CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 16, December 2008


The Ming Ancestor | China Heritage Quarterly

The Ming Ancestor Tomb

Eric N. Danielson

Of the sixteen Ming-dynasty emperors, all but are one buried in elaborate tombs that still stand today. The founder of the dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-98, reign title Hongwu, 1368-98), is buried at Xiao Ling in Nanjing, while thirteen others starting with the third Ming emperor Zhu Di (1360-1424, reign title Yongle, 1403-1424), are buried at the Thirteen Ming Tombs (Shisan Ling) site in Changping County, fifty kilometres northwest of the city center of Beijing. One emperor, Zhu Qiyu (1428-1457, reign title Jingtai, 1450-1457), was posthumously punished by being denied a tomb outside the capital and was instead interred in the Western Hills of Beijing.

The only Ming emperor without any known tomb is the second ruler Zhu Yunwen (1377-1402, reign title Jianwen, 1399-1402), who mysteriously disappeared in July 1402 when the army of his rival Zhu Di captured the then 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 Yongle emperor's purpose in subsequently launching the seven sea voyages led by the Muslim Admiral Zheng He was part of elaborate attempts to find where the rival emperor Jianwen might be hiding. Residents of the Ban'an District in Chongqing, Sichuan, insist that the Jianwen Peak located in their area is the place where Zhu Yunwen died. They have even erected an ancestral temple there in his honor.

Lesser-known Ming Tombs

For the most part, the fifteen Ming ruler's tombs have been previously well studied. The thirteen tombs in Beijing and, Xiao Ling, the tomb of the Ming founding emperor Zhu Yuanzhang in Nanjing, are all well known and have been documented (see Paludin and Danielson in Sources below).

However, there are several other important Ming imperial tomb sites that have not been written about in English and are hardly known to anyone but the local inhabitants. Even Chinese language sources on these tombs are scarce. These lesser-known tombs are significant because, among other things, out of a total of eighteen Ming imperial tomb sites they feature three of the five Ming mausoleums with a Sacred Way (shendao) of stone statues (shixiang or shike). While each of the Qing-era imperial tombs—the Eastern Qing tombs (Qing Dong Ling) at Zunhua and the Western Qing tombs (Qing Xi Ling) at Yi County, both in Hebei—has its own sacred way, the Thirteen Ming Tombs in Beijing share one collective sacred way. Four of the five Ming tombs featuring sacred ways are located outside of Beijing, and two of them are in Jiangsu province.

These lesser-known Ming imperial tombs include Huang Ling, the burial place of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang's parents in Fengyang, Anhui. The emperor's father, Zhu Wusi, and his mother, Mme Chen, are buried in a mausoleum built in the same style as that befitting an emperor, complete with a Sacred Way of stone statues, depicting real animals—tigers and rams—as well as other mythical animals, along with ranked civil and military officials. Fengyang was Zhu Yuanzhang's childhood hometown. When his father died in 1344, the family could not even afford to buy a coffin, but the construction of this elaborate mausoleum built following the founding of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 was said to be emotionally cathartic for the ruler who thereby addressed the shame resulting from this youthful humiliation. Fengyang is also the site of Zhong Du (the Central Capital), Zhu Yuanzhang's attempt to build an imperial city in his home town from scratch.

Another lesser-known tomb is the Xian Ling mausoleum of Prince Xian of Xiang (Xiang Xian Wang), Zhu Youguan, and his wife in Zhongxiang County, Hubei. Although he never attained the throne, Zhu Youguan (1476-1519) is remarkable for having been both the son of an emperor (Zhu Jianshen, who ruled as Xianzong, 1465-1488), and the father of Zhu Houcong (who ruled as Jiajing, 1522-1567). Zhu Houcong insisted that his father be posthumously elevated to the honorary position of emperor, while his mother, who was still living, was bestowed with the rank of empress. Construction on the Xian Ling mausoleum began in 1539, the year after she died.

Today, the relics of Xian Ling are possibly the most impressive and best preserved of any Ming imperial tomb. It is also significant for being one of only five Ming imperial tombs that possess a Sacred Way of stone statues. The other four are Huang Ling in Fengyang, Anhui; Ming Xiao Ling in Nanjing, Jiangsu; the Ming tombs in Beijing, and the Ming Ancestor Tomb (Ming Zu Ling) in Huai'an, Northern Jiangsu.

Two other minor Ming royal tombs are those of 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, and each came under suspicion during the reign of the second Emperor Jianwen (1398-1402). Zhu Bo was known as the Prince Xian of Xiang (Xiang Xian Wang ), the same title later held by Zhu Youguan (1476-1519), father of Emperor Jiajing (1522-1567). He committed suicide after being accused of treachery by the emperor, and was buried in an underground tomb beside Taihui Taoist Temple in Jingzhou. This tomb was excavated and restored in 1987, and the underground palace chambers can now be visited. Zhu Zhi was known as the Prince Jian of Liao (Liao Jian Wang). His even larger tomb lies on Baling Shan, twenty-four kilometers northwest of Jingzhou. This tomb has also been excavated and is accessible to the public. Zhu Zhi's underground palace consists of five chambers. (These two princes tombs are described in detail in my The Three Gorges and the Upper Yangzi).

The main focus of this essay, however, is to introduced the background and present condition of the Ming Ancestor Tomb (Ming Zu Ling) located in Xuyi County of the Huai'an Municipality of northern Jiangsu province, a relatively isolated area known variously as Su Bei, Huai Yang and Jiang Bei.

Sources and Location

It would appear that no complete English-language description of this important historical site has been published before. The standard English language work on the Ming tombs (Paludan, 1991), makes no mention of it. Ann Paludan's later work, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors, does contain several photos of Ming Zu Ling with brief captions, but there is no significant description of it in the text. Even Chinese language sources are scarce (see Sources below), there being only four works on the site, of which only two contain a history while the others consist mainly of photographs with captions. The following account is based on these key Chinese sources which are augmented by two first-hand field studies of the site made by the author in 2005.

Ming Zu Ling is in the center of northern Jiangsu Province near where the Huai River flows into Hongze Lake, one of the five biggest lakes in China. In popular parlance it is also known as the first Ming-dynasty tomb (Ming dai diyi ling). Originally, it was located near the ancient town of Sizhou, but the area is now called Xuyi County, and the tomb is a short distance northwest of the small county town. Known as the mountain town (shancheng), Xuyi is surrounded on three sides by small hills, while on its fourth it faces the waters of the Huai River and Hongze Lake.

During the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties, Sizhou/Xuyi was located on the Grand Canal, which was straightened out to create a more direct south-north route in the Yuan period. Before 1949, the Ming Zu Ling was in Anhui Province, but the border of Jiangsu province was moved westward to include all of Hongze Lake following the founding of the People's Republic.

Today, Xuyi is approximately a two-hour drive from the center of Huai'an, a fairly large city on the modern-day Hangzhou-Beijing Grand Canal. The parking lot and main entrance are at the South Gate, an area with virtually no visitor facilities. There is no town or hotel in the area. 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, the spot was chosen by the first Ming emperor because a Taoist Monk told him that the fengshui of the area was ideal. Another story claims that a Taoist had told the emperor's father that one day his son would rule the empire when the latter was visiting Xuyi. Perhaps more relevant is the fact is that this is said to be the place where Zhu Yuanzhang was conceived, and where his grandfather had died, just before the family moved to Fengyang, Anhui.

Constructing the Tomb

There are conflicting accounts of exactly when work on Ming Zu Ling began. Li Shiyuan (1988) and Chen Lin (2004) both support the view that construction was started by Zhu Yuanzhang during the first year of his reign as the Hongwu emperor in 1368. According to Chen Lin, in 1385 Zhu Yuanzhang asked his son Zhu Biaoli to inspect the quality and progress of the construction of Zu Ling. Chinese scholars differ over whether this event marked the actual start of construction or merely an inspection on its progress. However, by 1388, the first major building, the Xiang Dian Hall, had been completed.

Sources do, nonetheless, agree that the project was finally completed in 1413, having taken perhaps some forty-five years. However, if the project did not actually begin until 1385, as the admission ticket to the site claims, then it only took twenty-eight years to complete. Regardless, Zhu Yuanzhang did not live to see the completion of this ancestral tomb.

The site was originally contained with in three walls, the outer and middle of which were made of earth, and an inner wall of red brick. They were built in recognition of three generations of Zhu's ancestors (sanzu): his grandfather (zufu), Zhu Chuyi; his great grandfather (gaozu), Zhu Bailiu; and, his great great grandfather (zeng zu), Zhu Sijiu. Because construction work on Zu Ling was started by the first Ming ruler, shortly after the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, Tang and Song styles of architecture and decoration were employed in a marked reaction against the prevalent fashions under the recently defunct Mongol rule. The early styles were chosen as the new Ming dynasty had yet to develop its own architectural template. As a result, Zu Ling features a tumulus in the center of a square walled area marked by four gates arranged according to the cardinal points. Twenty-one pairs of stone statues, themselves carved in the Tang-Song style, were erected along the north-south axis of the Sacred Way. This revival of Tang and Song styles was, however, short-lived and they were not used again, making such features of Zu Ling unique.

Comparing the stone statues at Zhu Yuanzhang's own tomb of Xiao Ling in Nanjing with those at his ancestor's tomb of 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 Xiao Ling tend to look distended and bloated compared to those at Zu Ling. On the other hand, Xiao Ling has some exotic animals that Zu Ling does not, such as camels and elephants. Since Xiao Ling and Zu Ling were constructed over roughly the same time, it is tempting to surmise that out of a sense of filial piety Zhu Yuanzhang ordered the most talented craftsmen and stone masons to work on the Zu Ling site, thus depriving his own tomb of the best artisans.

Destruction and Rediscovery

Sources seem to agree on the date and nature of the site's destruction. According to Li Shiyuan (1988), in the nineteenth year of the Kangxi reign of the Qing dynasty (1680), the site was flooded when the Yellow River broke its banks, changed course, and created a confluence with the Huai River. After silt from the Yellow River cut off the Huai River's previous route to the sea, the combined waters of these two rivers created Hongze Lake. The nearby ancient town of Sizhou was completely submerged, much like Pompeii was buried under the lava of Mt. Vesuvius. Indeed, popular descriptions hold that Sizhou is 'China's Pompeii'.

The Ming Zu Ling site lay submerged for nearly 300 years before its rediscovery in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, there are inconsistencies in the accounts of its rediscovery. A short 'official history' on the 2005 admission ticket to the site, one also inscribed on a stele at the entrance gate, and displayed in the Zu Ling Exhibition Hall, states that the tomb was rediscovered in the spring of 1963. However, Chen Lin claims that the rediscovery was made one year later, in the spring of 1964. According to this account a drought caused the Huai River to run dry and the edges of Hongze Lake to recede. Local residents first noticed a long line of ancient Tang- and Song-style stone statues laying along the muddy shore: after nearly three centuries Zu Ling had re-emerged.

Although there was excitement over the rediscovery of this long-forgotten monument, work on the tomb site was delayed by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In 1976, repairs of the site were initiated and were completed a decade later, some 294 years after Zu Ling was submerged.

One of the first steps was, in 1977, to build a major bridge over the Huai River so that personnel, supplies and equipment could easily be transported from Xuyi to the Zu Ling site. In 1978, the reconstruction project received more funding, and a 2,700 meter-long dam was built around the site to hold the waters of the river and lake at bay. The wall is twenty meters wide at the bottom but only six meters at the top. It seems to be about fifteen meters high, but the side of the wall tapers at an angle towards the top. In 1982, workers pieced together the broken stone statues and re-established the Sacred Way. The original Golden Water Bridge (Jinshui Qiao) leading to the tomb proper had been so badly devastated by the flood that it had to be replaced. Some original pieces from the bridge are on display in the site's exhibition hall.

Ming Zu Ling was designated as a provincial cultural protection unit in 1982. In 1996, it was elevated to become a national cultural protection unit.

Zu Ling Today

A new red wall with three gates surrounds the reconditioned Zu Ling site. Although the original tomb was surrounded by three walls with four gates, it now only has one wall with one main entrance at the South Gate. Two stone tablets with inscriptions standing immediately inside the South Gate are dated March 1982 and 21 January 1996, marking the dates when it was gazetted. The more recent of the tablets bears a lengthy inscription giving the official history of the site, including events dated 1385, 1413, 1680, 1963, 1976, 1982 and 1996. Unfortunately, none of the original historic inscribed stone tablets survived the 1680 flood.

The first building the visitor encounters near the south gate is a grandiose exhibition hall containing some extraordinary 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 outside.

Walking through a large forested area north of the Exhibition Hall, the visitor eventually reaches a second three-portal Red Gate with an liuli-tiled roof. Just beyond this gate is where the spectacular Sacred Way lined with stone statues mentioned earlier begins. The statues represent real and mythical animals, as well as military and civilian officials dressed in early Ming costume, as well as several types of decorative stone columns.

The 200-hundred-metre Sacred Way at Ming Zu Ling runs from south to north. The total distance from the first pair of Qilin statues to the tomb mound (baocheng) is only about 330 meters. The site of the Imperial City ruins is about 30 meters wide from north to south. Compared with Tang and Song imperial tombs the Sacred Way at Zu Ling is relatively short. Another difference is that the statues are close together, not spread far apart, as they are at the Northern Song imperial tombs in Gongyi, in Zhengzhou, Henan.

The corridor of stone statues begins with two pairs of four Qilin, followed by six pairs of stone lions, a pair of stone columns (huabiao) decorated in Tang and Song style. After these columns come a series of statues related to horses, including a pair of Horse Officers (maguan), a pair of Horse Servants (qianma shizhe) with horses carved from a single piece of stone, a pair of horses with saddles, and finally a pair of horse officers (maguan). After the statues comes the Golden Water Bridge and after crossing this there are a series of exquisite statues of military and civil officials: two pairs of Civil Officers (wenchen), followed by two pairs of Military Officers (wujiang), and finally two pairs of Servants (jinshi), also known as Eunuchs (taijian).

The Tomb

Originally, between the Sacred Way and the tomb proper were a group of buildings known as the Imperial City (Huang Cheng). This consisted of five main south-facing halls with six rooms on both sides, and ten halls on the north, forming a square courtyard. Foundations and pillar pedestals of four halls that once stood side by side are easily discerned. According to Chen Lin (2004) this is also where the original Sacrificial Hall once stood, although this is debatable, as it may have also stood directly in front of the tomb mound which lies some 100 metres north.

Unlike Xiao Ling, there is no Becoming Immortal Bridge (shengxian qiao) here, nor a Bright Tower (ming lou), that can be found in other Ming imperial tombs. At the far northern end of the central axis of the site stands a bronze incense burner and a stone altar, atop of which there are three wooden ancestral tablets, one for each of the three ancestors commemorated here. The stone altar lacks the Five Stone Offerings common at other tombs. A sign states that this is the 'Ruins of the Main Temple'. In recent years this has been the site of colorful performances of a sacrificial incense ceremony, featuring actors wearing period costumes.

Behind the stone altar is a twenty square meter pool shaped like a half-moon at the south foot of the tomb mound. On the north edge of the pool, some two meters below, nine brick arches partly submerged in the water are visible. These nine-arched entrance gates lead into the tomb mound proper, which rises up immediately behind the pool and is overgrown with trees. These 'nine stone doors' supposedly lead into the 'Subterranean Palace' (xuan gong) buried inside the Hill of Ten-thousand Longevities.

Clothes and personal possessions of the three ancestors were interred here in the Zu Ling tomb mound, but not their bodies. This type of tomb is called an Yiguan Zhong, or Garment Tomb. Similar tombs were constructed for Zheng He in Nanjing, Li Bai at Caishiji at Ma'an Shan, Anhui and for Qu Yuan in Zigui, Hubei. The body of the first Ming emperor's grandfather's was not in this tomb, but was buried in a separate grave nearby, one discovered when the site was finally excavated.


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.

Chen Lin, 'Ming dai diyi ling—Ming Zu Ling', in Cao Qirui, ed., Huai'an Yuanling, Beijing: Zhongguo Wenshi Chubanshe, 2004, pp.38-52.

Da Ming diling tujian (Illustrated Handbook of the Mausolea of the Ming Emperors), Nanjing: Jiangsu Guji Chubanshe, 2002.

Li Shiyuan, Ming Zu Ling, Nanjing: Jiangsu Renmin Chubanshe, 1988.

Mote, F.W., Imperial China, 900-1800, Cambridge, Ma.: 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 Cangyin, Xuyi, Beijing: Renmin Ribao Chubanshe, 2003.