Many of China’s imperial tombs are fronted by what are known as Sacred or Spirit Ways – winding pathways that lead to mausoleums of deceased emperors. One of the most famous and best preserved is the Sacred Way at the Ming Tombs just outside Beijing, a pathway built in the 15th century to lead to the tombs’ first-built Changling mausoleum.
Entered via a stone memorial archway constructed in 1540, this 7-kilometer paved road was constructed to provide the spirits of the dead emperors with a way back to heaven, the place where they were born. Like other divine paths of its kind, it was designed to incorporate curves in a bid to confuse evil spirits.
Once through the archway, visitors can stroll along the scenic path, which is lined with willow trees and 18 pairs of large, carved stone statues depicting animals and human figures. Sculpted during the Ming dynasty, the statues were placed here as ‘guards of honor’ for the resting emperors, and carry deep spiritual significance.
Animals depicted include a camel and elephant that both represent the vastness of imperial territory, as well as a horse to reflect the emperor’s most trusted mount, and a lion to portray solemn magnificence. Other sculptures show the mythical the unicorn-like ‘xiezhi’ that was thought to ward off evil, and the four ‘divine’ animals of an imaginary ‘qilin,’ and a phoenix, dragon and tortoise.