Chang'an, China - Capital of the Han, Sui, and Tang Dynasties

Chang'an, Internationally Renowned Eastern End of the Silk Road

The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, located in Xian, China, was built in the year 707 A.D during the Tang Dynasty
The Tang Dynasty Small Wild Goose Pagoda built in the Tang Dynasty in 707 AD is one of the few surviving buildings of Chang'an. Getty Images / Adrienne Bresnahan

Chang'an is the name of one of the most important and immense ancient capital cities of ancient China. Known as the eastern terminal of the Silk Road, Chang'an is located in Shaanxi Province about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) northwest of the modern town of Xi'An. Chang'an served as capital to the leaders of the Western Han (206 BC-220 AD), Sui (581-618 CE), and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasties.

Chang'An was established as a capital in 202 BC by the first Han Emperor Gaozu (ruled 206-195), and it was destroyed during the political upheaval at the end of the Tang dynasty in 904 AD.

The Tang dynasty city occupied an area seven times larger than the current modern city, which itself dates to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing(1644-1912) dynasties. Two Tang dynasty buildings still stand today--the Large and Small Wild Goose Pagodas (or palaces), built in the 8th century AD; the rest of the city is known from historical records and archaeological excavations conducted since 1956 by the Chinese Institute of Archaeology (CASS).

Western Han Dynasty Capital

At about AD 1, the population of Chang'An was nearly 250,000, and it was a city of international importance for its role as the eastern end of the Silk Road. The Han Dynasty city was laid out as an irregular polygon surrounded by a pounded-earth wall 12-16 meters (40-52 feet) wide at the base and more than 12 m (40 ft) high. The perimeter wall ran a total of 25.7 km (16 mi or 62 li in the measurement used by Han).

The wall was pierced by 12 city gates, five of which have been excavated.

Each of the gates had three gateways, each 6-8 m (20-26 ft) wide, accommodating the traffic of 3-4 adjacent carriages. A moat provided additional security, surrounding the city and measuring 8 m wide by 3 m deep (26x10 ft).

There were eight main roads in Han dynasty Chang'An, each between 45-56 m (157-183 ft) wide; the longest leads from the Gate of Peace and was 5.4 km (3.4 mi) long.

Each boulevard was divided into three lanes by two drainage ditches. The middle lane was 20 m (65 ft) wide and reserved exclusively for the use of the emperor. The lanes on either side averaged 12 m (40 ft) in width.

Main Han Dynasty Buildings

The Changle Palace compound, known as the Donggong or eastern Palace and located in the southeastern part of the city, was approximately 6 sq km (2.3 sq mi) in surface area. It served as the living quarters for the Western Han empresses.

The Weiyang Palace compound or Xigong (western palace) occupied an area of 5 sq km (2 sq mi) and was located in the southwestern side of the city; it was where Han emperors held daily meetings with city officials. Its principal building was the Anterior Palace, a structure including three halls and measuring 400 m north/south and 200 m east/west (1300x650 ft). It must have towered over the city, as it was built on a foundation that was 15 m (50 ft) in height at the north end. At the north end of the Weiyang compound was the Posterior Palace and buildings that housed the imperial administration offices. The compound was surrounded by a pounded earth wall. The Gui palace compound is much larger than Weiyang but has not yet been fully excavated or at least not reported in the western literature.

Administrative Buildings and Markets

In a administrative facility located between the Changle and Weiyang palaces was discovered 57,000 small bones (from 5.8-7.2 cm), each of which were inscribed with the name of an article, its measurement, number, and date of manufacture; its workshop where it was created, and the names of both the artisan and the official who commissioned the object. An armory held seven storehouses, each with densely arranged weapon racks and many iron weapons. A large zone of pottery kilns that manufactured brick and tile for the palaces was located north of the armory.

Two markets were identified within the northwestern corner of the Han city of Chang'An, the eastern market measuring 780x700 m (2600x2300 ft, and the western market measuring 550x420 m (1800x1400 ft). Throughout the city were foundries, mints, and pottery kilns and workshops.

The pottery kilns produced funerary figures and animals, in addition to daily utensils and architectural brick and tile.

In the southern suburbs of Chang'an were remains of ritual structures, such as the Piyong (imperial academy) and jiumiao (ancestral temples to the "Nine Ancestors"), both of which were established by Wang-Meng, who ruled Chang'An between 8-23 AD. The piyong was built according to Confucian architecture, a square on top of a circle; while the jiumiao was built on the contemporary but contrasting principles of Yin and Yang (female and male) and Wu Xing (5 Elements).

Imperial Mausoleum

Numerous tombs have been found dated to the Han Dynasty, including two imperial mausoleums, the Ba Mausoleum (Baling) of Emperor Wen (r. 179-157 BC), in an eastern suburb of the city; and the Du mauseoleum (Duling) of Emperor Xuan (r. 73-49 BC) in southeastern suburbs.

Duling is a typical elite Han Dynasty tomb. Within its gated, pounded earth walls are separate complexes for the burials of the emperor and empress. Each interment is centrally located within a gated rectangular surrounding wall and covered by a pyramidal pounded-earth mound. Both have a walled courtyard outside of the burial enclosure, including a retiring hall ( qindian) and a side hall (biandian) where ritual activities associated with the buried person were conducted, and where the individual's royal costumes were displayed. Two burial pits contained hundreds of nude life-sized terracotta figures--they were clothed when placed there but the cloth has rotted away. The pits also included a number of pottery tiles and bricks, bronzes, gold pieces, lacquers, pottery vessels, and weapons.

Also at Duling was a shared mausoleum temple with an altar, located 500 m (1600 ft) from the tombs. Satellite tombs found east of the mausoleums were built during the ruler's dynasty, some of which are quite large, many of them with conical pounded earth mounds.

Sui and Tang Dynasties

Chang'​an was called Daxing during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) and it was founded in 582 AD.

The city was renamed Chang'an by the Tang dyynasty rulers and served as its capital until its destruction in 904 AD. 

Daxing was designed by the Sui Emperor Wen's (r. 581-604) famous architect Yuwen Kai (555-612 AD). Yuwen laid out the city with a highly formal symmetry that integrated natural scenery and lakes. The design served as a model for many other Sui and later cities. The layout was maintained through the Tang Dynasty: most of the Sui palaces were also used by Tang dynasty emperors.

An enormous pounded-earth wall, 12 m (40 ft) thick at the base, enclosed an area of approximately 84 sq km (32.5 sq mi). At each of the twelve gates, a fired brick fa¸ade led into the city. Most of the gates had three gateways, but the main Mingde Gate had five, each 5 m (16 ft) wide. The city was arranged as a set of nested districts: the guocheng (outer walls of the city describing its limits), the huangcheng or imperial district (an area of 5.2 sq km or 2 sq mi), and the gongcheng, the palace district, containing an area of 4.2 sq km (1.6 sq mi). Each district was surrounded by its own walls.

Main Buildings of the Palace District

The gongcheng included the Taiji Palace (or Daxing Palace during the Sui dynasty) as its central structure; an imperial garden was built to the north. Eleven great avenues or boulevards ran north to south and 14 east to west. These avenues divided the city into wards containing residences, offices, markets, and Buddhist and Daoist temples. The only two extant buildings from ancient Chang'an are two of those temples: the Great and Small Wild Goose Pagodas.

The Temple of Heaven, located south of the city and excavated in 1999, was a circular pounded earth platform composed of four concentric stepped circular altars, stacked on top of one another to a height of between 6.75-8 m (22-26 ft) and 53 m (173 ft) in diameter. Its style was the model for the Ming and Qing Imperial Temples of Heaven in Beijing.

In 1970, a hoard of 1,000 silver and gold objects, as well as jade and other precious stones called the Hejiacun Hoard was discovered at Chang'an. The hoard dated to 785 AD was found in an elite residence.

Burials: A Sogdian in China

One of the individuals involved in the Silk Road trade that was so central to the importance of Chang'An was Lord Shi, or Wirkak, a Sogdian or ethnic Iranian buried in Chang'An. Sogdiana was located in what is today Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan, and they were responsible for the central Asian oasis towns of Samarkand and Bukhara.

Wirkak's tomb was discovered in 2003, and it includes elements from both Tang and Sogdian cultures. The underground square chamber was created in the Chinese style, with access provided by a ramp, an arched passageway and two doors. Inside was a stone outer sarcophagus measuring 2.5 m long x 1.5 m wide x 1.6 cm high (8.1x5x5.2 ft), lavishly decorated with painted and gilded reliefs depicting scenes of banquets, hunting, travels, caravans, and deities. On the lintel above the door are two inscriptions, naming the man as Lord Shi, "a man of the nation of Shi, originally from the Western countries, who moved to Chang'an and was appointed sabao of Liangzhou". His name is inscribed in Sogdian as Wirkak, and it says that he died at the age of 86 in the year 579, and was married to the Lady Kang who died one month after him and was buried by his side.

On the southern and eastern sides of the coffin are inscribed scenes associated with the Zoroastrian faith and in Zoroastrian fashion, the selection of the south and eastern sides to decorate corresponds to the direction the priest faces when officiating (south) and the direction of Paradise (east). Among the inscriptions is the priest-bird, which may represent the Zoroastrian deity Dahman Afrin. The scenes described the Zorastrian journey of the soul after death.

Tang Sancai Pottery Tang Sancai is the general name for a vividly color-glazed pottery produced during the Tang dynasty, especially between 549-846 AD. Sancai means "three colors", and those colors refer typically (but not exclusively) to yellow, green and white glazes. Tang Sancai was famous for its association with the Silk Road--its style and shape were borrowed by Islamic potters at the other end of the trade network.

A pottery kiln site was found at Chang'An named Liquanfang, and used during the early 8th century AD. Liquanfang is one of only five known tang sancai kilns, the other four are Huangye or Gongxian Kilns in Henan Province; Xing Kiln in Hebei Province, Huangbu or Huuangbao Kiln and Xi'an Kiln in Shaanxi.

Sources

  • Cui J, Rehren T, Lei Y, Cheng X, Jiang J, and Wu X. 2010. Western technical traditions of pottery making in Tang Dynasty China: chemical evidence from the Liquanfang Kiln site, Xi'an city. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(7):1502-1509.
  • Grenet F, Riboud P, and Yang J. 2004. Zoroastrian scenes on a newly discovered Sogdian tomb in Xi'an, northern China. Studia Iranica 33:273-284.
  • Lei Y, Feng SL, Feng XQ, and Chai ZF. 2007. A provenance study of Tang Sancai from Chinese tombs and relics by INAA. Archaeometry 49(3):483-494.
  • Liang M. 2013. Scenes of Music-Making and Dancing in Wall Paintings of the Tang Tombs in the Xi'an Area. Music in Art 38(1-2):243-258.
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  • Yang X. 2001. Entry 79: Imperial mausoleums of the Western Han dynasty at Xi'an and the Xianyang Plains, Shaanxi Province. In: Yang X, editor. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. New Haven: Yale University Press. p 237-242.
  • Yang X. 2001. Entry 117: Daxing-Chang'An Capitals and Daming Palace Sites at Xi'an, Shaanxi province. In: Yang X, editor. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. New Haven: Yale University Press. p 389-393.
  • Yang X. 2001. Entry 122: Hoard of Gold and SIlver Objects at Hejiacum, Xi'an, Shaanxi province. In: Yang X, editor. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. New Haven: Yale University Press. p 3412-413.