Danfeng Gate of the Tang Dynasty Daming Palace / Pinterest (Da Ming Gong 2009)

Ancient History: How Chinese Mapmakers Embellished the Organization of Imperial Capitals

Introduction to Ancient Chinese cities

Cities were a central feature of ancient Chinese culture. The Ancient Chinese designed their cities with important rules and goals in mind. Their rules and goals won’t likely be familiar to modern urban planners. We prioritize efficient movement, affordable housing, or hygiene. In contrast, the ancient Chinese followed native cultural principles.

Pleasing the gods

Urban layout was important for a ruler’s right to rule. Back then, politics meant religion. In order to please Heaven, rulers had to build their capital right. It had to be “cosmicized” and attuned to otherworldly forces and powers. Rulers chose temple locations with care. They used temples to improve connection with the divine. Rulers chose locations with geomancy, and astrology. Despite all this, there was no perfect city in Chinese history. There was an eternal battle between religion and geography.

The perfect capital

Many scholars find the ideal Chinese city in the Kao Gong Ji (考工記 – Records of Trade). It’s an ancient book of Chinese science and technology. It contains a diagram of an ideal Chinese city. The Chinese drew this diagram in the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE. The Kao Gong Ji later became part of the larger Rites of Zhou texts. Another name for this city is “King of Zhou’s city” (wangcheng).

Zhouli Kao Gong Ji wangcheng (ideal Zhou capital city, thought to depict the Western Zhou capital Luoyi" . Twitter (Bob Lehman)
Zhouli Kao Gong Ji wangcheng (ideal Zhou capital city, thought to depict the Western Zhou capital Luoyi” . Twitter (Bob Lehman)

Layers within layers

In the Kao Gong Ji, the ideal Chinese city has 12 gates. There are 3 gates on each side of a walled square. Each gate includes 3 gateways and streets running north-south and east-west. All the streets intersect to form grids in different parts inside the city. The streets run into a smaller, central square: the Palace City.

Many times, there was another walled square in between these two. In English, we call it the “Imperial City”. It was where government bodies and aristocrats worked and/or resided.

Everyone loved grids

There is something common to both Greco-Roman and Chinese cities: grid plans. Grids are a classic sign of rational urban systems. To ancient religions, the urban grid meant something different.

One example of grids in Ancient Greece was Piraeus. It was a port town connected to Athens via the Long Walls. The grid was first designed by Hippodamus (5th century BC). Aristotle later praised this design for its easier street movement.

On the other hand, Chinese rulers used city blocks as a means of control. Grid blocks allowed for more convenient census and curfew enforcement. They were in place since at least the first Qin Dynasty in 221 BC.

“Nearly perfect” cities

Any Chinese ruler would’ve had the ideal Zhou city in mind. But many times, they sidestepped the rules. Not even the Zhou Dynasty scholars who wrote the rules followed them. A perfect city would’ve cost an enormous sum. Only the richest and most powerful states could afford one.

Many designs which could contribute to general welfare weren’t put to use. One example of this was Mencius’ ideal scheme of land distribution. It reflected the design of important Chinese temples. Temples had twelve rooms around a sacred chamber. Mencius devised eight fields for eight families around a center field. All the tenants worked the center field, and paid its crops as tax.

Waste of ideas

In terms of ownership, Mencius’ farms differ from the Kao Gong Ji Zhou wangcheng. The king was the sole owner of the wangcheng center (the palace). In contrast, no one owned the center of Mencius’ fields. Politics and economics made these ideals unfeasible for the Chinese.

At times, geomancers made efforts to “correct” imperfect cities. These corrections helped give cities more feng shui harmony. Their efforts were usually case-by-case. Furthermore, they didn’t aim to idealize an established city. Later on, we can study a specific example of this.

It’s easier to go with the flow

In addition, some capital cities went through more organic growth than others. Scholars identify 3 different designs among historical capitals. They each followed the Kao Gong Ji plan with varying degrees of success.

1st stop: the central palace

The 1st type has the Imperial City and Palace in a concentric center. Beijing of the Ming-Qing Dynasties is a good example.

Ming-Qing Dynasties (1368-1912 AD) Beijing with walls, major streets, and important sites (note the concentric Imperial and Palace Cities) / Credit: Wikipedia
The Ming-Qing Dynasties (1368-1912 AD) Beijing with walls, major streets, and important sites. Note the concentric whole, Imperial, and Palace Cities) / Credit: Wikipedia

2nd stop: northern central palace

The 2nd type has the Imperial City and Palace in the northern center. Chang’an of the Sui-Tang Dynasties is a good example. Chang’an has received generous treatment in Chinese history. In the diagram below, we see that it had many features of the Zhou city.

For example, on 3 sides (except north) it had 3 gates. It then had 3 major north-south and east-west avenues running from these gates. Additional streets and avenues supplemented these main ways. In addition, there were a pair of markets, East and West. They were symmetric on the main north-south axis leading to Taiji Palace.

Always sunny in the rich man’s world

Elite spaces reserved by Chinese religion didn’t stop at the palace. Within the Chang’an palace and other places, the Empress had special gardens. In these spaces, she exercised her right to worship the Silkworm goddess. Many have observed that royals reserved much of Chang’an for themselves. Wang Pu, a later Song Dynasty historian noted this. “The two capitals (Chang’an and Luoyang) are the mansions of the Emperor”.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) capital "Chang'an" / Credit: Wikipedia
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) capital “Chang’an” / Credit: Wikipedia
Location of Chang'an (modern Xi'an) in modern China. / iLookChina
Location of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in modern China. / iLookChina

3rd stop: 1 city isn’t enough

Modern scholars call the 3rd type a “twin walled city”. We know at least 3 historical examples of this type. One example of this was “Xiadu” of the Yan state. This was during the Warring States period (476-221 BC).

The double-walled capital "Xiadu" of Yan, during the Warring States period. / Wikimapia
The double-walled capital “Xiadu” of Yan, China, during the Warring States period. / Wikimapia

Spiritual protection

Feng shui is integral to traditional Chinese architecture. The capital city was where heaven and earth synced in perfect harmony. Ancient Chinese city designers took precautions to ward off evil.

The above map of Beijing shows that the architects shrunk the northwest wall corner. The geography of that region likely didn’t make this necessary. The architects did this because the northwest was an “unlucky” direction.

Let’s not go in that direction…

In fact, the Ancient Chinese considered the north in general as unlucky. They related each cardinal direction to different properties. This is why traditional Chinese buildings have main entrances facing south.

The emperor placed his major halls along a north-south axis. Offices of different government branches stood east and west of this axis. The Forbidden City is a perfect example of this, captured in space and time.

Aerial view of the Forbidden City. The north-south axis is occupied by the most important halls. The eastern and western sections are occupied by office buildings and smaller palaces. / Curriculum Nacional
Aerial view of the Forbidden City in China. The north-south axis is occupied by the most important halls. The eastern and western sections are occupied by office buildings and smaller palaces. / Curriculum Nacional

If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

It’s possible that Ming rulers just wanted a shorter wall perimeter. It would’ve been easier to defend. In addition, part of the northwestern wall ran along a lake. This may have caused it to become crooked.

Beijing shows how the Chinese revised cities to uphold religious rites. It was important to maximize harmony between heaven and earth. Specific corrections such as this could help increase that harmony.

This is all for the greater good…

It all goes back to the belief that everything had a place in the universe. If something wasn’t in the right place, there was a time and way to correct it. The Zhou ideal became less important than periodic maintenance. This applied to everything, from a single house to the imperial city.

In addition, the Chinese didn’t build iconic buildings just for beauty. Instead, these buildings served apotropaic (ridding evil) purposes. Pagodas are a good example of this.

The Ming Dynasty built the Xi'an Bell Tower to
The Ming Dynasty built the Xi’an Bell Tower to “suppress its dragon energy”. This energy accumulated from all the dynasties which had capitals at Xi’an. / Wikipedia

Marketing your city

Many times, ancient mapmakers embellished imperial capitals. There are several reasons for why they did this. The Yuan Era (Mongol-ruled by Khublai Khan) embellished older cities.

Post-mortem painting of Khublai Khan in Chinese style. / Wikipedia
Post-mortem painting of Khublai Khan in Chinese style. / Wikipedia

They idealized Chang’an (Tang) and Bianliang (Song) to resemble the Zhou city. They drew Chang’an’s palace in the center. The real palace (Taiji Gong) was in the northern center. It’s possible that they planned these differences.

Yuan Dynasty depiction of Tang Chang'an (from the Yuan Henan Zhi) / JSTOR
Yuan Dynasty depiction of Tang Chang’an (from the Yuan Henan Zhi) / JSTOR

Winners make history

This action is readable from at least 2 perspectives. By Yuan times (1271-1368 AD), little remained of these cities. But their fame encouraged Yuan mapmakers to idealize them as Zhou cities. The Yuan also drew these cities like their own capital, Dadu (Khanbaliq). This city was the predecessor of Ming and modern Bejing.

Yuan Dadu (Khanbaliq). The later Ming city shifted the walls south, putting the Forbidden City closer to the center. / Wikipedia
Yuan Dadu (Khanbaliq). The later Ming City shifted the walls south, putting the Forbidden City in China closer to the center. / Wikipedia

Blending in

The Mongol Yuan Dynasty wanted to look righteous to its Chinese subjects. To do this, the Yuan built their capital, Dadu, with the Kao Gong Ji plan. Native Chinese rulers hadn’t followed that plan for millenia! By drawing Chang’an and Bianliang like Dadu, the Yuan drew themselves righteous.

Ghost Cities

All lumped together

There are other differences between Greco-Roman and Chinese cities. Chinese cities, built with wood, didn’t last beyond the dynasty which made them. “Chang’an” was the famed capital from the Qin to Tang Dynasties. In reality, the Chinese built many different “Chang’ans” in the western Wei river valley (Guanzhong region basin).

The historical sequence of capitals in or near modern Xi'an. / Wikipedia
The historical sequence of capitals in or near modern Xi’an, China. / Wikipedia

Between the Qin and Tang Dynasties, there was the long-lasting Han Dynasty. The Han capital by the same name lay in the same general location. In fact, its ruins lay just northwest of the Sui-Tang city.

A depiction of Tang Chang'an. The ruins of Han Chang'an are visible in the upper left corner. / Heritage of Japan Discovering the Historical Context and Culture of the People of Japan
A depiction of the Tang Dynasty Chang’an. The ruins of Han Dynasty Chang’an are in the upper left corner. / Heritage of Japan: Discovering the Historical Context and Culture of the People of Japan

Upon seeing these ruins, later emperors wept at the transience of power.

The humble ruins of the Tang Dynasty's Daming Palace. / Wikimedia Commons
The humble ruins of the Tang Dynasty’s Daming Palace in China (Xi’an). / Wikimedia Commons

Chinese vs. Roman urbanism

The idea of a deified, eternal city like Rome was unknown to China. In place of monuments, the Chinese found immortality in texts and potions.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of dynastic China. He was infamous for his tyranny. He was also known for obsessively consuming mercury in his quest for immortality. / Smithsonian Magazine
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of dynastic China. He was infamous for his tyranny. He was also known for obsessively consuming mercury in his quest for immortality. / Smithsonian Magazine

The many locations of “Chang’an” show the whim of ancient divination. We know the Chinese attached great importance to choices of site and layout. Alas, a combination of factors meant emperors couldn’t stay in one city.

To be sure, we’ve reviewed many prominent Chinese capitals. Chang’an is one of the most well-known examples. But it wasn’t the “navel”, like Rome’s Umbilicus Urbis. More than one city could serve as the capital. Different cities were important for different reasons. The Tang royals moved to and fro between 2 capitals, Chang’an and Luoyang. The economic hearts were cities like Yangzhou, Ningbo, and Guangzhou.

Map of the Tang Dynasty. The 2 capitals, Chang'an and Luoyang, are shown. / Wikipedia
Map of the Tang Dynasty in China. The 2 capitals, Chang’an and Luoyang, are shown. / Wikipedia

Why not just pick one?

Part of this was ideological. In Chinese religion, Luoyang was more important than Chang’an. Then, there were practical motives behind this. Merchants had an easier time shipping grain from the south via the Grand Canal. From the canal, Luoyang was easier to reach than to Chang’an. In addition, the Chinese built all major buildings out of wood. This meant their cities were, in both a spiritual and physical sense, mortal.

Despite these facts, Chang’an was still important in history. It was also the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

Tang Dynasty Luoyang was actually built as a miniature version of Chang'an. The fame of Chinese cities didn't lie in durable monuments, but in their memory. At the time, states in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Uighur Khaganate all modeled their capitals after Chang'an. / GlobalSecurity.org
Tang Dynasty Luoyang was actually built as a miniature version of Chang’an. The fame of Chinese cities didn’t lie in durable monuments, but in their memory. At the time, states in Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and the Uighur Khaganate all modeled their capitals after Chang’an. / GlobalSecurity.org
A model of Tang Dynasty Luoyang. / Christie Digital
A model of Tang Dynasty Luoyang in China. / Christie Digital

What archeology shows about China vs. Rome

In archaeology, Roman cities have vertical layering. We find newer settlements just above older layers. We find medieval Rome on top of classical Rome. In contrast, Chinese cities, like Chang’an, have scattered remains. Different dynasties left the ruins of their “Chang’ans” across a wider area.

The legacy of Chinese cities

This is different from “Alexandrias” founded by Alexander the Great. Each new Chinese dynasty wanted to reuse older bases of power. But geographic change and religion worked against this desire. Many times, new dynasties did reuse old capital cities. The Tang reused Sui Dynasty Chang’an. The Ming reused a lot of Yuan Dynasty Dadu. The last Qing Dynasty reused Ming Beijing.

In modern times, China’s metropolises engulf all remains of any city. In the area of Xi’an there lay the Qin, Han, Tang, and Ming cities. The Chinese historical conscience includes all across the ancient empires.

 

Works Cited

Erdberg – Consten, Eleanor von. “TIME AND SPACE IN CHINESE COSMOLOGY.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 1, no. 2 (1973): 120–31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29791062.
Hsueh, Meng-chi. “Horizontally Shifted and Vertically Superimposed Ancient Cities: Comparing Urban Histories of Chang’an and Rome.” ATHENS JOURNAL OF HISTORY 2, no. 2 (n.d.): 111–28. doi:10.30958/AJHIS.2-2-3.

Meyer, Jeffrey F. “‘Feng-Shui’ of the Chinese City.” History of Religions 18, no. 2 (1978): 138–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062583.

Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. “Why Were Chang’an and Beijing so Different?” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 45, no. 4 (1986): 339–57. https://doi.org/10.2307/990206.
Wright, Arthur F. “Symbolism and Function: Reflections on Changan and Other Great Cities.” The Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 4 (1965): 667–79. https://doi.org/10.2307/2051112.

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