Religion in China

Beijing plans to move 15,000 villagers away from its 600-year-old Ming tombs

Residents will be relocated to a nearby ‘eco-friendly community’ so that the Unesco-listed site can be restored and have an 80km wall built around it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 11:14pm

Beijing is planning to relocate about 15,000 residents away from a World Heritage Site where 13 emperors and 23 queens from the Ming dynasty were buried.

Some 16 villages spread across an area of 87 sq km are to be relocated as part of a plan to close off and restore the complex, Zhang Yanyou, head of the Changping district government, was quoted as saying in Beijing Youth Daily on Sunday.

The plan is to eventually open all 13 of the Ming emperor tombs to the public once restoration work is completed, Zhang said. Visitors can access just three of the tombs at present.

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The collection of mausoleums – known as the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming dynasty – is a popular tourist attraction located about 50km northwest of downtown Beijing and was added to the Unesco heritage list in 2003.

As well as the emperors and queens, it is also the burial site of two princes and more than 30 imperial concubines who lived between 1409 and 1644, the year the last emperor of the Ming dynasty, Chongzhen, committed suicide and was buried there.

About 15,000 people – some of them descendants of tomb guards – live in the area surrounding the tombs, which is mainly farmland including cornfields and orchards.

The villages they live in are dotted around the mausoleums and the authorities say they are hampering preservation work. The government promised to move the villages back when it applied to the UN heritage body for the tombs to be listed as a World Heritage Site, but until now it has not taken any action to relocate them.

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“These villagers can’t renovate their houses [because they are located in the heritage area] and they don’t have any other source of income. Their living standards have been restricted. We plan to build a new eco-friendly community for the relocated villagers to live in,” Zhang was quoted as saying.

The new community would be located near to the Ming tombs area under the plan, which has been released for public consultation.

In April, it was revealed that a pair of ceremonial marble candle holders, each weighing 200kg, went missing from the tomb of Emperor Chongzhen in 2016 but local authorities had tried to cover it up, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Four local officials, including the head and Communist Party chief of the Ming Tombs Special Area Agency, were sacked over the incident and the thieves were later arrested. The candle holders were recovered, but the case raised alarm bells over preservation and management of the site.

The collection of tombs and imperial mausoleums was one of the first places to be recognised as a cultural heritage preservation site in China, in 1961.

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Zhang said an 80km wall would be built around the Ming tombs area once the villagers were relocated. Three roads that pass through the scenic area would also be moved because they were affecting preservation and management of the site.

The authorities would also carry out restoration work on features near the mausoleums including the Qikong Bridge and the Spirit Way, or Sacred Way, a 7km stretch of road with giant stone animals leading to the tombs.