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Ancient capitals of China. Representation of classic ancient Chinese architecture with a modern cityscape in the background.  Source:  gui yong nian / Adobe stock

The Jewels of the East: Top 8 Ancient Capitals of China

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Considering the fact that the history of ancient China spans many centuries, it is only natural that its empires and kingdoms had a great deal of sprawling capitals and major cities. Throughout its timeline, ancient China saw the rise and fall of many independent kingdoms, empires and powerful ruling dynasties. As new dynasties came to power, the capitals of China were changed also. These were often relocated for strategic reasons and ease of ruling.

Capitals were often the heart of China’s cultural development, and were truly a wonderful sight to behold. Some of them fell under the turbulent sweep of history, and are now merely a memory. But others have survived to this day, providing an important insight into the ancient history of China, which is colorful, rich and unique. Here are the eight most important ancient capitals of China!

The Ancient Capitals of China – The Burning Beacons of Civilization

The ancient history of China is a turbulent and long period, rife with wars, dynasties, and major civilization advances. Throughout that time, many sprawling cities grew in prosperity. Due to the sheer size of the Chinese states at the time, there were many of them, and kings and emperors often declared one of these towns as the capital.

Before a unified Chinese Empire was created, under the Qin Dynasty , China suffered the Warring States period, in which seven separate states and dynasties vied for power. At this time, each state declared its own capital, but some of them didn’t survive the end of this era.

Nonetheless, these cities were the centers of some of the greatest achievements of Chinese civilization. They were the unique combinations of strongholds and metropolises, and featured some of the finest examples of typical Chinese art. So join us as we explore the jewels of ancient China - its most important historical capitals!

Kaifeng - 开封

The city of Kaifeng can trace its roots to as early as 364 BC, to the time of the Warring States period. In its place was Dailang (大梁) a capital city of the state Wei. During the decades and centuries that followed, the city that emerged as Kaifeng changed hands and names several times. It was known variously at times - as Dailang, Bianliang, Bianzhou and Nanjing, Dongjing, and Bianjing. It became Kaifeng with the arrival of the Qin Dynasty and their conquest of China.

Kaifeng is a symbolic name. When translated literally, it means “the opening of the borders”, but a more figurative translation can mean both “hidden”, or “vengeance” - a name that is deeply symbolic for the Qin dynasty that named it.

With the emergence of the Han Dynasty , the city became a capital of Liu Wu, the son of the first Han Emperor - Wen. During this period, it bloomed as an important center and hub of music, art and cultural development. It was noted as a true refuge for all artists, and was known for its lush gardens.

When it was connected to the Jing Hang Grand Chinese Canal in the 7th century AD, Kaifeng bloomed as a commercial hub and an important trade center as well. During the later Song Dynasty, Kaifeng was China’s most successful, most important, and most populous city. By the 11th century it reached its peak, and is thought to have been the most populous city in the world between the years of 1013 and 1127. It suffered plunder from the Jurchen invaders in 1127, and then considerably deteriorated afterwards. Later, in 1279, Mongols captured Kaifeng, and with it - the whole of China. It was slowly rebuilt in the centuries that followed.

The giant statue of Confucius and pavilion in one of the ancient capitals of China: Kaifeng. ( QIAO / Adobe stock)

Zhaoqing - 肇慶

The earliest name of the historical city of Zhaoqing was Gaoyao. It was situated on the southern banks of the Xi River, and was an important center. The town existed here since the 1st century BC, and for a long after was an important military station. With the rise of the short-lived Sui Dynasty in the 6th and early 7th centuries, this city became the most important military and cultural seat of the Sui Dynasty and its administration. 

The town remained an important administrative and cultural center for centuries afterwards. During the period of the European’s first contact with China, Zhaoqing was a vital city of China. In 1584, the world’s very first accurate map of China was created in Zhaoqing. During the middle 17th century, the town became the capital of the Southern Ming resistance states, until it fell in 1650. Today, Zhaoqing remains a sprawling and important town, numbering around 4,000,000 citizens.

Ancient capital of China: Zhaoqing City, Guangdong Province. (WU / Adobe stock)

Ancient capital of China: Zhaoqing City, Guangdong Province. ( WU / Adobe stock)

Chengdu - 成都

Chengdu is located in one of China’s most fertile regions, and the location was inhabited for many millennia. In its earliest history, it was the capital of the Shu State, until it became conquered by the Qin State in 316 BC. During the famous Three Kingdoms period, Chengdu served as the capital of the famous Liu Bei. Later on, the imperial Song Dynasty conquered Chengdu, which at the time was perhaps the most prosperous city in China. It was in this town that they introduced paper money - for the first time in the world.

With the later fall of the Ming Dynasty , Chengdu was captured by the Yellow Tiger, Zhang Xianzhong. This rebel leader massacred an immense part of the city’s population, which became thereafter a literal ghost town. This was the part of the so-called depopulation of Sichuan. Chengdu fell into disuse, until it was repopulated in later years by people from the other parts of the country. Today it is one of China’s most important towns, and has around 18,000,000 citizens.

 

Modern day Chengdu city with hint of ancient architecture. (Govan / Adobe stock)

Modern day Chengdu city with hint of ancient architecture. ( Govan / Adobe stock)

Yinxu - 殷墟

Yin - or today Yinxu, the Ruins of Yin - is perhaps the most important of the historical capitals of China. It is not a city today - but an archaeological site of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty - the second ever dynasty in Chinese history, and the oldest one supported by archaeological evidence. Shang dynasty lasted from roughly 1600 BC to 1046 BC. Yin became its capital in 1300 BC. It is from this capital that the dynasty reached its heights. King Wu Ding raided the local tribes from here and solidified the rule of Shang.

When Shang was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, the latter found a new capital. Yin was gradually abandoned, and the centuries after saw it fall into ruin and disappear. It was rediscovered in 1899. Many astonishing archaeological discoveries were found here, amongst them, numerous oracle bones with the earliest samples of Chinese writing discovered. It is one of the most important insights into the ancient history of China, and also one of the oldest capitals as well.

The gates outside the ancient capital of China: Yinxu World Heritage Site. (Gary Todd / Public domain)

The gates outside the ancient capital of China: Yinxu World Heritage Site. (Gary Todd / Public domain )

Chang’an - 長安

Chang’an - modern Sian - is located in north central China, and was one of the most important ancient capitals of China, serving as the seat for more than 10 dynasties. It is located on a very important and strategic route, which caused it to become one of the most significant and most populous cities in Chinese history.

It was founded in 195 BC, and initially counted around 146,000 citizens. Even in its earliest time, Chang’an was amongst the wealthiest and most populous cities of China, if not the world. It was the capital of the Han Dynasty, and an enormous metropolis that became a center of culture, trade, and innovation.

As the city that stood at the beginning of the famous Silk Road , Chang’an, it was a crucial link between Asia and Europe, and enjoyed enormous wealth. It was captured by rebels in 23 AD, and thoroughly sacked, but recovered in later centuries. In its zenith, Chang’an boasted city walls that ran for almost 28 kilometers (17 miles), and had 7 sprawling palaces. With the end of the Tang Dynasty , their capital Chang’an at last fell into decline. It was sacked in 880 AD, and again 25 years later. Afterwards, it became a ruin, and soon after disappeared. 

The Chang’an Tower. (Jucember / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Chang’an Tower. (Jucember / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Luoyang - 洛陽

The importance of Luoyang is immense. Besides being one of the ancient capitals of China, it is also one of the few cradles of the Chinese civilization. It is located at the confluence of two rivers - Luo and Yellow Rivers.

It is widely considered that the area of this city was considered a sacred site for centuries, reaching as far back as the Neolithic. The raising of cities in the approximate site of Luoyang goes back to the semi-mythical first dynasty of China - the Xia Dynasty - when its third king, Tai Kang, founded a capital here in 2070 BC. 

In the centuries that followed, it served as the capital of several dynasties and emperors, becoming undoubtedly one of the most important cities of China. Arguably it was the most prosperous and culturally advanced city in China, a sacred site in which culture and arts flourished. Today, it is the site of many priceless archaeological sites, including the world-famous Longmen Grottoes, and the Eastern Zhou horse and chariot burials. It has around 7,000,000 citizens.

Longmen Grottoes with Buddha figures in one of the ancient capitals of China: Luoyang. (SANCHAI / Adobe stock)

Longmen Grottoes with Buddha figures in one of the ancient capitals of China: Luoyang. ( SANCHAI / Adobe stock)

Nanjing - 南京 

Located at the Yangtze River Delta in eastern China, Nanjing was always one of the most important cities in Chinese history, and served as a capital for various rulers ever since the 3rd century AD. It was a regional, provincial capital for well over 4 centuries, but first became a state capital in 229 AD, under the Eastern Wu state. The Western Jin conquered the town in 280, but it didn’t suffer - it continued to bloom, and was at the time one of the finest commercial and cultural centers in all of China. Historically, it was almost always the capital city of southern China and all its dynasties and states. 

It suffered its worst period during the Sui Dynasty, which captured it and literally destroyed the entire city. Afterwards, it was reduced to nothing more than a little town, but once again emerged from the ashes in the following periods, returning to its former glory during the late Tang Dynasty.

Today, the city is filled with some of the finest relics and sites in Chinese history, including the Ming Xiaoling mausoleum, and the Ming Palace.

Night view of ancient architecture (Fuzi Temple) on the river in Nanjing. (昊 周 / Adobe stock)

Night view of ancient architecture (Fuzi Temple) on the river in Nanjing. ( / Adobe stock)

Beijing - 北京

Beijing - the jewel in the Chinese crown, the capital of modern China, and the third most populous city on the planet. It always had a crucial role in China’s history, serving as a capital for numerous rulers, and lastly for the People’s Republic of China. One of the earliest cities on the site was Jicheng, capital of the Ji State. During the Three Kingdoms period, it was captured by the legendary hero Cao Cao . In 1215 AD, the city - which was highly developed at the time - was completely razed to the ground by Genghis Khan .

Forbidden City view from Jingshan Park in Beijing, China. (Sanga / Adobe stock)

Forbidden City view from Jingshan Park in Beijing, China. ( Sanga / Adobe stock)

Afterwards, the city rose again from its ruins, and was reconstructed and refined by numerous dynasties, including the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. After the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which sought to end imperial rule and create a republic, Beijing became the capital for only a short while, before being replaced by Nanjing. But after the Chinese Civil War, in 1949, it was once again proclaimed the capital, which it has remained to this day.

Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, China. (romas_ph / Adobe stock)

Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, China. ( romas_ph / Adobe stock)

Capitals of the Eastern World

The role of a capital city is highly important. A city that receives this honor needs to be highly advanced, a place of culture, arts and commerce - a proper metropolitan hub that plays a significant role in a nation. For ancient China - whose territory was always immense - such towns were in abundance. And in the political and strategic plays of the ruling dynasties, and the vying for power of the warring states, several cities became capitals - and through this they grew in wealth and culture.

Many of them remain important hubs to this day, but not all of the towns enjoyed this fate. A few of them are now beneath the Chinese soil, reduced to ruin and the mists of memory. What once were blooming and prosperous capitals, are now nothing more than memories of the past. One can only wonder how wonderful these ancient Chinese cities truly were.

Top image: Ancient capitals of China. Representation of classic ancient Chinese architecture with a modern cityscape in the background.  Source:   gui yong nian / Adobe stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Hinsbergh, G. V. 2019. The Top 7 Historic Cities in China. China Highlights. [Online] Available at:

https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/top-historical-cities.htm
Unknown. Ancient Chinese Cities: Five Cradles of a Great Civilization. Ancient China History. [Online] Available at:
http://www.ancient-china-history.com/ancient-chinese-cities.html
Wang, P. Top 10 Ancient Capitals of China. China Whisper. [Online] Available at:
http://www.chinawhisper.com/top-10-ancient-capitals-of-china/

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