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Xiaoling Tomb (built 1398)

The Xiaoling Tomb in Nanjing is the final resting place of Emperor Hongwu of the Ming dynasty, who ruled China from 1368-1398. After the tomb site had been selected, construction of the tomb began in 1381, but not without difficulty. The site was already partly occupied by the tomb of Emperor Sun Quan of the kingdom of Wu (died 254 AD). This did not deter Emperor Hongwu, who had the temple over Sun Quan's tomb moved to another location nearby. After these preparations, construction began in earnest and continued for over two years. Records from the time indicate that the majority of workers were criminals who were given work according to the severity of their crime; the heavier the penalty, the heavier the work. Though many died, Hongwu lived to see the tomb completed and survived for another 15 years. In the meantime, the Empress Ma Hou, who died in 1382, was interred here with grand ceremony. About ten years later Hongwu's eldest son (and heir) died unexpectedly, leaving Hongwu to spend five more lonely years on the Dragon Throne before his own death in 1398 at age 71. He was accompanied to the afterlife by scores of concubines who were burned to death and buried with him.

The tomb site can be divided into three distinct zones: the Spirit Way, the temple complex, and the tomb itself. The first of these is the Spirit Way, which begins south of the tomb with a triple-arched gate called the Dajinmen. Just beyond the gate is a cube-like building called the Sifangcheng. Inside is a stele in the form of a turtle carrying a large memorial stone on its back. This was to become a standard feature of later Ming tombs, but not at such a scale. When Hongwu's son Yongle commissioned a larger stele for his own tomb, workers found it impossible to move and left it in place at Yangshan quarry at Death's Head Valley. It can still be seen there today, with the name of the valley its own memorial to the obscene death toll among the workers there.

Following the Sifangcheng pavilion, the Spirit Way turns abruptly to the west and slowly turns northward, following the contours of Meihua hill. The path may be curved to confuse malicious spirits, who can only travel in straight lines. The path is bordered on either side by pairs of animal and human figures that form a sequence of stone guardians. The animal figures come first in sets of four: one pair faces each other seated whereas the following pair of the same type is standing. There are six types of animals along the path, making 24 stone statues in all. The order of animals is this:

lions, xiezhi, camels, elephants, qilin, horses.

Four of these animal types were kept in Hongwu's private zoo, but two are mythical. The xiezhi is a lion-like animal sprouting a horn. The qilin is also a horned beast, but with scaly skin and cleft feet. Both animals were associated with good omens.

After the animals is a pair of hexagonal pillars followed by a short sequence of civil and military officials. These statues are very realistically carved in full 14th century costume. Beyond these figures used to be a pailou, or gateway, but it was destroyed long ago and only the base remains.

The path gradually turns to the north from there and across a set of stone bridges, ending at a large red gate. This is the entrance to the the second part of the path--the temple complex--which was built for offerings to Hongwu. Past the triple arched gate is a small wooden pavilion sheltering a stele placed here by the Emperor Kang Xi in the Qing Dynasty. It is engraved with four characters celebrating Hongwu's rule. This is followed by an open marble terrace where a huge building once stood, the largest wooden building in China. The base stones that supported its massive pillars can still be seen around the small wooden building that replaced it in the early twentieth century. Other than this, the marble terraces hold ruined traces of fire altars where paper money was burned for the repose of Hongwu.

Moving north, one passes through the north wall of the temple complex and comes upon a level pathway that extends 150 meters to the north. At the end of the pathway one sees what appears to be an enormous stone building. In fact, it is mostly a facade built against a natural cliffside. The upper part of the building is a vast roofless space called the Soul Tower. To reach it, one must cross a bridge and pass through a tunnel leading through the structure. This is followed by a small terrace bordered on the north side by part of the circular wall that extends around the actual tomb mound. From here, two sets of stairs on either side of the building connect to the top of the Soul Tower.

The purpose of the Soul Tower is somewhat unclear due to its present condition. In later Ming tombs the Soul Towers were much smaller and contained steles. The one at Xiaoling is now empty and it is not known whether it ever contained steles. From this empty building one may look southward back toward the temple complex.

Hongwu is thought to be buried in the enormous artificial mound north of the Soul Tower. However, some stories assert that after Hongwu's body was brought into Nanjing, the funeral procession left the city through 13 separate gates. All those taking part were then murdered to prevent anyone from knowing where Hongwu was actually buried. Most historians believe these stories are incorrect and that Hongwu is buried at Xiaoling. However, unless the Chinese government ever decides to excavate the tomb, no one will know for certain.

Compare this tomb to the later Ming Tombs in Beijing, also archived on this website.

Map of Xiaoling Tomb

Above: Plan of Xiaoling Tomb. (scale unknown).
Plan redrawn using information from In Search of Old Nanking, by Barry Till (see below).


All images copyright 2001 Professor Kerk L. Phillips of Brigham Young University, Utah, USA

Boyd, Andrew. Chinese Architecture and Town Planning: 1500 B.C. - A.D. 1911
  Holmesdale Press Ltd, 1962. London

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

Barry Till, with assistance of Paula Swart. In Search of Old Nanking
  Joint Pub. Co. (Hongkong Branch). 1982. Hong Kong

Visit Kerk L. Phillips' website at

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Bert Heesterbeek posted on Sun Oct 05, 2014 11:51 am:

Dear Mr. Philips,