestral tablets, one for each of the three Ming ancestors (san zu) commemorated here. The stone altar is missing the Five Stone Offering (Shi Wu Gong) usually found at this part of other Ming imperial tombs. A sign here states it is the “Ruins of the Main Temple,” posing the possibility that this is where the Xiang Dian stood. In recent years this has been the site of colorful performances of the sacrificial serving incense (shang xiang) ceremony, featuring actors wearing period costumes.

Behind this stone altar is a 20 square meter pool of water (chi tan or shui tan) shaped like a half-moon at the south foot of the Bao Cheng [宝城] tomb mound. On the north edge of the pool, two meters down, you can see nine brick arches partly submerged under water. These nine arched entrance gates (shi men) lead into the actual tomb mound, which rises up immediately behind the pool and is overgrown with trees. According to the sign here, these “nine stone doors” lead into the “Underground Palace” (Xuan Gong) buried inside “Long Live Hill.”

The three ancestors’ (san zu) clothes (yi zhong) were buried in the Ming Zu Ling tomb mound, but not their bodies. Therefore, this type of tomb is called an Yi Guan Zhong or Garment Tomb. Similar types of tombs without a body exist for Zheng He in Nanjing, Li Bai at Cai Shi Ji in Ma An Shan, Anhui, and Qu Yuan in Zigui, Hubei. The garment tomb (yi guan zhong) for Zhu Yuan Zhang’s grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather contained a lot of their personal possessions, but not their actual bodies. This underground tomb is also known as a Xuan Gong or underground palace. His grandfather’s body was not in the Yi Guan Zhong tomb, but was buried in a separate grave nearby, which was discovered when the site was excavated after it reappeared from underwater.

You can not enter the underground tomb, but you can climb to the top of the mound. Two lucky trees tied with yellow ribbons stand on the hillside. It is a short hike to the top of the tomb mound.


Chen Lin [陈琳], “Ming Dai Di Yi Ling – Ming Zu Ling [明代第一陵明祖陵],” chapter four in Cao Qi Rui [曹启瑞], ed., Huai An Yuan Lin [淮安园林], Beijing [北京]: Zhongguo Wenshi Chubanshe [中国文史出版社], 2004. (pp.38-52)

Da Ming Di Ling Tu Jian [大明帝陵图鉴] (Illustrated Handbook of the Mausoleum of Emperors of Ming Dynasty), Nanjing [南京]: Jiangsu Gu Ji Chubanshe [江苏古籍出版社] (Jiangsu Ancient Book Publishing House), 2002.

Eric N. Danielson, August 2005 Field Research

Eric N. Danielson, October 2005 Field Research

Eric N. Danielson, Nanjing and the Lower Yangzi, Singapore: Times Media Ltd., 2004.

Eric N. Danielson, The Three Gorges and the Upper Yangzi, Singapore: Times Media Ltd., 2005.

Li Shi Yuan [李世源], Ming Zu Ling [明祖陵], Jiangsu Renmin Chubanshe [江苏人民出版社], November, 1988.

Mote, F.W., Imperial China, 900-1800, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Paludan, Ann, The Ming Tombs, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Paludan, Ann, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors, London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Xu Cang Yin, Xu Yi [盱眙], Beijing [北京]: Renmin Ri Bao Chubanshe [人民日报出版社], 2003.

Cover of Li Shiyuan, Mingzuling, (1988).

Cover of Li Shiyuan, Mingzuling, (1988).

Li Shiyuan (1988), Table of Contents.

Li Shiyuan (1988), Table of Contents.

Li Shiyuan (1988), inside back cover.

Li Shiyuan (1988), inside back cover.

Da Ming Di Ling Tu Jian (2002), Front Cover.

Da Ming Di Ling Tu Jian (2002), Front Cover.

Huai An Yuan Lin (2004), Front Cover.

Huai An Yuan Lin (2004), Front Cover.

Huai An Yuan Lin (2004), Title Page.

Huai An Yuan Lin (2004), Title Page.

Chen Lin, Ming Dai Di Yi Ling (2004).

Chen Lin, Ming Dai Di Yi Ling (2004).

Ming Zu Ling site ticket.

Ming Zu Ling site ticket.

Me @ Ming Zu Ling 2

Me @ Ming Zu Ling 2

Me @ Ming Zu Ling 1

Me @ Ming Zu Ling 1

About YangziMan

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