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Images of the Taosi site in China, as well as a painted plate with dragon design found at the site

Insights into Imperialism as China's Most Ancient Imperial Palace is Discovered in Shanxi

A team of archaeologists has dated the remains in the northeast of the Taosi relic site in Xiangfen County to around 4000 years ago. Experts were not shocked by the announcement, as China has been on focus for the evolution of urban civilization for more than 3,700 years.

Earliest Imperial City in China’s History

The earliest imperial city to be unearthed so far has been found in north China's Shanxi Province. Archaeologists have dated the ruins in the northeast of the Taosi relic site in Xiangfen County to around 4000 years ago. Experts believe that the newly found remains will provide significant evidence of China's capital city system.

"We've been exploring the southeast corners of the palace since 2017. Basically, this palace has been completely preserved. It demonstrates a self-contained system and rigorous structure, with outstanding defensive function. It's the earliest imperial city discovered in China so far,” Gao Jiangtao, an official from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China.org.cn

The southeast gate of the imperial palace discovered in the Taosi relic site in Xiangfen County of north China's Shanxi Province.

The southeast gate of the imperial palace discovered in the Taosi relic site in Xiangfen County of north China's Shanxi Province. [Photo/Chinanews.com]

Rectangular in shape, the site is about 470 meters in length from the east to the west, and around 270 meters in width from south to the north. Spanning a vast area of about 130,000 square meters, the palace is composed of a north wall, east wall, south wall, and west wall, while archaeologists point out that the Taosi imperial palace may imply the beginnings of the capital system in ancient China.

Early Development of Urban Civilization in China

As Dr. Nelson discusses in a 1988 paper   regarding the importance of the political and ideological dimensions of urban planning in pre-industrial China, the earliest cities in China arose during the Shang Dynasty. This was a period also marked by the development of bronze technology, the first elaborate system of writing, ceremonial religious centers, public roads, monumental public architecture, large scale warfare, taxes and an agrarian peasantry.

By 2000 BC, villages were being constructed with walled ramparts or rammed earth enclosing as much as 35 acres. The rectilinear shape, position of gates and orderly division of space within late Neolithic villages clearly foreshadowed the structure of early Chinese cities, while house foundations suggest the use of classical Chinese beam-and-frame construction easily adapted to the creation of large, public buildings.

Photograph of a model of the ancient city of Linzi in the Museum of the Qi State.

Photograph of a model of the ancient city of Linzi in the Museum of the Qi State. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Urban civilization spread rapidly in China. By 481 BC, there were at least 210 cities and several contending city states within China. Some of these were quite large and well organized in an urban, political hierarchy including national, provincial and district capitals.

The Imperial Era

The imperial era of urban planning was marked by an attempt to expand imperial command “unofficially” across China by creating an economic and political urban hierarchy. In the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), this integration was seen as the renaissance of an idealized memory of the golden age of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC). Each province was divided into prefectures and each prefecture into counties. The network of imperial administrative cities expanded on an existing network of villages and townships that weren’t protected by defensive walls. One county therefore ruled over several townships and many more villages. At the apex of this administrative hierarchy was a new creation - the imperial capital.

In this manner, the imperial capital’s borders were destined to exist outside of every region, even the one it was physically positioned in. In order to make this happen, Chinese authorities used a text based plan, a cult of heaven, forced migration, and symbolization of the city as the Emperor.

Lijing Gate in Luoyang, Henan, China.

Lijing Gate in Luoyang, Henan, China. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

The evolution of the imperial capital occurred in three stages, first the super-regional capital in Xianyang, followed by the semi-regional and semi-textual capital of Chang'an, and finally fully realized in the fully textual capital of Luoyang. The capital city of the Western Han Dynasty, Chang'an, was built to exceed its predecessor, Xianyang. Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty, would in turn become the model of all future imperial cities.

Top image: Images of the Taosi site in China ( marquemywords.co.uk), as well as a painted plate with dragon design found at the site ( Wikimedia commons ).

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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