It was Qinshihuang the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty who unified China into a centralized feudal monarchy in 221 BC. His dynasty was to be short-lived but by the time of its fall in 206 BC it already stood out as a milestone in the history of city development in ancient China.
Qinshihuang's capital in what is now Xianyang in Shaanxi Province was to set the scene for large-scale construction. His grand Epang Palace was burnt down and now lives on only in the historical records. But his mausoleum has lain all these years under an earthen blanket waiting patiently to reveal its mysteries.
Following in the footsteps of the Qin came the Western Han (206 BC-AD 25), Eastern Han (25-220), Sui (581-618), Tang (618-907) and Five Dynasties (907-960). They would each go on to build their own much acclaimed capitals. They gave the world Chang’an in present-day Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, Luoyang that retains its name in Henan Province and Jiankang in today’s Nanjing, Jiangsu Province.
Then during the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, many notable cities with well developed economies and cultures appeared in succession in the valleys of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River and also in coastal areas. There were:
• political centers like Xi’an, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Beijing
• foreign trade ports like Quanzhou, Fuzhou, Chaozhou, Ningbo, Yangzhou, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Shanghai
• hubs of communication like Wuhan, Xuzhou, Shenyang, Zhangye, Wuwei and Kashgar
• ethnic political and cultural centers like Lhasa, Huhhot, Yinchuan and Dali
• scenic spots and historical sites like Guilin, Chengde, Anyang, Dunhuang, Shangqiu, Qufu, Bozhou and Hui’an
• cities like Jingdezhen, Zigong and Datong famous for the skills of their craftsmen
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 many ancient city sites have been systematically excavated. The evolution of town planning across successive dynasties has been revealed through the orderly arrangement of their streets, lanes and compounds.
Cities of the Qin
A whole new era of city construction had been ushered in with the founding of the Qin Dynasty. According to the historical records, its resourceful and far-sighted first emperor Qinshihuang set up 41 prefectures and over 1,000 counties covering the whole country. This led in turn to the construction of large cities right across the nation.
The discovery in 2002 of ancient Liye City in Longshan County, Hunan Province has yielded important clues to the nature of this dynamic upsurge in city building. A walled city site occupying an area of some 20,000 square meters it has revealed three well sites and various architectural features of these ancient times.
Cities of the Han and the Six Dynasties
In 2000 archaeologists brought Yanglingyi City back to the light of day. It had lain undisturbed, sleeping below the ground for more than 2,000 years. The thousands of cultural relics unearthed here paint a picture of how it must have appeared in antiquity. Once during the reign of Emperor Jing (188-141 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty, it had been a key political center. Yanglingyi City managed to survive for some five to six hundred years and in its heyday it had a population of over 100,000.
A wooden sluice gate found in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province in 2001, turned out to be from the earliest urban drainage works ever found in China. This example of early civil engineering dated back to the days of the Western and Eastern Han.
Sacrificial altars came to light in 2000 in Nanjing the ancient capital of the Six Dynasties (222-589). The way they were laid out relative to the imperial palace was indicative of and a precursor to the much later Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth and Forbidden City in the Beijing of the Ming and Qing dynasties. This reflects a cultural consistency vested in the layout of the imperial capitals as they evolved throughout China’s feudal age.
Chang’an retained its position as the political, economic and cultural center throughout the Western Han Dynasty. Many years of careful archaeological excavations have revealed its regular blueprint. It was laid out to a rectangular plan with twelve gates opening onto eight east-west and nine north-south streets. The palace area was initially situated in the southwest of the city but would later expand beyond the confines of the city proper as it grew to be much larger than the residential quarter.
The chessboard pattern evolved from the time of Jin (265-420) to the Sui and Tang. Rudimentary versions of the layout appeared in two other early cities both located in Linzhang, Hebei Province. These were the Northern City of Yedu built in the Wei (220-265) and the Southern City of Yedu, which spanned the Eastern Wei (534-550) and Northern Qi (550-577).
As a mature representative of the model, the Chang’an of the time of the Tang Dynasty came complete with outer city, inner city, imperial city, lanes and marketplaces. The inner city and the imperial city were both situated in the north of Chang’an, orderly lanes ran to either side of them and also to the south of the imperial city. The two marketplaces were located to the southeast and southwest of the imperial city.
The prosperity of Chang’an in the Tang Dynasty relied heavily on economic support from areas to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Emperor Yang (560-618) of the Sui Dynasty had linked these territories to north China with the building of his Grand Canal.
Towards the middle period of the Tang, nomadic peoples from the north of China made large-scale incursions into the Central Plains. This is the historical and geographical term referring to the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Beijing sitting as it did astride the route to and from the hinterland, began to play a key role both militarily and politically. In 1272 Kublai Khan the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, officially established his capital in Dadu. This would later be known as Beijing. And so Chang’an came to be replaced as the country’s political center.
Luoyang has long been known as China’s “Underground Museum.” Since the remote Xia Dynasty (c.2100-1600 BC), Luoyang has played host to no fewer than 13 imperial capitals spanning a period of over 1,600 years.
The recently uncovered palace entrance in use in Luoyang in the Wei and Jin Dynasty displays a rich ceremonial flavor. Its shape, structure and underlying architectural technology have shed new light on the understanding of feudal China’s characteristic menque system. This featured city gates flanked by a watchtower on either side.
City construction entered a new stage of development during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). The capitals of previous dynasties had their imperial cities located in a corner like the Tang Dynasty Chang’an. But the capital of the Northern Song was to set a new trend because Dongjing in today’s Kaifeng city, Henan Province, had its imperial city right in the center. And how better to emphasize supreme imperial authority?
In its heyday, Dongjing boasted a population of over one million while contemporaneous London could claim just 50,000 or so.
According to the historical records, Dongjing had more than 6,000 stores open for business around the clock. Its biggest theatre was said to accommodate over 10,000. The city presented a vast panorama of prosperity with music and singing all through the night.
And this was one truly cosmopolitan city. People from Japan, Korea, India, the Arab world and the Byzantine Empire poured in to engage in trade or to pursue their studies. The Imperial College in Dongjing was then the biggest university in all the world. It attracted many students drawn from all parts of the country and from abroad.
Dongjing marked a clear turning point. For the first time in Chinese history, the capital had grown from a traditional seat of government into an all-encompassing multi-faceted city.
The Festival of Pure Brightness on the River, a scroll by the Northern Song painter Zhang Zeduan hangs today in the Palace Museum of Beijing. It serves as a pictorial testament to the historical flourishing of Dongjing.
As the Song gave way to the Yuan, open alleys gradually replaced the previously enclosed lanes. A layout of double city walls standing guard around a central imperial city began to take shape in the Yuan Dynasty capital of Dadu, on the site of today's Beijing.
Years of archaeological surveys and excavations have shown Dadu was regularly laid out in the Yuan. Its symmetrical arranged, east-west alleys ran perpendicular to the axis of the main north-south street. The Ming and Qing Dynasties that followed the Yuan retained the essential features of this earlier town plan as they went on to build Beijing City.
In 2002, a 600-year-old drain outlet was discovered at the base of Dadu city wall. It offered important tangible evidence that not only added to an understanding of the city's ancient drainage system but also provided one more piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the founding and development of Beijing City.
In 2001, Hongjiang was rediscovered in southwestern Hunan Province. This ancient port city was situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Yuanjiang and the Wujiang. It first emerged in the closing years of the Yuan, going on to develop into a thriving commercial port linking five provinces during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Covering an area of nearly 100,000 square meters, ancient Hongjiang had 15 old-style banking houses, 7 banks, 17 newspaper offices, 8 storehouses for tung oil, 10 grand guildhalls, 44 wharves, 30-odd opium dens and 40 brothels. Together with numerous temples, schools, trade fairs and official offices, they bear testimony to a past prosperity. Today more than 380 well preserved ancient wooden houses can still be found here.
According to the county archives, Hongjiang was famous for its trade in tung oil, wood, opium and white wax. But it was not to last forever. Hongjiang’s prosperity faded away as water borne trade was superceded by modern overland distribution networks.
Hongjiang has been recognized as a living specimen of embryo Chinese capitalism.
(China.org.cn, translated by Shao Da, May 15, 2003)