The capital of China has not always been at Beijing – indeed it was only finally established at Beijing in the 16th century. Before that, China had had number of capitals, mostly lying further south: the most important of these is Xian formerly known as Chang An.
Xian lies some 600 miles south-west of Beijing, indeed it is the furthest west of all the major cities in China. But it was the first capital of the unified China, and in the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220) it had around a million inhabitants, and vied with Rome for the being the biggest city in the world. Later in the Tang dynasty (AD 600 – 900) it became if anything even bigger, and it is to this later period that most attention tends to be concentrated. Today it is still a very major city with some 6 million inhabitants – a large though not a giant city by today’s Chinese standards.
It was here that China was first unified. In the Chou period, the Chinese late Bronze Age between 500 and 200 BC, six major kingdoms arose in the heartland of China and it was the westernmost of these, called Qin (Chin, from which indeed the name China is derived) that finally won out. This was due to China’s greatest Emperor, the Emperor Qin, who took his name from his country and gave it to his dynasty. He was born in 259 BC the son of the king of Qin, and became king himself at the age of thirteen on the death of his father. At first his mother and her accomplice became his regents, but at the age of 22 he took power for himself and set about conquering the other six kingdoms. In 221 he achieved his final victory and declared himself to be not King but Emperor, QinShiHuang, the first emperor of China. He is best known today for the terracotta warriors that were buried underground to guard his tomb, 30 km west of the actual town
He was both very cruel, burning books and burying scholars alive, but at the same time, very impressive, unifying weights and measures, establishing the bureaucracy that has held China together ever since. He spent the latter part of his life seeking the secret of eternal youth, but he died at the age of 50 and his succession was bungled. Thus the Qin Dynasty that he founded died out in 206 BC, and was replaced by the Han Dynasty – the equivalent of the Romans – who are essentially the successors to the achievements of Qin, after whom China is named.
But having it made himself the first emperor he then carried out reforms which, for better or for worse, established China as the supreme centralised state, and ensured its continuation for the next 2000 years. In part he was relying on the ‘legalistic’ philosophies which had sprung up in the last couple of centuries, which transformed Confucian thought with a ruthless practicality. There was a great effort at standardisation. Weights and measures were standardised, the width of carriages was standardised at 6 feet, the writing system was standardised by the adoption of the ‘Small seal script’, while coinage was also reformed with the old spade and knife coinage being replaced by round coins with square holes at the centre, the Ban Liang system.
The system of government was also reformed. What Marxist historians delight in calling the ‘feudal’ system was broken up, and China was divided into 36 commanderies or prefectures, to which governors were appointed by merit rather than by birth – a forerunner of the examination system that developed later. In order to break up the power of the old families, there was a vast transfer of population, with 120,000 rich provincial families being transferred to the capital. Huge works were undertaken; roads were built everywhere, the defensive wall to the north was rebuilt to form the ancestor of the Great Wall of China, a huge palace, the Apang Palace was built in his capital city in what is today the suburbs of Xian. Two million people were said at one time to have been devoted to construction works – nearly a 10th of the population – and harvests suffered. The only one of these works to have survived substantially is of course that part of his tomb known as the Terracotta Army, itself a huge undertaking, but only a part of his construction mania.
To keep control of his empire, reports were sent in from all over the country. These were written on bamboo strips and he had a certain weight of reports set aside for him to read every night. But he was suspicious of scholars and feared that they were using ancient writings to undermine his centralisation plans, and he therefore ordered the destruction of ancient records and all Confucian writing and there was a mass burning of books; 400 scholars were said to have been executed. This had the unfortunate consequence that future historians remembered him as the burner of books and executer of scholars, and later scholars therefore blackened his name. In particular Sima Qian, who a century later became China’s first great historian, wrote adversely about his works and thus the greatest of all China’s emperors has always had a somewhat controversial reputation in China.
The city of Chang-An
It must be said that to the archaeologist the city of Xian itself is a bit of a disappointment. As the city of Chang’An, it was in the Han and Tang dynasties the capital of China. It had over a million inhabitants and was probably the largest city in the world – as big as Rome had ever been, its only rival being possibly Baghdad. It was a very distinctive form of city too, because it was a ‘closed’ city. The huge area was divided up by broad avenues – the major ones more than 100 yards wide, the equivalent of a modern 14 lane dual carriageway. There was a bank and ditch at each side and the city was divided up into more than 100 ‘wards’, each ward being gated so entrance was only possible through the gate. There was a strict curfew morning and evening, and at night you had to be inside your ward. The day was regulated by the sound of the drums proclaiming the curfew; indeed for the poets of the time the drums were one of the major features of the city. There were two markets, the East market and the West market where trade was done – admittedly on a very large scale, for Xian was the end of the Silk Road. And at the north was the huge palace city, and beyond that, the Daming Palace itself.
(The big change from a closed city to the open city comes when the Tang dynasty breaks down and is followed by the period known as the Five Dynasties (907 – 960) when the walls eroded and shops began to encroach onto the road. In the following Song period (960 to 1279) the typical city is an open city as well illustrated by one of the most famous of Chinese paintings, Going up the River during the Qingming (Spring) Festival. This was painted by Zhang Zeduan, (1085 to 1145) on a long scroll 25 cm (10 inches) high and over 5 m long, displaying the progress through the streets of Kaifeng, by then the capital city of China.)
(Here is the scroll, courtesy of Wikipedia. It is a big file, and may take sometime to download. It appears as a very thin line; click on it to enlarge it, and then scroll along the whole length to see the whole city. But it is well worth doing, because this is one of the most famous of all Chinese paintings, and one of the most accessible to our modern European taste.)
The modern city
These however are the Ming walls of 500 years later (1370) and enclose a much smaller space than those of the huge Tang dynasty walls.
The walls are over 14 km long and very broad and it is possible to hire a bicycle to ride around – indeed it is very fashionable for the younger Chinese to hire a tandem bicycle to ride round the walls.
However these walls were only built in the Ming dynasty in the 14th century A.D.
and are only a fraction of the size of the original walls of the Tang dynasty city, and cover little more than the original Palace and administrative headquarters.
But this means that the two major surviving works of the Tang Dynasty, the two great pagodas, are both outside the city walls, though in the Tang town they were in the central core of the residential city. The two pagodas are known as the Big Goose Pagoda and the Little Goose Pagoda, of which we visited the Little Goose pagoda.
This was part of an extensive Buddhist monastery, originally founded in A.D. 652 as a university to study and translate Buddhist scriptures which had been recently been brought from India. Several of the halls of the monastery still survive and can be visited. The actual pagoda was built in 779 and has 15 levels or tiers. It is square, as is usual for the pagodas of this time, but it is built of brick rather than timber.
As this is in earthquake country, elaborate precautions were taken against earthquakes, building special foundations. Nevertheless a major earthquake in 1556 caused a major crack at the top and the loss of the topmost portion of the pagoda, though a subsequent earthquake actually shook it back together, reducing the cracks. It still survives.
Another major feature is the Bell Tower and the adjacent Drum Tower. The Bell Tower now lies at the centre of the city where it is a major traffic roundabout and it is best seen at night when it is gloriously illuminated. It was originally built in 1384 when the bells sounded the curfew but it was moved to its present position and enlarged in 1582.
However the most interesting part of Xian to the archaeologist is the Daming Palace. Xian was originally laid out on a rectangular grid system with the Palace – which included essentially all the bureaucrats and the civil servants in a large block to the North. However in 634 it was decided to build a new palace outside the city walls to the North East of the city. This new palace, called the Daming Palace, was huge – 1.6 miles long by nearly a mile wide surrounded by its own walls. At the end of the Tang Dynasty in 883 it was totally destroyed and the site lost, but in 1957 the site was rediscovered and excavations began. However this north eastern part of the city had suffered badly in the civil wars of the 1920s and so in the 1950s the government decided to clear the whole area and were persuaded to turn it into an Archaeological Park.
This has not been altogether a success. The main south gate, the Danfeng Gate, has been rebuilt, and a ‘museum’ houses a model of the whole site. But otherwise everything is at foundation level.
The elevated platform on which the biggest hall of all, the Hanyuan Hall stood, has been reconstructed: this was the Hall that dominated the outer courtyard, and was where foreign ambassadors were received. For the archaeologist, it makes a fine beginning, and some of the other sites have been marked out.
However from tourist point of view it is used mainly by the Chinese for kite flying. It is a huge site on which vast sums have already been spent, but one fears that more needs to be spent if it is to be comprehensible to the average visitor: how far should one go in reconstruction? It was opened with a considerable fanfare in 2010, but sadly, we were not taken to visit it on our tour.
What we were taken to see is what appears to be called the Great Tang All-Day Mall, a huge commercial development on the southern part of the city, part shopping centre but part theme park and part the Chinese equivalent of Las Vegas. To the north lies the Big Goose Pagoda, – too far away for us to visit – but to the east there is a lake – perhaps I should say water feature – known as the Furong Gardens, where a large concert hall has been constructed to one side.
The centrepiece of the development however is what is known as the Great Tang All Day Mall, which is the biggest new development in Xian, intended to be ‘the start point for economic growth of Xian’, and it does this in considerable style, and according to the guidebooks ‘Puts cultural clothes on Modern Commerce’. It is a pedestrian street 1500 m long and 500 m wide with shops of all sorts along the sides (not all of them at present occupied); but also a Concert Hall, Art Gallery and Theatre.
At the centre however is the Tang Culture Sculpture Group, a collection of nine groups of sculptures. At the centre is the Zhen Guan monument, in honour of Taizong, the second Tang Emperor (AD 626 to 646) who firmly established the Tang Dynasty and is considered to be the greatest of all Tang Emperors. He is shown riding his horse on top of a large pedestal surrounded by buglers, standard-bearers, drummers and court officials.
The highlight is what is known as Kai Yuan Square, honouring the other great Tang Emperor, Xuan Zong, the seventh Emperor (712 to 756). He is surrounded by over 50 figures and approach by a water feature with Dragon columns on either side.
It is spectacular, especially when seen at night, and it appears to be very popular. I would have preferred to have seen the Daming Palace, but it is fascinating to see how modern China is setting about integrating the modern with its spectacular historical past.