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The four great ancient capitals

In Shaanxi province’s Xi’an, natives have immense pride in their city’s rich history. “If Xi’an is the grandmother of all Chinese cities, Beijing is only a youngster and Shanghai is not even born yet,” goes a popular saying to celebrate its ancient origins.

The people of Luoyang in nearby Henan province have a favourite phrase too: “If you want to know 1,000 years of Chinese history, visit Beijing; if you want to know 3,000 years of Chinese history, go to Xi’an. Come to Luoyang if you want to know five millennia of Chinese history.”

Together with Beijing and Nanjing, the quartet are popularly known as “the four great ancient capitals” of China.

When Rome meets Chang’an

Rome wasn’t built in a day and nor was Xi’an – which was known as Chang’an during the Han Dynasty (see W for Wudi of Han). But according to another saying popularised by government officials, Xi’an has been the seat of power over the rise and fall of 13 dynasties.

Legends have it that ancient Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 BC. Around the same time – 771 BC to be precise – Xi’an was known as Haojing. Having served as the capital of the Western Zhou Dynasty for three centuries, it was destroyed by barbarians. That marked the beginnings of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, which made Luoyang its capital. Luoyang also lays claims to being the ancient capital of ‘13 dynasties’. According to the Records of the Grand Historian the Xia Dynasty (which ruled between 2,100 BC and 1,600 BC), had earlier set up its capital in an area near today’s Luoyang.

Yet for many, Xi’an’s legacy as the most important of the ancient capitals is indisputable. Partly that’s because of the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors there in the 1970s. This was an army to guard Qin Shi Huang – China’s first emperor – in the afterlife. After he had conquered his rivals he had made Xi’an his capital and it was also chosen by some of the strongest emperors in Chinese history, such as those from the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

At the height of its glory in the eighth century, or about 200 years after the fall of Rome, Chang’an (Xi’an) was described as the most affluent city in the world. Occupying some 84 square kilometres, it was three times bigger than the combined sizes of two other great cities of the era: Constantinople and Baghdad. It’s also thought to be the first city anywhere to reach a population of a million people. And it was cosmopolitan too: time-travel back to Chang’an at its peak and you’d find a diverse sprinkling of Persian and Jewish traders, Japanese students and Indian monks in this major Silk Road trading hub.

The glory of Xi’an began to fade after the Tang, as China’s centre of power moved eastwards. The victory of Khubilai Khan’s Mongol army in 1271 saw Beijing emerge as capital of the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted less than 100 years. It was toppled by the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), which was ethnically Han. The first Ming emperor (known as Hongwu) based his regime in Nanjing – it means southern capital (‘nan’ means south, ‘jing’ is capital). The second Ming emperor (Yongle) shifted his capital back to Beijing (the ‘northern capital’) where he built the Forbidden City in 1421. In the years that followed the capital occasionally shifted between the two cities (Nanjing was the seat of government as recently as the 1920s and 1930s). However, Beijing has served predominantly as China’s capital for most of the past 600 years, and exclusively so during the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Will China move its capital again?

Some historians argue that the mighty Tang Dynasty crumbled because Chang’an was unstable and overcrowded. A comparison might be drawn with the French Revolution of 1789 when Parisians overthrew the ruling regime and revolutionary fervour swept the country.

Chinese leaders are said to be acutely aware of their nation’s history lessons – one being the dangers of an overly large or dominant capital.

In recent decades, for instance, there were discussions about moving the nation’s capital to Wuhan, which is at the geometric centre of China (other cities also suggested were Chengdu, Chongqing, Nanjing and Xi’an). While the relocation plan never took off, the government has unveiled other plans to make Beijing a less congested place, with many of its existing functions to be diverted to Xiongan, a new city about 100 kilometres to the southwest. The idea was first announced in 2017 and it is closely associated with President Xi Jinping. Xiongan is being developed largely from scratch according to an eco-friendly blueprint that will see this new ‘smart city’ become three times bigger than Manhattan within a decade.

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