A Visit to the Imperial Ghosts
On the last day of October, which is Halloween on some western calendars, the foggy weather forced me and my friends to abandon our original plan to drive up to Bashang, a scenic area bordering Inner Mongolia and Hebei. Instead, we drove down south from Beijing to the Western Qing Tombs in Yi County. A visit to the “tombs” on Halloween? Ah, nothing was more in time and nothing could be more interesting than any encounter with any imperial ghosts! So there we went.
Four emperors of the Qing Dynasty were buried at the Western Qing Tombs: Yongzheng, Jiaqing, Daoguang and Guangxu. The last emperor in Chinese history, Xuantong, was supposed to have a place there but the construction of his tomb was stopped when the emperor was forced to abdicate. Each of the imperial tombs was actually a huge complex of buildings and structures and of different size and grandeur which generally reflects the national power and wealth of the dynasty at the time of the relevant emperor. Yongzheng, who ruled China in early 18th century when the nation was still powerful and wealthy, had the largest and the most grandiose tomb. In comparison, Guangxu’s was quite small and simple, reflecting the disgraceful plight of the dynasty under his rule. But I must say that even his tomb is much more grandiose than the largest imperial tombs I saw in Vietnam.
The tombs have been open to tourists for many years and made to the World Cultural Heritage List in 2000. However, unlike those in the Ming Tombs, many of the buildings there remain in original state and have not been subject to much “repair” or “reconstruction”, which is good for tourists who value authentic experience. Because of the undesirable weather, there were very few visitors when we were there. I am glad most of the images I took of the tombs are free of tourists. In fact, I sometimes had to wait for some one to come by in order to give some scale to the buildings and structure I photoed.
And, on that day, there were so few administration staff on site to keep an eye on us that one of my friends sit on an imperial chair on display in blatant violation of the visitor’s rules.
One of the more interesting places to see in the tombs is the underground burial palace of Emperor Guangxu. Guangxu was said to have been poisoned to death, at the age of only 38, by his aunt, the Empress Dowager, before her death so that the political reform Guangxu wanted but the empress hated could not continue. The poor emperor’s coffin is on display inside the underground palace.
Like in all other traditional Chinese architecture, the highly decorated roofs of the buildings in the Western Qing Tombs are beautiful and interesting. Do people notice that there are always some figures on the roof ridges and the number of figures varies from building to building?
The dead are dead, and life goes on. Some of the land in and around the tombs are now cultivated. We were so impressed by the green cabbage that grows very well in front of the tombs of Yongzheng’s wives that we persuaded the tomb keeper, who planted the cabbage, to sell us some.
Elsewhere, there were signs of imperial grandeur that is forever lost and ordinary life that is everlasting.
At the end of the day, I could only sigh on the dusty and cracked dignity of this grand red door.