The sacred way (神道).
It was originally built to lead to the Changlin 长陵 ausoleum. It was considered to be the road leading to heaven. Chinese emperors were known as the Sons of Heaven. During their reign they often passed through the sacred road to the sacrificial altar in order to converse with heaven. After their death, the funeral procession also took the same path through the Sacred Road as a symbol of the deceased emperor’s journey to heaven in the afterlife.
We did not do this journey the first time we were in Beijing opting straight for the tombs, so this was something we really wanted to be included in the day trip we made to the Great Wall (read here). It is also possible to get here via public transport on your own though that might take a lot longer depending on which part of Beijing you are staying.
As we mentioned above we visited the Sacred way before heading to the 慕田峪 section of the Great Wall. It was an early morning pickup at the hotel lobby by the tour guide. There are many tourists to gather and we drove all around Beijing. Eventually we came to a central place where people swapped buses to get on the tour they actually booked. With all that traffic, one gets lost even if you had your GPS on.
Then it was off! On the road for an hour and forty minutes, we made our way out of Beijing central on the way to the Sacred way. It is a path seven kilometres long and some of the highlights include huge Memorial Stone Archway, the Great Red Gate, the Stele Pavilion, the Stone Creatures and the Dragon and Phoenix gates. Today we walked along the part of the path lined with 18 pairs of carved stone statues culminating with the great red gate.
The stone statues lined on both sides comprises of 12 human figures and 24 animals. First up are human sculptures. It starts off with officials, standing with different poses. Then came the soldiers. The tradition of setting up marble statues as guards of honor in front of the mausoleum began during the Han Dynasty. It signified the royal dignity of the emperor while attempting to bring good fortune and ward off evil influences. Symbolism once again rules. While they do not sit, two had their swords sheathed, which means they are off duty!
Next up are the animals. They are : the lion, camel, elephant, horse and two mythical creatures known as Xiezhi 獬豸and Qilin 麒麟 (kind of unicorn). There are 4 of each of these animals: two standing and two sitting. The lion symbolizes awesome solemnity because of its ferocity. We took our time to walk along the sacred way as the guide gave descriptive information on the symbolism of each of the animal statues lined up along the road.
As we learned from the guide, the Xiezhi is said to possess a sixth sense to tell right and wrong and so it protects against evil. Kind of like lady justice. The horse, as the emperor’s steed, is an absolutely indispensable item. Today, a BMW is also called a 宝马 “prized horse” in Chinese!
The Qilin, is a kind of unicorn and is an auspicious symbol. It too was placed on both sides. The camel and elephant suggest the vastness of the territory controlled by the imperial court, because they are dependable transport in desert and tropical regions. In dynastic days, control of the western regions was considered imperative – as the nomadic tribes often come thundering in on horseback to pillage the border regions of northern China.
At the end of the Sacred way, there is the Dragon gate. This is where the great mythical turtle carries a big stone eulogy tablet. The mythical turtle itself symbolizes longevity, while the tablet carried words of praise for the departing emperor.
Road to the Ming tombs
The sacred way continues on well beyond the Dragon and Phoenix gate to the ticketing office of the actual tombs.
Notice that you will at the foothills of the mountains. Consideration for Fengshui appears to be part of the decision to locate the tombs which are carved into the mountains. Like those of Egypt, these mausoleum are palaces in themselves though built underground.
There are 13 Ming emperors buried in this funerary complex from the time of the Yongle emperor (d. 1424). At the time of our visit (this was in 1998), many were still not uncovered so as to preserve the sensitive treasures stored within the tombs. We visited the 3 that were opened but were not allowed to take photos inside, though we noted the chambers were cavernous!
It was said that the area was torched by the rebels during the fall of the capital in 1644. But with 10 tombs still not opened, perhaps there could be a lot more relics from the past that remain to be shared to the world. Perhaps they should just be left alone. Would you like your tomb to be opened up? Ok won’t be around to know anyway…
Outside the tombs are eulogy tablets. These tablets summarize the achievements of the Emperors and history buffs might notice that the one for Chongzhen emperor was blank. Do you know what that means? Hint: the last section provides the clue.
This journey took place in May 2011
We made a stop at the Jade shop during our last traipse to Beijing on a day trip. Said to be where the Olympic medals were made for 2008 (we did not verify), it was a government owned store. We walked through an exhibition area, where an assortment of carved pieces were on display. These were sure intricately carved Jade pieces and we even saw a suit made from Jade! Kinda heavy don’t you think?
Then, we were brought to the shop where the resident sales people demonstrated to us how to distinguish real jade from fake ones. The trick according to the residential expert – is that Jade as a stone, will not have bubbles in them; which is symptomatic of glass, hence fakes. The other point to note is that Jade cannot be perfect, that is it will always have impurities in them. So if you were ever to find a specimen with no apparent impurities such as dots or crystal lines in them, then you’d probably have a piece of fake.
To see the impurities, hold up the Jade against bright light to see the streaks and patterns inside the stone itself. The higher the pitch that the Jade makes when hit against a hard object, the higher the quality it is said to have. Be careful not to knock too hard though! Happy hunting for jade…
Great that you’ve come to this last paragraph. Here, we explain more about the eulogy tablets that you will find at the Ming tombs. As you know, when an important person dies there would be veneration for the person. Now there may be music and prose or stories, but nothing is more physical and permanent than a stele that inscribes the words of praise. However the symbol can both be positive and negative. Take the Chongzhen emperor (last one of the Ming dynasty) who executed the genius General Yuan Chong Huan. His stele is empty, because there was simply nothing of note that he did that warranted praise.