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Eastern Qing Tombs

125km (78 miles) E of Beijing

TheQing Dong Linghave been open for more than 20 years but are still little visited despite offering considerably more to visitors than tombs of the Ming. Altogether 5 emperors, 15 empresses, 136 concubines, 3 princes, and 2 princesses are buried in 15 tombs here. The first to be buried was Shunzhi -- the first Qing emperor to reign from Beijing -- in 1663, and the last was an imperial concubine in 1935. The tomb chambers of four imperial tombs, theXiao Ling(the Shunzhi emperor),Jing Ling(Kangxi),Yu Ling(Qianlong), andDing Ling(Xianfeng), are open as well as the twinDing Dong Lingtombs (Dowager Empress Cixi and Empress Ci'an). Others of interest include a group site for the Qianlong emperor's concubines.

Visitor Information-- The tombs are in Zunhua County, Hebei Province (daily 8am-5:30pm summer, 9am-4:30pm winter). Thetong piao, which offers access to all the tombs, costs ¥90 ($11).

Getting There-- A special Qing Dong Lingyoubusdeparts from northeast of the Xuanwu Men (206) metro stop (summer only, daily 7:30am; 3-hr. trip; ¥80/$10); this gives you about 3 hours at the site. If you want to explore at your own pace, you'll have to hire a cab or take a rickety local bus (daily 6:30am-4:30pm; 3 1/2-hr. trip; ¥24/$3) to Zunhua from just east of the Dawang Lu metro stop (123, exit C). Alight just before Zunhua at Shi Men Zhen then hire amiandi(minivan) to take you the rest of the way (about ¥20/$3). An assortment of three-wheelers will offer to take you around the site with a first asking price of ¥10 ($1.25).

Where to Stay & Dine-- TheYuyuan Shanzhuang(Imperial Gardens Mountain Villa; tel.0315/694-5348) is a battered three-star set to the east of the tombs where the asking price for a twin room is ¥288 ($36), about twice what it's worth. Its best feature is the attached Manchurian restaurant,Qing Yan Lou(daily 11am-noon and 5-9pm), which offers inexpensive game meats, and delicious green bean flour noodles,culiu laozha.

Exploring the Area--Although few others are as elaborate, theXiao Lingwas the first tomb on the site, and a model for others both here and at the Western Qing Tombs. As here, usually an approach road orspirit waymay have guardian figures, and the entrance to the tomb itself is usually preceded by a large stele pavilion and marble bridges over a stream. To the right, the buildings used for preparation of sacrifices are now usually the residences of the staff, and hung with washing. Inside the gate, halls to the left and right were for enrobing and other preparations, and now house exhibitions, as usually does eachHall of Eminent Favor, at the rear, where ceremonies in honor of the deceased took place. Behind, if open, a doorway allows access past a stone altar to a steep ramp leading to the base of theSoul Tower.Through a passageway beneath, stairs to either side lead to a walkway encircling the mound, giving views across the countryside. If the tomb chamber is open, a ramp from beneath the Soul Tower leads down to a series of chambers.

The twinDing Dong Lingtombs have nearly identical exteriors, but Cixi had hers rebuilt in 1895, 14 years after Ci'an's death (in which she is suspected of having had a hand), using far more expensive materials. The main hall contains reproductions of pictures produced in 1903 by Cixi's photo studio within the Summer Palace. Everywhere there are reminders of the Forbidden City, such as the terrace-corner spouts carved as water-loving dragons(che).The interior has motifs strikingly painted in gold on dark wood, recalling the buildings where she spent her last years. There are walls of carved and gilded brick, and superbly fearsome wooden dragons writhe down the columns. After this, the other tombs seem gaudy.

The enclosure of theYu Fei Yuan Qin (Garden of Rest)contains moss-covered tumuli for 35 of the Qianlong emperor's concubines. Another is buried in a proper tomb chamber, along with an empress whom Qianlong had grown to dislike.

TheJing Lingis the tomb of Qianlong's grandfather, the Kangxi emperor, and is surprisingly modest given that he was possibly the greatest emperor the Chinese ever had, but that's in keeping with what is known of his character. The spirit way leading to the tomb has an elegant five-arch bridge; the guardian figures are placed on an unusual curve quite close to the tomb itself, and are more decorated than those at earlier tombs. TheYu Linghas the finest tomb chamber, a series of rooms separated by solid marble doors, with its walls and arched ceilings engraved with Buddha figures and more than 30,000 words of Tibetan scripture. The 3-ton doors themselves have reliefs of bodhisattvas (beings on the road to enlightenment) and the four protective kings usually found at temple entrances. This tomb is worth the trip in its own right.

Western Qing Tombs (Qing Xi Ling)

140km (87 miles) SW of Beijing

The Yongzheng emperor broke with tradition and ordered his tomb to be constructed here, away from his father (the Kangxi emperor). His son, the Qianlong emperor, decided to be buried near his grandfather and that thereafter burials should alternate between the eastern and western sites, although this was not followed consistently. The first tomb, theTai Ling, was completed in 1737, 2 years after the Yongzheng reign. The last imperial interment was in 1998, when the ashes of Aisin Gioro Henry Puyi, the last emperor, were moved to a commercial cemetery here. He and 2 consorts were added to 4 emperors, 4 empresses, 4 princes, 2 princesses, and 57 concubines. The site is rural, more densely forested than the Qing Dong Ling, overlapped by orchards and agriculture, and with chickens, goats, and the odd rabbit to be encountered.

TheChang Ling(tomb of the Jiaqing emperor) andChong Ling(tomb of the Guangxu emperor) are also open, as well as theChang Xi Lingwith the extraordinary sonic effects of itsHuiyin Bi-- an echo wall where, as the only visitor, you can try out the special effects available only in theory at the Temple of Heaven.

Visitor Information-- The ticket office is open from 8am to 5pm; atong piao(for access to all the tombs) costs ¥90 ($10) and is good for 2 days. There's no access by tourist bus -- part of the appeal for most visitors.

Getting There-- Take abusto Yixian from the Lize Qiao long-distance bus station (daily 6:50am-5pm, every 15 min.; 3-hr. trip; ¥20/$2.50; last bus returns at 4pm), then switch to a minivan(miandi)for the 15km (9 1/4-mile) ride to the tombs (around ¥20/$3; ¥100/$12 to visit all the tombs), or turn right as you exit the bus station to find bus no. 9 waiting on the first corner (every hour; ¥3/60¢). Bytaxiit's a reasonable day-trip down the Jingshi Freeway from the Southwest Third Ring Road to the turnoff for Gao Bei Dian to the west, and beyond to Yi Xian. It's possible to visitMarco Polo Bridge (Lu Gou Qiao)on the way.

Where to Stay-- The modest, Manchu-themedBa Jiao Lou Manzu Zhuangyuan, just east of Tai Ling (tel.0312/826-0828;¥100/$12 standard room).Xing Gong Binguan, near Yongfu Si on the eastern side of the tomb complex (tel.0312/471-0038;standard room ¥150/$19 after discount), was where Manchu rulers stayed when they came to pay their respects, and the room constructed in 1748 to house the Qianlong emperor is now rented out as two suites (¥660/$82 after discount), although the 1980s decor is criminal.

Exploring the Area--TheDa Bei Lou, a pavilion containing two vast stelae, is on the curved route to theTai Ling.The general plan of the major tombs follows that of the eastern tombs and, in fact, theChang Ling, slightly to the west, is almost identical, brick for brick, to the Tai Ling, with the addition of a purple-tinged marble floor. The Jiaqing empress is buried just to the west on a far smaller scale in theChang Xi Ling, the tomb mound a brick drum. But the perfectly semicircular rear wall offers the whispering gallery effects found at some domed European cathedrals, and clapping while standing on various marked stones in the center of the site produces a variety of multiple echoes, while speech is amazingly amplified. The empress can't get much peace.

Jiaqing's son, the Daoguang emperor, was meant to be buried at Qing Dong Ling, but his tomb there was flooded. The relocatedMu Lingappears much more modest than those of his predecessors. No stele pavilion or spirit way, largely unpainted, and the tomb mound is a modest brick-wall drum, but this is the most expensive tomb: Wood used to construct the exquisite main hall is fragrantnanmu, sourced from as far away as Myanmar. The Guangxu emperor was the last to complete his reign (although Cixi, who died the next day, is again suspected of shortening it), and hisChong Ling, which has the only tomb chamber that is open, uses more modern materials than other tombs. It wasn't completed until 1915, well after the last emperor's abdication.

Several other rather battered tombs are open, and more are being opened, including theTai Ling Fei Yuan Qin, a group of concubine tumuli, individually labeled with the years in which the concubines entered the Yongzheng emperor's service and their grades in the complex harem hierarchy.

The ashes ofPuyi(properly known as the Xuantong emperor) lie buried on the eastern end of the site, up a slope behind a brand-new Qing-style memorial arch(pailou), and behind a shoddy, modern carved balustrade. Neighboring plots are available for the right price.