Chang’An (“Perpetual Peace”) is the name of one of the most important ancient capital cities of China. Known as the eastern terminal of the Silk Road, Chang’An is located in Shaanxi Province near Xi’An. The city was first constructed beginning about 200 BC at the behest of Emperor Gao Zu; it was destroyed in AD 904.
A wall encloses an area of approximately 84 square kilometers. Chang’An’s most striking building is perhaps the Temple of Heaven, a pounded earth platform of four concentric rings, built during the Tang dynasty. In 1970, a hoard of 1000 silver and gold objects, as well as jade and other precious stones called the Hejiacun Hoard was discovered at Chang’An.
Chang’An served as capital to the Han, Sui, and Tang dynasty leaders, but entered the greatest period of its development under the Tang dynasty (618-904).
At the height of its glory in the mid-eighth century, Chang’An was the most populous, cosmopolitan, and civilized city in the world, occupying some 84 sq. km. with around one million inhabitants. The poet Lu Zhaolin provided a vivid description of an imperial procession through the city:
Chang’An’s broad avenues link up with narrow lanes,
where one sees Black oxen and white horses,
coaches made of seven fragrant woods.
The emperor’s jade-fit palanquin sweeps past the mansions of princesses,
Gold riding whips in an unending train point toward marquises’ homes.
The dragon biting the jeweled canopy catches the morning sun,
The phoenix disgorging dangling fringes is draped with evening’s red clouds.
It suffered major damage during the An Lushan rebellion in the mid-8th century, but even toward the end of the Tang period, when the empire was in disarray, the “enormous size” of the city impressed an Arab visitor. The Tang period was one of the most noteworthy ones for the impact of Western products and fashions on Chinese elite culture, and the teeming markets of the capital played a significant role in the dissemination of such goods. Among the dominant figures at least under the early Tang (in fact their presence in China can be documented from several centuries prior to that) were Soghdian merchants from the region of Central Asia which encompasses today’s Samarkand.
The glory days of Chang’An were numbered. With the collapse of the Tang at the beginning of the tenth century, Chang’An decayed rapidly. However, it continued to play a role in the Western trade and experienced a revival under the Ming beginning in the late fourteenth century.
Chang’An City Planning
During the Tang dynasty, the city’ s population may have reached one million people, with some five hundred thousand inside the city walls and as many outside….Changan was a large city, with the outer walls stretching 9.5 kilometers (5.92 miles) long along the east-west axis and 8.4 kilometers (5.27 miles) along the north-south axis. Five meters (5 yards) high, these walls were made of pounded earth covered with bricks; they formed a perfect rectancle….
The layout of Chang’An was unconventional in some ways. The city designers, who, like the royal families they served, came from a mix of Chinese and Central Asian backgrounds, felt free to modify classical prescriptions about how a Chinese city should be built. Ancient texts described the model city as one surrounded by a square wall, with the emperor’s palace at the center of the city, the market to the north, and the temple to the imperial ancestors and the shrine of the earth to the south. One scholar has neatly summed up the logic of the plan: “The ruler, facing south in his audience hall, receiving his officials and conducting public business, literally turns his back on the market and thus symbolizes the lowly position which official ideology assigned to commerce.” …The Chang’An planners placed the palace flush against the north wall and allowed sufficient space for two markets to the south of the palace. The emperor and the imperial family lived in the palace in the north of the city; this was not open to the public, but almost everything else in the city was.