Jewellery from Dingling Tomb (Beijing, Ming Dynasty).

Jewellery from Dingling Tomb (Beijing, Ming Dynasty).

The emperors in China’s feudal society usually had their grand tombs. In particular, the tombs of the Ming Dynasty are in a fairly good state of preservatin. Xiaoling, the tomb of the emperor who founded the Ming Dynasty, is to be found in Nanjing, while the tombs of the other emperors, known as Shisanling (Thirteen Tombs), are located in Beijing.

The Thirteen Tombs are in Changping, a suburban county of Beijing about 50 kilometers away from the city proper. Emperor Cheng Zu (Zhu Di) personally selected the spot and had his own tomb (Changling) built here. Then 12 other emperors of the Ming Dynasty had their tombs built around it. All this occurred in a period of more than 200 years (AD 1409-1644). The tomb structures are scattered in an area of more than 40 square kilometers.

Dingling is the tomb of Emperor Wan Li (Zhu Yijun) and his two empresses. As the 13th of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yijun was on throne for 48 years (1573-1620). Wan Li was his reign title and Shen Zong was his temple title.

Zhu Yijun came to the throne at the age of ten. In early years of his reign, the emperor was under strict care of his own mother Empress Dowager Li and received elementary education from Zhang Juzheng, the Prime Minister of the Cabinet; with the approval of Empress Dowager Li, Zhang actually played the role of a regent.


At the beginning of the 11th year of the Wan Li period, 21 year old Zhu Yijun gave an imperial edict to the Ministry of Rites, saying that he would select a place for his own tomb when he went to Tianshou (Longevity of Heaven) Hills to offer sacrifices to his ancestors. On the 16th day of the second month of that year, he made an inspection tour of Xiangzi Ridge and other places in Tianshou Hills. Since he was not satisfied with these places, he sent senior officials on other occasions to look for a better site around Tianshou Hills.

In the 9th month of the same year, Zhu Yiju took advantage of the autumn sacrifices and went to the hills once again. He selected Dayu (Great Valley) Hill as the site of his tomb. The project began in the third month of the 13th year of Wan Li period (1585). Every day about 30,000 soldiers and laborers worked on the site. It took six years to complete the project. A total of eight million taels of silver (equivalent to the country’s two years of land tax revenue) were spent on Dingling Tomb.

Dingling Tomb covers an area of about 180,000 square meters.


The official excavation of Dingling Tomb began in May, 1956. First a probing trench was dug at the inner side of the tunnel gateway in the southeastern corner of the Precious Citadel. The archaeological workers found two parallel walls built of bricks. Between the two walls was a S-shaped tunnel. They followed the direction of the trench and dug the second probing trench behind the Stele Tower.

When they dug to the depth of 7.5 meters, they found a small stone tablet. Inscribed on it were characters meaning „This stone is 16 Zhang from the sealing wall at a depth of 3.5 Zhang.” Taking this as a clue, they dug the third probing trench in the direction between the Stele Tower and the Precious Citadel. Then they found a stone tunnel.. At the end of the tunnel was a brick wall with a height of nearly 9 meters. This was the sealing wall indicated on the small stone tablet. Some bricks tilted inwards under the pressure of the rammed earth. When they removed these bricks, the archaeological workers entered a square-shaped tunnel vault. Behind it was a tightly closed stone door. They opened the stone door and entered the mysterious underground palace which had been closed for nearly 400 years.

The underground palace, a vaulted stone structure, is hidden 27 meters below the surface. It consists of five tall and spacious halls-ante-chamber, central chamber, back chamber, left annex and right annex. The total floor space is 1,195 square meters.


More than 3,000 relics were unearthed from Dingling Tomb. They are mainly utensils, headdresses, garments and burial objects. Quite a few of them are rare objects unearthed in China for the first time.

Most of the utensils unearthed from Dingling Tomb are exquisite objects of gold, silver and jade. The gold wine pot, for example, has carved patterns featuring mountains, rivers, magic herbs, bamboos, peonies and other things. The rubies and sapphires inlaid in the wine pot add to its value and beauty.

Porcelain articles of the Ming Dynasty are famous in China and abroad. A lot of fine pieces are among the porcelain unearthed from Dingling Tomb. The 0.7 meter high dragon jar of blue-and-white porcelain is among the biggest pieces while the rouge box in the size of a thumb is among the smallest pieces.


During the Ming Dynasty, noticeable progress was made in silk industry. Most of the silk textiles unearthed from Dingling Tomb are robes, skirts and other garments for the emperor and empress woven in Nanjing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and other places. Some of them are silk rolls. They are characterized by their great quantity, fine quality and rich variety. No similar silk textiles have been unearthed in other parts of the country. They are material proof of the headdress and garment system of the Ming imperial court. Unearthed from the coffin of Empress Xiao Jing is a garment embroidered with the design of a hundred children showing different postures and expressions. The masterpiece of embroidery was made with 15 different ways of stitch so as to attain different artistic effects.


From Dingling Tomb were unearthed hundreds of jewels such as hairpins, earrings, eardrops and gem flowers. They are made of precious materials like gold, silver, jade, pearls and gems of different colours. Among the most valuable things are emeralds and cat’s eye stones.

The imperial palace had a jewellery workshop with highly-skilled craftsmen from all parts of the country. They made a great variety of jewels such as the god of longevity, celestial beings, mythical birds, the Jade Hare, flowers of the four seasons, divine tortoises and butterflies. Some patterns were depicted in characters referring to richness, happiness, longevity and Buddha. Most of these jewels are representative of coiling work, marquetry and engraving. Each and every of them is an exquisite work of art.

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