• Chinese: 長安 (Chang'an)

Chang'an, today called Xi'an, was the capital of China during the Han, Sui and Tang Dynasties. It is located in northwestern central China, just across the Wei River from the Qin Dynasty capital of Xianyang, and west of the prehistoric site of Banpo. The city's layout, meant to mirror the organization of the cosmos and to have powerful cosmological or geomantic effects, served as the model for many later Chinese capitals, and the cities of Heijô-kyô (Nara), Heian-kyô (Kyoto), and Fujiwara-kyô in Japan, as well as royal capitals of Korea.

Over the centuries, the city fell and was recovered several times; the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) and Huang Chao Rebellion of 880 were perhaps the most significant of these uprisings. The city was also attacked annually by Tibetan raiders in the 760s-780s, with the raids continuing at lessened frequency into the 9th century. The city was destroyed in the overthrow of the Tang in 907, and never again served as the Imperial capital. Many of the palace buildings were at that time floated down the river to be incorporated into the reconstruction of Luoyang.

Considerably diminished in size, the city was renamed Xi'an during the Ming Dynasty, and today is one of the few major cities in China to retain its traditional gridded layout. The walls of the Ming Dynasty city, recently rebuilt with significant Japanese financial support, enclose an area roughly the same size as the Tang era Imperial City alone (although shifted eastwards somewhat from the original location of the Tang era Imperial City).


Han Dynasty

The Imperial capital at Chang'an was organized around the Changle Palace, built atop the former site of a Qin Dynasty secondary palace, known as the Xingle Palace, and located just across the Wei River from the former site of the chief Qin Imperial Palace.

Imperial palaces occupied more than half the city, and included a series of covered bridges which allowed the Emperor and members of his Court to travel from one palace to another unseen by people on the streets. The Imperial residence and audience hall were housed in a structure known as the Weiyang Palace, constructed immediately to the west of the Changle Palace. Both buildings were made in wood, around solid earthen cores. Another similar set of Imperial structures were built a short distance to the west, at what is today Shanglin Park, along the shores of a manmade lake known as Kunming-chi, and meant to represent the world's oceans.

Main article: Mingtang

Whereas the Qin capital was meant to represent a microcosm of the empire, the Han capital (and the Sui & Tang ones which would succeed it) were designed to represent a model of the cosmos. One of the most significant structures in this symbolic scheme was a ritual hall known as the Mingtang ("Bright Hall"), encircled by a moat known as the Biyong ("Jade Ring Moat"). The square inscribed within a circle this formed is among the most classic and fundamental elements of the classical Chinese conception of the cosmos; this provided a profoundly symbolic ritual space within which the Emperor, regarded as the axis between Heaven and Earth, symbolically surveyed the entire realm, and performed numerous rituals aimed at maintaining the cosmic order.

Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty Chang'an was located a short distance southeast of its Han Dynasty incarnation. Encompassing roughly thirty square miles not including the palace, Chang'an is said to be quite possibly the largest ever planned city, and the largest walled city. At its height, the city may have been home to as many as one million people, roughly half of whom would have lived within the city walls proper,[1] though other sources give a figure twice as high;[2] the latter is a number which equals the population of Beijing or Edo of a thousand years later (in the mid-18th century), and dwarfs the size of even the most major of European cities of the 18th century, let alone European cities of its own time.

Its earthen, brick-covered city walls, five meters high, formed a rectangle roughly 8.4 km from north to south, and 9.5 km from east to west. Within the walls, the city was divided into one hundred districts, separated from one another by high walls and gates which were sealed overnight, in observance with a curfew imposed upon the residents. This organizational pattern allowed the government to much more easily maintain registers of the number of families living in each district, and to tax them accordingly. Drum towers spaced throughout the city announced the hours, and soldiers on horseback patrolled the streets, especially at night, to enforce the curfew.

In earlier periods, the ideal Chinese capital was said to have had the Imperial palace at the center, facing south towards the city's chief temple, and with its back to the main marketplace, to the north, thus symbolizing the disdain for commerce held in Courtly elite culture and attitudes. The Sui and Tang Dynasties, however, were strongly influenced by Turkic and other Northern and Central Asian cultures, and organized their capital of Chang'an in a somewhat different fashion. The Imperial City, including the chief administrative districts, was at the east-west center of the northern wall, facing south, with the northern city wall forming the rear of the Imperial City. Two one-kilometer-square marketplaces were located in the centers, respectively, of the eastern and western flanks of the city. This basic model, with the Imperial City and markets located in this way within a near-perfect street grid, and a central boulevard running south from the southern gate of the Imperial City, dividing the city in half, east and west, served as the model for many later Chinese and Japanese capitals. This central boulevard was five hundred feet wide, roughly equivalent to forty-five modern traffic lanes.[3] One key difference, however, is that in these later capitals, the Imperial Palace was located within the Imperial City, at the center of the city's east-west axis, up against the northern wall, facing south. At Chang'an, by contrast, the Palace was located just outside the rectangle of the city walls, to the northeast, with the northern wall of the city forming the southern wall (and gates) of the palace complex.

Nearly one hundred Buddhist temples and numerous Taoist temples and shrines were scattered throughout the city, while a number of Syrian Nestorian churches, Persian Zoroastrian and Manichean temples, and Muslim mosques, were clustered in the foreign quarters around the Western Market. Some scholars estimate that as many as one-third of the city's inhabitants were of a non-Chinese ethnic background, including as many as 8,000 Koreans in 640, and some number of Persians, Syrians, Indians, and Arabs.[4] While the Western Market was the center for imported foreign goods, the Eastern Market featured domestic or local goods, including salt, wood, tea, silk, grain, horses, slaves, wine, and precious materials such as jade and jewels. The Eastern Market was also home to many of the city's houses of prostitution.

The majority of the city's buildings were built in wood on earthen foundations, and none survive, with the exceptions of the brick Little Goose and Big Goose Pagodas (the Tang Dynasty earthen city walls are likewise no longer extant). Tang Dynasty Imperial architectural styles survive, however, in many of the oldest and most famous buildings in the Japanese city of Nara.


  • Ching, Francis D.K. et al. A Global History of Architecture. Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons (2011), 219-220.
  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 203-205, 209.
  1. Hansen.
  2. Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 108.
  3. Schirokauer, et al, 109.
  4. Schirokauer, et al, 110.