Chang An 长安, The City of Eternal Peace Part. 1 The Heart of the Empire

Music: Xian

Located near the modern city of Xian, Chang An, translated as the city of "Long Peace," or the city of "Eternal Peace" served as the illustrious capital of the Tang empire during China's Golden Age. Although ultimately it did not live up to its auspicious and infinitely- minded name, the city would remain vital to imperial China for nearly two millenniums. In this article we will examine the metropolis's heyday at the height of its cultural and geopolitical power; when it was the preeminent nexus of East Asia.

Even excluding Chang An's massive outlying imperial palace complex- which was already 4.5 times the size of the Forbidden City, the enclosed city itself was one of the the largest metropolises of the first millennium. It was the size of three Constantinoples: (9 sq mi,) and nearly equaled to the size of Baghdad (30 sq mi) during the early Islamic Golden Age.

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when China boasted over 1/4 of the entire world's population, Chang An was the imperial capital and the crown jewel of the empire. Chang An possessed a population of over a million in the eighth century, which made it the most populous city the world. It's walls covered an area nearly 32½ sq. miles. Roughly another million people lived in the greater metropolitan area outside the walls. According to the 742 census recorded in the New Book of Tang, 362,921 families with 1,960,188 persons were counted in Jingzhao Fu~ the: "imperial district" (京兆府), which included the metropolitan area and several outlying neighborhoods in the vicinity. It was also the most important metropolis in East Asia. The model of Chinese city planning and architecture would be emulated by nearly all of China's surrounding kingdoms.  


The strategic and economic importance of ancient Chang An was mainly due to its central position in the Chinese heartlands. All the roads leading to Gansu, Sichuan, Henan, Hubei and Shanxi all converged here. It was the five points of western China, and when one looks through the location through a geographic lens, one could appreciate it also as the last expanse of fertile Chinese grassland before the lands touched the steppe and the western deserts. It was the hinge and the veil between two worlds. Because of the strategic importance of this region, the area where Chang An would one day emerge was not unfamiliar of serving as the capital of an empire. 

The metropolises of the Silk Road and the giants of the 7-8th centuries. Chang An (right), Baghdad (lower left,) and Constantinople (upper left): The 3 metropolises of the 7th century marked: The Silk Road began at Chang An and leads westward through Central Asia to Baghdad and eventually ends at Constantinople

Even as far back as Neolithic times- this region was a heavily settled area, primarily because it was a lush but well cloistered stretch of fertile land boxed in and surrounded on all sides by formidable mountains, which provided a useful ring of shield against potential invading armies. Whoever controlled the hub of the region would not only have access to self sufficient agriculture but also a large pool of population that could easily defend the region should the need arises. It was a haven nestled between rings of natural walls. On top of these favorable factors it was simultaneously also close to the Yellow and Wei Rivers- thus had access to plenty of water for irrigation, most of all these rivers provided it an easy access to the empire's vast supplies and trade network. 

It should be noted that the ancient Kingdom of Qin which went on to conquer the 6 other kingdoms during the Warring States period and unite China was headquartered in this region. After the fall of the Qin state, the first incarnation of a great city known that would bear the name "Chang An" would be erected during the Han dynasty. The ancient city was established as a capital in 202 BC by the first Han Emperor, Gaozu (ruled 206-195.) By 1 A.D, the population of Chang An was already impressive and clocked near 250,000. With the Han expansion into the western regions and making contact with the various kingdoms of Central Asia and by extension- Rome, Chang An became a city of global importance for its role as the eastern end of the Silk Road. For nearly 400 years, the great city would act as one of the preeminent cities of Han China along with Louyang- both cities would variously serve as the capital of the Han. 


When the Sui dynasty reunited China in 581, Emperor Wen  (reigned 581-604) of the Sui dynasty sited a new region southeast of the much ruined Han Dynasty Chang An, determined to build an ambitious new capital there, which he called Daxing (大兴, “Great Prosperity”). Because before Emperor Wen established himself as Emperor he had been named Daxinggong lit. "Duke of Great Prosperity" in his early years, therefore, the city was named as an homage to him. It would be a massive metropolis whose scale was completely unimagined in the previous centuries, and it would be constructed from the ground up. 

In 582, Daxing was designed by Emperor Wen's famous architect Yuwen Kai (555-612 AD). Yuwen laid out the city with a highly formal symmetry that integrated natural scenery and lakes. Centuries later this very design would serve as a model for many cities across East Asia. To make his new capital a proper metropolis, Kai based it off the ideal of a royal capital based upon a mythical ancient ideal, the idea of a Wang Cheng 王城, or "King's City."

Conceptual model of a Wang Cheng 王城, or an ideal capital for a ruler. The nine-by-nine grid has led some scholars to suggest that the plan is based on the cosmological belief that the Earth is a square divided into nine sections- an extension of the 4 cardinal directions. This structure also resembled the magic square, a tool for divination. The design thus reflected the sovereign's influence and harmony over the various corners of a similarly gridded realm.

The idea of a Wang Cheng 王城, or an ideal capital for a ruler originates to the earliest of dynasties, the most influential study of an ideal layout for a royal capital was recorded in the Kaogongji (Artificers' Record) during the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-9 AD) and is thought to have been a copy for a much earlier lost scroll section dating all the way back to the Rites of Zhou created during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256BC). Further, the Rites of Zhou indicate that the origins of the most basic of urban planning philosophies in China are of even more archaic nature relating to concepts of geomancy, dating back all the way to the mythical days where the concept of Feng Shui was born and I Ching was first written.

The construction of this massive proposed new capital was preceded by a regional survey to ensure the flow of water, resources and a strategic location for reasons of health, natural balance and safety. For not only were the wards and the avenues planned out- but also the parks and various rivers that would cut into the city.

There are several cosmologically significant features of this basic urban outline, including cardinal orientation, square shape, (implied) centrality of the ruler’s palace, grid structure, and the prominence of the number nine. The nine-by-nine grid has led some scholars to suggest that the plan is based on the cosmological belief that the Earth is a square divided into nine sections. This structure is reproduced by the magic square, a tool for divination.

隋唐长安平面图: Gridded overarching plan of Sui Daxing- and Tang Chang An, reflecting the layout of a gridded 9 square pattern of the Wang Cheng 王城, or an ideal capital for a ruler. During the Sui- the capital of Da Xing did not have the trapezoidal Daming Palace ^ which jutted from the north eastern corner of the city as the Palace was finished during the reign of his son Gaozong.

Da Xing and its outer wall was expanded with an enormous pounded-earth wall, 12 m (40 ft) thick at the base, enclosed an area of approximately  80,000 hectare, or 84 sq km (32.5 sq mi). At each of the twelve gates, a fired brick constructed gate house led into the city. Most of the gates had three gateways, but the main Mingde Gate had five, each 5 m (16 ft) wide. The city was swiftly constructed, the wards and the Imperial Palace- City to the north of the city were built in only about 9 months. In the third year of Emperor Wen's reign (583), the Sui Dynasty's capital was officially moved to the new capital, and the Emperor and his court officially took up their residence there. In the coming decades, engineers would successfully drill an artificial canal, connecting the city to the Yellow River, and in turn, plugging the capital to the Grand Canal and enabled food from Henan and goods from various other corners of the empire to reach the capital by water. In this manner, Da Xing was also connected to Luoyang- the 2nd most important city of the empire by water

Daxing was renamed back to Chang An in 618 when the ambitious Duke of Tang, Li Yuan, toppled the Yang clan of the Sui dynasty and proclaimed himself the Emperor Gaozu of a new Tang empire. The outer layout of Sui era Da Xing was maintained through the Tang Dynasty: most of the Sui palaces were also used by Tang dynasty emperors while new ones- such as the Daming Palace was constructed to suit their needs. It was during the rule of the cosmopolitan and ambitious Tang that the city reached its zenith of prosperity, cultural and geopolitical influence. During the Tang the city would not only became the jewel of the empire but also the single most significant city of East Asia.

Music: The Eternal Chang An


Above: Map of Chang An during 710, Red circles indicates city guard garrisons, Bureaus of Defense as well as various imperial guard's quarters. The Daming Palace is the trapezoid shape on the north western portion of the screen that juts beyong Chang An's square design. 

A digital reconstruction of one of the wards of Chang An- each with its own wall, gates, and drum towers. In total, Chang An possessed 108 wards of roughly similar sizes. The height of the walls enclosing each ward were on average 9 to 10 ft (3.0 m) in height


This new Chang An was laid out on a north-south axis in a grid pattern with the main entrance facing the south. There were caravansaries and inns outside the city to facilitate trade from the Silk Road. The entire city enclosure composed of 108 walled and wards and featured two great market squares which laid in the east and west respectively. Each of  Chang An's 108 walled and gated wards were much larger than conventional city blocks seen in modern cities, but rather, each was the size of several modern city blocks as even the smallest ward had a surface area of 68 acres and the largest ward had a surface area of 233 acres (0.94 km2.) Each wards not only contained residences, but offices, markets, and sometimes Buddhist and Daoist temples. 

The massive courtyard of the Tang Daming Palace itself was something still astounding to the modern mind, boasting an area of roughly 120 Hectares (of the 350 Hectares Palace), this square of the outlying trapezoidal palace alone was larger than the modern Tienanmen Square, itself being one of the largest squares in the modern world. The Daming Palace was also 4.5 times the size of the Forbidden City.

The imperial clan's last name of Li

Tang Chang An covered some 8,600 hectares (c. 21,250 acres) and was enclosed within 5.3-metre high walls made of packed earth which had gates on each side, the main one being the South Gate. of the nine sections of the city the north was occupied by the Sui-era palace while the other 8 were subdivided into walled wards. 

There were wide avenues and streets - 11 running from north to south and 14 from east to west - which were tree-lined and had ditches along their sides for drainage. The sheer size of the city (8,600 hectares) was only surpassed by most cities like Paris in the 20th century. 

There were wide canals for boats and grain barges too, to better facilitate the movement of goods from as far as modern Beijing at the northern most point of the Grand Canal and the Yangtze Valley and Hangzhou to the south. Certain areas of the city were dedicated to specific purposes such as manufacturing, commerce, and religion, others were specially designed as parks and private residential estates.

The Japanese built their ancient capitals, Heijō-kyō (today's Nara) and later Heian-kyō or Kyoto, modeled after Chang An in a more modest scale yet they were never fortified. Modern Kyoto still retains some characteristics of Sui-Tang Chang An. Similarly, the Korean Silla dynasty modeled their capital of Gyeongju after the Chinese capital. Sanggyeong, one of the five capitals of the state of Balhae, was also laid out like Chang An. The Tang white plaster and red beam style would not only be imitated and adopted into the very fixtures of Japanese and Korean architecture but on a cultural level, the city became a nexus of commerce and pilgrimage for much of East Asia's learned princes and sages. Ambitious people who sought new opportunities were drawn from all over China to Chang An and included many immigrants, lured by the great commerce of the city. All manner of goods from furniture to spices were traded in the city’s two great marketplaces.

In this manner, East Asia, and the Asian world turned toward Chang An.  

With regular tree-lined avenues, high walls, pleasure parks, and areas dedicated to specific functions, it provided a model which was copied by other Asian capitals, notably in Japan and Korea.



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T. G. said…
anyway, what's that picture about? looks like they were dating, or perhaps the man was courting the woman.

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