Archaeologists have been uncovering the secrets of China's lost cities. They tell the story of the evolution of the city in China from its distant roots in the Neolithic to a flowering that was to occur in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-221 BC).
The year 2000 was to see the discovery in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province of a township site of the Longshan Culture (c.2310-1810 BC). With its double encircling walls this find is further confirmation that the history of city building in antiquity can be traced back in China to the late Neolithic Age. The Longshan Culture is characterized by its burnished black pottery, examples of which were first unearthed in Longshan, Shandong Province in 1928. The Lianyungang site offers an insight into ancient building techniques through its finds of rammed earth foundations.
Of the 50 or so early city developments found in China to date, one in particular has attracted attention worldwide. Located in Xinmi County in Henan Province, this was an ancient Longshan township occupying an area of some 170,000 square meters.
Excavations here in 2000 brought to light substantial buildings with winding corridors together with the foundations of a majestic palace.
Another important source of archaeological evidence is the Lingjiatan site currently under excavation in Hanshan, Anhui Province. Dating back 5,500 years the long-buried Lingjiatan townsite covers a total area of some 1.6 million square meters. It was a scene of bustling activity in prehistoric times. Many architectural remains including magnificent palaces, shrines and the well laid out homes of the civil population have been unearthed here. The story they have to tell is made all the richer by finds of a cemetery, a moat, handicraft workshops and a marketplace.
China's earliest historical records to make reference to emerging city development relate to the Xia Dynasty (c.2100-1600 BC). One example to be found in The Annals of Wu and Yue brings us an account of Gun, the legendary ruler whose son set up the Xia Dynasty. He is on record here as “first constructing a city to protect the king and the people.” This important historical work by Zhao Ye was itself written rather later as it dates from Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220).
During the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC) that was to follow the Xia, more and more cities appeared as has been shown by modern excavations of the grand capital cities of these far off times.
First came the discoveries of Yinxu (capital of the late Shang Dynasty near Xiaotun village, Anyang city, Henan Province) and Shang City (capital of the early Shang Dynasty located in the downtown of Zhengzhou, Henan Province).
Then in 1983 archaeologists found the site of another city from the time of the Shang in Yanshi city, Henan Province. Foundations of massive palaces with an area of two million square meters were to be uncovered here. Based on the archaeological finds, researchers have suggested that the Yanshi city site might well be none other than the city of Xibo, famous in history as the 16th century BC capital of Tang, the founder of the Shang Dynasty.
Yet another Shang Dynasty capital came to light in 1999 in Anyang city, Henan Province with the excavation of 25 rammed earth palace foundations. Together they occupy an area of 16,000 square meters. The most notable of these came complete with a well-preserved plinth, gateway and steps and is the biggest of the period ever to be found.
The discovery of the Jinsha site in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province in 2001, indicates that Jinsha may have been the political and cultural center of the Shu State some 3,000 years ago. This regional kingdom was established on the ruins of the Sanxingdui civilization, which preceded it on southwest China’s Chengdu Plain. The site has yielded up over 2,000 cultural relics. The extensive Jinsha excavations cover an area of 3 square kilometers. They are proving to have much to contribute to research into the ancient Ba-Shu culture and are shedding new light on the decline and fall of the mysterious Sanxingdui civilization.
“A capital city should be square on plan. Three gates on each side of the perimeter lead into the nine main streets that crisscross the city and define its grid-pattern. And for its layout the city should have the Royal Court situated in the south, the Marketplace in the north, the Imperial Ancestral Temple in the east and the Altar to the Gods of Land and Grain in the west.” This description is taken from the Book of Diverse Crafts, a classic work on the science and technology of ancient China. It was compiled towards the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). The archaeological record shows that the model was to become the town-planning standard for the capital cities of the subsequent dynasties.
History records a flowering of thriving capital cities back in the Eastern Zhou. The dynasty is divided into the aforementioned Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). The kingdoms of the Eastern Zhou were destined to witness the chaos of many years of warfare.
Important capital sites of the states of these times include:
• Qi capital in modern day Linzi, Shandong Province
• Lu capital in Qufu, Shandong Province
• Chu capital in Jiangling, Hubei Province
• Yan capital in Yixian County, Hebei Province
• Zheng and Han capitals in Xinzheng, Henan Province
• Qin capitals in Fengxiang, Lintong and Xianyang, all in Shaanxi Province
Extensive excavations at these sites have shown that without exception, all walled cities of the period comprise an outer city around an inner palace compound. Typically the palace would be built to a commanding height so that it might better impose its control over the capital.
In 2000 in Longwan, Qianjiang city, Hubei Province, 19 rammed earth foundations including those of a huge palace of the Chu State were brought to light. Much interest has been aroused not least because surprisingly, Longwan turns out to be the only ancient city ever found in China whose town plan failed to follow the traditional symmetrical pattern as prescribed by the Book of Diverse Crafts.
The local topography has played a key role in the Longwan layout. Instead of being built along a formal north-south axis, the palaces, winding walkways and courtyards stand here and there and vary in height. The atypical town plan no doubt also owes something to the influence of the unique culture of the Chu State, which held sway over the middle reaches of the Yangtze River during the Warring States Period.
(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, April 28, 2003)