Chang'an, the capital of the pie city (618-907), was world-famous for its huge scale and careful city planning. From the 7th to the 9th century Changan was an important world trade and cultural centre which contributed much to the exchange and development of ancient civilizations.
Situated in the center of the fertile Guanzhong Plain, Changan included what is now Xi'an and several nearby towns. The great Tang capital lay south of the famous Weishui River, north of the Zhongnan Mountains, east of the Fenghe River, and west of the Bashui and Chanshui rivers. Mild climate, rich resources and attractive scenery made the Guanzhong Plain an economic center in ancient China.
Eight centuries earlier, in 221 B.C., the first national feudal state was founded by Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of Qin, upon his unification of China. Xianyang, the Qin capital, was located on the north bank of the Weishui River. Fourteen years later (207 B.C.) the Qin empire collapsed and that of Western Han was established with its capital, Changan, built south of the Weishui River. This was the first mention of the name Changan in history. In A.D. 25, the capital was moved to Luoyang by Eastern Han. Some 200 years later, state power in China was again decentralized with the downfall of Han and it was not until A.D. 581 that China was reunited under the Sui Dynasty, which located its capital southwest of the ruins of the Western Han capital Changan. Yang Jian, or the Emperor Wen Di of Sui, entrusted its planning and construction to Yuwen Kai, a celebrated architect of the time. Work began in A.D. 587 and was speedily completed, the royal family and officials moving into the new palaces of the capital, named Daxing City, the following year. Daxing covered the unprecedentedly vast urban area of 84 square kilometres, seven times that of present Xi'an, which was built after 1368, during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Daxing, renamed Chang'an, was made the capital of the Tang Dynasty at its founding in A.D. 618, from which time the only changes in the layout of the city have been minor alterations or expansions. However, the city grew in wealth as the Tang Dynasty prospered. Surpassing the Sui Dynasty in economy, culture, and foreign trade,Chang'an soon joined the ranks of the world’s largest and richest cities. Tang Dynasty Chang'an has remained an object of international scholarly interest for its planning, construction and administration, and much research has been done in these fields.
Palace and Imperial City
The construction of Chang'an started with the Palace, extended to the Imperial City and ended with the Outer City. The Palace, or royal residence, was situated midway of the northernmost part of Chang'an city. Archaeological surveys show it to have been 2,820 metres from east to west, 1,492 metres from north to south, and 8,600 metres in circumference. History records that the Palace walls were 35 chi [Chi in the Tang Dynasty was 0.294 metre.] (10.29 metres) high, the Palace itself being separated by inner walls into three parts. The western part, called Yeting Palace, was where the palace maids learned their various arts. The eastern part, or Eastern Palace, was where the crown prince lived and attended to state affairs. The middle part was called Daxing Palace in the Sui Dynasty, and renamed Taiji Palace in Tang. It was also known as the Western Imperial Palace and the Principal Palace. This included several main halls where emperors lived, conducted state affairs and received officials. The principal throne room was called Taiji Hall. To its north were the Liangyi and Ganlu halls and a score of other palace buildings. The largest southern gate to the Palace was Chengtian Gate. This and Zhuque Gate of the Imperial City and Mingde Gate of the outer wall all lay on the capital’s central axis. North of the Palace were the Xuanwu and Anli gates leading to the Western Forbidden Garden.
Daxing Palace (Taiji Palace in Tang times) is the only palace we have from the Sui Dynasty. Two more palaces, Daming Palace (or Eastern Imperial Palace) and Xingqing Palace (or Southern Imperial Palace) were built in the Tang Dynasty, the three royal architectural ensembles being known as the Three Imperial Palaces.
Daming Palace became the place where emperors attended to state affairs with the ascension to the throne of Li Zhi, the Emperor Gao Zong of Tang. The principal throne room was Hanyuan Hall, where important state ceremonies were also held. North of Hanyuan Hall were the Xuanzheng and Zichen halls, where emperors conducted state affairs. And there were 30 other buildings including the Yanying and Linde halls in the Daming Palace. The spacious Linde Hall was where the emperor received foreign envoys and feasted bevies of officials. Excavated remains of Darning Palace mark it as a masterpiece typical of Tang Dynasty palace architecture.
Li Longji, Prince of Jin, who mounted the throne in 713, made a palace of his former residence at Xing Qing Fang in the second year of the Kaiyuan reign (A.D. 714) and called it Xingqing Palace. Expansion of the former residential halls into a number of throne halls began in 726 and was completed two years later.
South of the Palace, the Imperial City, also known as Zicheng, i.e.. Smaller City, was occupied by the various central government ministries and other offices. Zicheng is 2,820 metres from east to west, the same width as the Palace, 1,843 metres long and over 9,000 metres in circumference. There were three gates on the southern side of the Smaller City, with Zhuque Gate in the centre, and An-shang Gate and Hanguang Gate to the east and west respectively. In the eastern wall of the Imperial City were the Yanxi and Jingfeng gates, while in the western wall were Anfu Gate and Shunyi Gate. Five north-south and seven east-west thoroughfares formed a rectangular grid system of streets inside the Imperial City. The northern-most east-west street ,which lay between the palace and the Imperial City, was known as Hengjie, i.e.. Cross Street. History records that Hengjie was a boulevard 300 bu [Bu in the Tang Dynasty was 1.47 metres.] or 441 metres in width, though excavations reveal it to have been narrowed down later to 220 metres. The widest boulevard in the capital, the section of the street in front of Chengtian Gate was used as a public square where important outdoor ceremonies were held.
It was an innovation of the Sui planners to place the Palace and the Imperial City at the northern end of the central axis of the capital instead of putting them among commoners’ living quarters as in capitals of former dynasties. The definite detachment of the royal from the common was obviously done in consideration of the rulers’ safety. The co-axial series of walled enclosures, with the Palace and the Imperial City on the central axis, symbolized the supreme authority of the feudal ruler.
"Chess Board and Vegetable Plots"
The Outer City was also known as Luocheng, i.e.. Greater City. which bordered on the east, south and west sides of the Imperial City. The Outer City was a perfect rectangle. On excavation, the east-west dimension was found to be 9,721 metres and that north-south 8,651 metres. The four sides of the Outer City had a total length of some 36.7 kilometres, the walls being six metres high. There were a dozen gates altogether, three on each side. Since the middle section of the northern wall bordered the Palace, the three gates in the north wall were west of the Palace. Each gate had three doors except for Mingde Gate which had five. The left door was for entrance and the right for exit. This conformed to the regulation that traffic kept to the right, as every street was two-way. Eleven streets ran north-south, and fourteen east-west. The street constituting the central axis of the capital was the famous Zhuque Street, 150 metres wide. All other streets leading to the gates were more than 100 metres in width, while those along and inside the city walls were at least 25 metres.
There were drainage ditches on both sides of the street. Those along Zhuque Street were 3.3 metres wide and 2.1 metres deep. Since they were open ditches,a bridge was necessary at every crossing. The ditches were flanked by neat rows of trees. Straight boulevards shaded by abundant trees added to the grandeur of Chang'an.
The rectangular grid system of Streets divided the capital into wall-enclosed blocks, each of which was called a li (ward) in the Sui Dynasty and fang in Tang. The fang flanking the Imperial City had in their four walls central openings joined by intersecting streets. There were also alleys and narrow streets along and inside the walls. Many princely or high official residences and temples were built amidst common houses in the fang. But the privileged lived either in prosperous districts within short distances of the Palace, ministries and markets, or in scenic areas.
There were many temples in Chang'an, nearly every fang having at least one Buddhist or Taoist temple and some having three or four. There were also places of worship built and frequented by merchants or travellers from Persia and other foreign countries. The temples in the capital were large and magnificent. Among the most famous were Xingshan Temple in Jingshan Fang and Xuandu Monastery in Chongye Fang, both along Zhuque Street and both centres for excursions. Qinglong Temple, which propagated the Buddhist esoteric doctrine, was situated in Xinchang Fang inside Yanxing Gate in the southeastern part of the capital. This temple was remarkable for its elevated, beautiful surroundings. Two Japanese priests, Kukai and Ennin, studied there and later returned to Japan as masters of the esoteric doctrine in Japan. Pagodas were important in Buddhist construction, and Dayan Pagoda in Cien Temple and Xiaoyan Pagoda in Jianfu Temple still fascinate sightseers today.
Every fang was furnished with a number of small shops for daily necessities such as food and drink. There were also inns and handicraft workshops. For instance, in Jinggong Fang there was a lane named Zhanqu where felt goods were manufactured and advertised.
In other words, each fang was an independent small “city”, over a hundred such “cities” separated by walls and shaded boulevards making up the Tang capital. Bai Juyi (A.D. 772-846), noted poet in the Tang Dynasty, writes of the city layout thus:
Crossed like lines on a chessboard the boulevards and streets,
Neat are a hundred wards quite like vegetable plots.
The two big shopping centres in Chang'an were East Market and West Market, called Duhuishi (Metropolitan Market) and Lirenshi (Profit-Makers’ Market) in the Sui Dynasty. The two busy markets were both on Zhuque Street. East Market displayed products of 220 trades, mostly valuable items and curios. West Market was even more prosperous with its shops selling clothing, spun silk fabrics, balances for weighing, fodder, and leather horse trappings. Most of the foreign merchants from the western regions traded at West Market. Business at both markets was conducted under the supervision of government offices — Shishu (Bureau of Commerce) and Ping-zhunju (Bureau of Standards and Price Stabilization).
The four main streets crisscrossing the two markets divided each into nine rectangular areas accommodating nine different trades, with metre-wide aisles within. Some of the aisles had brick-lined covered sewers beneath that led to the open ditches along the streets. Since most business was done at these two markets, large crowds gathered, and the two sites served also as recreation centres for Chang'an’s inhabitants.
Handicraft industries flourished in Changan. Besides the workshops run by the government, there were many that were operated by individuals in the fang.
Waterways in Changan
Several canals were dug to carry water for washing (drinking water came from a network of wells in the fang), drainage, boating, afforestation and improvement of local climate. Two streams were led in from the south. The one from the Jiaoshui River was called Yongan Canal. This meandered by West Market on the east and flowed out through the northern city wall into the Forbidden Gardens, to empty finally into the Weishui River north of the capital. Both banks were green with willows. The canal from the Xueshui River, known as Qingming Canal, lay east of Yongan Canal and flowed west of Anhua Gate (west gate in the south city wall) into the city, then on northward into the Imperial City and Palace, It ended in Three Seas (actually man-made lakes) west of Taiji Palace.
A canal was dug to lead the Chanshui River water westward, and this was called Longshou Canal, or Dragon Head Canal. This canal soon forked, one branch flowing through the east city wall near Chunming Gate, then turning north and flowing into Qing-xing Palace and swelling into Dragon Lake. It then flowed further westward into the Imperial City, turned north into Taiji Palace and again expanded into Shanshui Lake. It then , proceeded further northward into one of the Three Seas — East Sea. The other branch flowed north outside the city, passed the northeast corner of the city wall, then turned west into Eastern Forbidden Garden in Daming Palace where it broadened into Longshou Lake. This fork flowed westward through Daming Palace into Western Forbidden Garden, continuing along the city wall till it joined Yongan Canal near Guanghua Gate.
The canals were first dug in the Sui Dynasty to lead water to the royal gardens for ornamental rivulets, screens, pools, torrents and cascades. The abundant water supply inspired urban aristocrats, bureaucrats and wealthy merchants to follow suit and indulge in private garden construction with water as the leitmotif. These private gardens soon became favourite pleasure haunts for officials and scholars. In the first year of the Tianbao reign (A.D. 742) in the Tang Dynasty a navigation canal was built to lead a branch of the Jueshui River eastward through the west city wall near Jin-guang Gate. The canal flowed by West Market and ended in a large pool alongside the street bordering the Market on the east. Charcoal and timber from the Zhongnan Mountains were carried to the capital in ships on the canal.
Rise and Fall of Changan
Planning and construction of Daxing started in the Sui Dynasty, after China was unified for the second time.
When construction of Daxing as the Sui capital was completed, it Was one of the world’s biggest cities. The planning was far-sighted, comprehensive and carefully carried out in scheduled steps. A complex of factors had to be considered such as topography, water resources, tree planting, communications, defence, city administration and urban economic life. The original plan, as shown from remnants found of it, foresaw and solved various problems of the capital of a newly unified feudal state, a feat impossible without a high degree of national culture and technology. The plan encompassed over a thousand years’ rich experience in capital designing, especially that gleaned in building Luoyang in the Eastern Han Dynasty (A.D. 25-220), Yecheng in the Kingdom of Wei (A.D. 220-265), and Luoyang again under the Northern Wei Dynasty (A.D. 386-534). The Sui capital thus benefited from ancient Chinese city designers’ accumulated wisdom over the centuries.
Changan in the Tang Dynasty reached the zenith of feudal grandeur. The city was world-famous for its majestic layout, magnificent buildings, neat blocks of urban districts, straight boulevards, green trees, clear water, dense population and dazzling display of Chinese and foreign goods. It became almost a paragon of prosperous economy and splendid culture which won the admiration of many neighbouring countries. Its highly developed handicraft industries and commercial system supported a complex of brisk, sophisticated urban activities. Changan in the Tang Dynasty was the finest but also the last national capital composed of walled urban districts.
But within the prosperity of Changan lurked the factors of its downfall.
Behind these vermilion gates meat
and wine go to waste, But along the road are bones of
men who have frozen to death.
These unforgettable lines of Du Fu (A.D. 712-770) bespeak the cruelty behind the facade of a feudal capital in full flush. The peasant rebellion led by Huang Chao and others was to shake the rule of the Tang emperors to its very foundations. Chang'an began its decline, and at the beginning of the 10th century this great capital was laid waste amidst the turbulence of civil strife.