The Ming Tombs, ancient burial grounds for 13 Chinese emperors, are situated about 30 miles from downtown Peking in a quiet, isolated valley.
Each year, about 3 million Chinese and foreigners visit the tombs, which rank with the Great Wall, Peking’s Forbidden City and the archeological excavations at Xian among China’s main historic sites.
But now a golf course is being added to the attractions of the valley, setting off an international furor. Critics say the course will destroy the solemn tranquility of the place and turn it into a kind of Disneyland.
As Tian Hongwen tells it, the logic behind the Ming Tombs Golf Course is simple enough.
“The Ming Tombs are very famous. We felt that foreigners would like to stay overnight in the area of the tombs,” Tian, an official of Changping county, explained. “And foreigners like to play golf.”
So Tian and other Chinese officials happily approved construction by a Japanese company of an 18-hole golf course alongside the tombs. The links are supposed to be the first step in a plan to fill the valley with luxury hotels and facilities for activities such as archery, fishing and skiing.
The decision has triggered a burst of wrangling between preservationists and local Chinese officials eager for progress and development.
During the last month, in the midst of the valley, which is surrounded by the stark brown Tian Shou Shan Hills, workmen have begun to plant and water Kentucky bluegrass for the fairways of the new golf course and to churn up dirt for the construction of a clubhouse.
When the project is completed, sometime next year, golfers will be able to tee off within clear sight of the sloping tiled roof of the De Ling Tomb, less than two miles away. That tomb, as yet unrestored, contains the remains of Emperor Xi Zong, who ruled from 1621 to 1627 and is best remembered for turning over power to a palace eunuch.
China is not the sort of country where people chain themselves to trees to protect the environment of historic sites. Downtown Peking, in particular, is in the midst of such a construction boom that there are many vantage points from which the city looks like a giant sand trap.
The golf course will be the Peking area’s first, but it is merely one of several being constructed in China these days as officials strive to provide the sort of modern amenities they hope will attract foreign businesses and tourists.
Yet the juxtaposition of this particular course next to the Ming Tombs has begun to attract notice and some controversy, both here and abroad. Foreigners have taken the lead in voicing public opposition to the development, but some Chinese appear to be lending encouragement.
“The golf course may not attract many Chinese when it opens, as they still find the sport out of reach,” observed the China Daily, a government-controlled English-language newspaper, in a news story early this year. “Few could afford the equipment or know how to play.”
In addition, on four separate occasions since the beginning of the year, the newspaper has published letters ridiculing the plans for the course.
“Foreign tourists come to China to see things Chinese, not the same old junk one can see anywhere in the world,” wrote a San Diego resident named Betty M. Wharton, who said she visited China last year. “I play golf once a week, but I would never think of wasting my time in Peking doing something I can do at home.”
“I urge the authorities, for the sake of China’s heritage, to avoid turning this area into a sort of Disneyland,” a British diplomat wrote.
The latest missive came from novelist Han Suyin in Lausanne, Switzerland. “I am puzzled that, with so many important things that can be done, such a wasteful, extravagant project can be set afoot,” she said.
Both the Japanese businessmen constructing the new golf course and the Chinese officials who approved it insist that the project will enhance, not detract from, the atmosphere of the Ming Tombs.
“What we are doing is just a reforestation project, a greening project,” said Kazuya Ono, business manager of the Peking International Golf and Amusement Park Co. “We will beautify the area a bit.”
Although the golf course will be open to tourists, Ono said in an interview that it is being designed primarily as a club for members, most of whom will be Japanese businessmen. He said his company has not yet decided on the membership fee. The company will spend more than $12 million on the course, he added.
Tian, the deputy general manager of the Changping County Foreign Economic Relations and Trade Corp., noted that the golf course is not being built in the midst of the tombs but is outside their perimeter. “The golf course is different from the Ming Tombs. They are two different things,” he said.
However, Ono said, the tombs will be visible from the golf course, and the golf course will be visible from the area of the tombs, where emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) are buried.
The plan to develop the area around the tombs was announced at the beginning of this year. The Peking municipal government, whose area of responsibility includes the tombs, said at the time that it intends to develop “a modernized tourist resort” there. It said it will improve what officials called “incomplete services, poor accommodation and backward transport.”
Part of the plan is to restore the tombs themselves, officials said, adding that they will begin this year by restoring the crumbling tomb of Emperor Mu Zong (1567 to 1572).
Horse-drawn carriages will be provided to carry tourists along the road called the Way of the Spirit, which is lined with stone statues of camels, elephants, horses, lions and various mythical beasts. Other proposals include an amusement park, a miniature golf course, a campground and a boating area.
According to Tian, the key element in the plan is the construction of first-class hotels so tourists will be able to stay near the tombs rather than make the hourlong trip from downtown Peking.
“We want to build luxury hotels in the area, so that people coming to see the Ming Tombs can spend their holidays in this place,” Tian said. “The people who stay there will be able to play golf, and it will add delight to their holidays.”
On March 22, ground was broken for the golf course, and, since then, Japanese workmen have been toiling from dawn to dusk at the site.
“People don’t want just the old,” Ono said. “After the golf course is finished, people will be able to enjoy both the old and the new in this area.”