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Spirit path to the tomb of the first Ming Emperor

Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the tomb of the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang (the first Ming emperor), Nanjing, begun 1381 A conversation with Dr. Kristen Brennan and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat music) - [Kristen] We're standing at the monumental entranceway of the tomb of the first Ming emperor. - [Beth] And the Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was somebody who had have come to power in the Nanjing area, established Nanjing as the seat of his power. - [Kristen] And Nanjing means South Capitol. And this is opposed to the northern capital of China, which is today known as Beijing. - [Beth] This idea of establishing a power base in the south. Keep in mind prior to this, we had the Mongol dynasty, the Yuan dynasty, which was based in the north in the area of Beijing now. When Zhu Yuanzhang established his court here, this was meant to be the cosmopolitan courtly center. - [Kristen] We're now in a square pavilion known as the Square City and inside we see an enormous stone stele, at its base, a tortoise . - [Beth] Called bixi. This tradition goes way back. This idea that they carry these commemorative stele into the afterlife. That's something that we see in tombs for hundreds of years. This is something that his fourth son, the Yongle Emperor, wanted to inscribe on stone so that his virtues would be extolled for eternity. - [Kristen] So all the great things about the emperor, all of his virtues are listed here. - [Beth] You can actually still make out the inscription today. This idea of commemorating his virtues, his merit, and for him to be remembered like this forever. - [Kristen] So we have this long tradition in Chinese history of a sacred way, of a pathway that leads to the tomb. And the tomb is a tumulus, a large mound of earth. So as we process down the spirit path, we encounter six pairs of animals, - [Beth] And then four pairs of first military and then civil officials. - [Kristen] There are two sets of each kind of animal, and the first time you encounter the animal, it's kneeling. The second time you encounter it, it's standing. - [Beth] They're not just normal animals. We have a combination of power animals, lions, camels, elephants, these large animals of royalty, horses, which were used for tribute, imperial steeds, but in between each of those real life animals, we also have mythical creatures. We have a xiezhi, righteous beast. Qilin, which is a mythical unicorn, and these are all omens. These are all righteous animals that suggest the benevolence of this emperor, and then four pairs of first military, and then civil officials. - [Kristen] So the two parts of the support of the empire - [Beth] The wen and the wu, this idea of the military and the civil, these arms of the government supporting the emperor. And they're all lined up here at the ready, as we're moving up the path, up this, what they're called the Wenzhong Path, leading up to the mausoleum. And this one's a little bit unique simply because it's not a direct path. We have a little turn in between the animals and the officials. And that's because there are other tombs in this area. And perhaps why Zhu Yuanzhang's tomb was also placed here, near the tombs of previous emperors who based their capital in Nanjing. - [Kristen] We've just walked through one of several gates and we're approaching the second stele. - [Beth] This stele is by a Ching dynasty emperor, the dynasty that followed the Ming, and this emperor, the Kangxi Emperor, wrote in 1699 that in honor of the Ming dynasty emperor, Hongwu, he ran the state better than the Tang dynasty and Song dynasty emperors. - [Kristen] So not only are we processing along a path, we're also moving up. We've ascended three levels to this sacrificial hallway. - [Beth] And this would be the main area for sacrifices. We saw buildings and structures along the side for smaller sacrifices and for additional rituals. This is the main sacrifice hall as we proceed closest to the tomb. - [Kristen] And now we have descended the stairs from the sacrificial hall platform and approach a red gate. - [Beth] This gate's important because it marks the procession from the ritualistic space to something that's a little bit more like the residence. - [Kristen] And this reminds us of thousands of years of Chinese tradition of understanding the afterlife, as life continuing very much in the way that it did in the earthly realm. And now we're passing over a bridge - [Beth] And this bridge is this idea of ascending into the realm of the immortals. We know that we're getting close to the tumulus because we're moving over this very gently sloping bridge and then met with this foreboding wall. - [Kristen] With a small entryway and a giant tower on top. - [Beth] That red is not just an auspicious, young, or masculine energy, the color of blood, it's this life giving color, but it's also a reference to the Ming imperial family. The surname of the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was Zhu, which is the word for vermilion. And so it became the imperial color. - [Kristen] So let's walk through that entryway and up those stairs and see what we find. We can see a crenelated wall. If it reminds us of a fortress. - [Beth] This idea is specifically to protect the emperor in the afterlife. We can see the tumulus, held in by a retaining wall The emperor, the empress, his concubines, all in this giant mound. - [Kristen] None of this has been excavated, likely the emperor and his family were buried with fabulous grave goods. - [Beth] Even though we haven't even gotten inside the tomb, we still can see from the architecture how these rituals continued over time. This idea of pleasing the ancestors and of caring for the deceased in the afterlife. (upbeat music)