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).
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.
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”.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Upon seeing these ruins, later emperors wept at the transience of power.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meyer, Jeffrey F. “‘Feng-Shui’ of the Chinese City.” History of Religions 18, no. 2 (1978): 138–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062583.