History on the Outskirts: Western Qing Tombs

Harems of imperial concubines, royal theft, arsenic poisoning, rumors of fratricide and patricide… Today’s peaceful sights of the Western Qing Tombs belie the periods of drama and intrigue that absorbed them before.
Beijing may be renowned as the historical and cultural capital of China, but it accordingly has a reputation for drawing large crowds of tourists. All of China is filled with history, and just outside of Beijing there are Qing Dynasty sites which are overlooked too often.
Just 140 kilometers from Beijing are a number of Qing Tombs at Chang Xi Ling, close to Hebei province’s Yi County. Beijing’s Ming Tombs somehow get all the attention from the busloads of tourists on their way to the Great Wall, but Hebei’s tombs offer a quiet, more meditative and diverse experience.
Emperor Yongzheng’s tomb consists of an extensive series of architectural spaces. Series of five gates and five bridges majestically welcome or threaten visitors.
Similar in style to the constructions of the Forbidden City, square spaces and square structures are a constant until one gets past the final tower. Suddenly observers are soothed by the sweeping curves of a massive circular garden, its entirety elevated up towards the sky. The garden is filled with green grasses and pine trees, akin to a natural forest but hoisted up from the ground. Visitors may not enter, but are treated to a pleasant walk around its perimeter, with the courtyard in the distance below.
Emperor Yongzheng is buried within the circle filled with trees and grasses. Square spaces in the grounds leading up to the tomb represent the earth and its inhabitants, whereas the circular shapes within represent the celestial bodies; hence Yongzheng was symbolically laid to rest in the heavens.
Chang Xi Ling is where the tomb of the Jiaqing emperor is found. The grounds are spacious, a large circular wall focusing on the tomb at centre, which rather resembles a large water tank. The curve of the wall was created in such a way that it unintentionally bounced sounds back toward a focal point just before the tomb. Hand claps, songs and whispers all rebound back towards the center with amazing clarity. This is like the echo wall at the Temple of Heaven, but without people elbowing in to yell hello.
The last of the tombs to be completed here was Chongling. Here in the frigid underground palace of Chong Tomb, visitors can see where Emperor Guangxu and Empress Longyu were buried. Visiting the tomb is one way to escape the summer’s heat (or winter’s bite).
A series of eight intricately carved marble doors are adorned with chillingly somber Buddhas and their folded hands. They lead the way into the depth of the tomb where the emperor and empress were laid to rest. Their favorite jewels and treasures also were put in, to keep them company through eternity.
However, it wasn’t long before enterprising thieves discovered the layout and managed to tunnel their way to riches. Today their scheme has been documented for all visitors to learn from.
All of the Western Qing Tombs and their accompanying structures are quintessential examples of Qing Dynasty architecture. The history is definitely rich, though the English signage is sometimes lacking. Visitors may consider taking an English tour guide with them. The lack of tour buses going to Yi County may be inconvenient for some, but it definitely helps ensure that visitors can explore the sites and experience the history intimately and at their own pace.
Comprehensive Entrance Fee for all tombs: 120 yuan, high season (Apr – Oct 31). 80 yuan, low season. Individual tombs are 45 yuan each in the high season.
Getting there by car from Beijing: drive south along Jingshi Expressway, and exit from Gaobeidian. Go west along national highway 112 the rest of the way to the Western Qing Tombs, Yi County.