Ancient Weiyang Palace: Exemplifying Han Dynasty Splendor
Today it is in ruins, but Weiyang Palace was once the largest palace complex on earth. The few remains you can see now bear silent witness to the splendor and grandeur of the Han Dynasty monument that once occupied the area.
Weiyang Palace is an imperial palace complex that was built in ancient China. Although this palace complex was commissioned during the Han Dynasty, it was in use by several other Chinese dynasties as well. Eventually, however, Weiyang Palace lost its importance and ceased to be used by the Chinese emperor and his court. It was razed to the ground and all that remains today are archaeological ruins.
Historic site of Weiyang Palace. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Everlasting Happiness Has Yet to Reach its Midpoint
The name of this ancient palace complex, ‘Weiyang’ may be translated literally to mean ‘has yet to reach its midpoint’, or ‘has more than half to go’, although it may also colloquially mean ‘endless’.
This was one of the two main palace complexes in the Han Dynasty, the other being Changle Palace. The name ‘Changle’ may be translated as ‘everlasting happiness’ and it has been suggested that the combination of the names of these two palaces means ‘everlasting happiness has yet to reach its midpoint’.
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Weiyang Palace is situated in the city of Chang’an (known today as Xi’an), in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi. From east to west, the complex spans a distance of 2.15 km (1.34 miles), whilst its length from north to south measures a total of 2.25 km (1.40 miles), which means that the total area covered is approximately 4.8 km 2 (1186.11 acres). As a comparison, the Forbidden City in Beijing covers a total area of about 0.72 km 2 (177.92 acres). In other words, it would take almost 7 Forbidden Cities to fill the area occupied by Weiyang Palace!
Painted in the mid-Ming Dynasty (c. 15th century), depicting figures including the chief architects of the Forbidden City. ( Public Domain ) It would take almost 7 Forbidden Cities to fill the area occupied by the Weiyang Palace.
Building the Home of the Emperor’s Court
In 202 BC the Han Dynasty was established, and two years later its founder Emperor Gaozu of Han commissioned an imperial complex to be built. This monumental task was supervised by the chancellor, Xiao He. The palace complex was meant to serve as the place where the emperor held his court. Prior to this, the emperor’s court would convene at Changle Palace, which was built on the ruins of a former Qin ‘detached’ pleasure palace called Xingle Palace. After the emperor moved his court to Weiyang Palace, Changle Palace was converted into the residence of the empress dowager.
Emperor Gaozu of Han. ( Public Domain )
Although the Han Dynasty came to an end in 220 AD, Weiyang continued to be used by several different imperial dynasties. For instance, the Western Jin Dynasty, which had its capital at Chang’an between 312 and 316 AD, utilized this palace complex. During the subsequent Northern and Southern Dynasties period, Chang’an served as the capital of several different states, which meant that the palace was also used during this period. Chang’an continued to be the capital of the Chinese Empire during the Tang Dynasty, nevertheless, it was during this period that Weiyang Palace lost its importance and use. This was because the Tang emperors began building new palaces for themselves.
Qing Dynasty illustration of Weiyang Palace and Changle Palace. ( Public Domain )
Weiyang Palace’s Destruction
The destruction of Weiyang Palace is also said to have occurred during the Tang Dynasty. It has been claimed that marauding raiders on their way to the Tang capital razed the palace complex to the ground. Indeed, it is known that during the An Lushan Rebellion of the 8th century, as well as during the Huang Chao Rebellion of the 9th century, the rebels succeeded in capturing the Tang capital. Because of this, little remains of the once grand palace today.
The palace ruins. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The area occupied by the former Weiyang Palace is now an archaeological site. Excavations conducted there have revealed some information. For example, the archaeological work shows that the palace complex was surrounded by a huge squarish wall and that it was accessed via multiple gates. Additionally, two gates in each of the compound’s walls had gate towers.
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"Early 8th century murals in Prince Yide's tomb give an idea of the magnificence of Chang'an's city walls with their towering gate and corner towers." ( Public Domain )
The archaeological information about Weiyang Palace is supplemented by textual sources. For instance, whilst archaeologists can provide information about the dimensions of the palace’s main hall, the material used for the foundation of this hall can be obtained from historical texts.
Finally, in 2014, Weiyang Palace was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of a group of sites entitled ‘Silk Roads: The Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor’.
Han Dynasty pottery palace created for elite burial, c. 2nd century BC - 2nd century AD, Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou, China. (Gary Lee Todd/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Top Image: Detail of ‘Spring Morning in the Han Palace’ (17th century) by Qiu Ying. Source: Public Domain
By: Wu Mingren
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Available at: http://www.chinaexpeditiontours.com/attractions/xian-site-of-weiyang-palace-of-han-dynasty.html
Steinhardt, N. S., 1990. Chinese Imperial City Planning. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Tang, X., 2015. The Evolution of Imperial Urban Form in Western Han Chang'an. In: M. Nylan & G. Vankeerberghen, eds. Chang'an 26 BCE: An Augustan Age in China. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, pp. 55-74.
The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 2014. Site of Weiyang Palace in Chang’an City. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kaogu.cn/en/News/Academic_activities/2014/0822/47283.html
TravelChinaGuide, 2018. The Site of Weiyang Palace in Chang’an City of Western Han Dynasty. [Online]
Available at: https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shaanxi/xian/weiyang-palace-site.htm