Chang'an tower
Chang'an tower

Chang’an (Ch’ang-an), literally “Perpetual Peace,” was the largest city in the world of its time, boasting a population of over a million by the eighth century c.e. and covering nearly 32½ sq. miles.

Chang’an actually refers to two cities. The first capital city, typically called “Han Chang’an” because of its construction during the Han dynasty, was built in 202 b.c.e. The famous emperor Han Wudi (Han Wu-ti) was known to have built gorgeous palaces there.

The so-called Early, or Western, Han dynasty ended in 9 c.e., and China was ruled by a Chinese nobleman, Wang Mang, whose reign lasted until 25 c.e., when rebels killed him and burned down Chang’an. The first city was abandoned and the capital of the Later, or Eastern, Han dynasty was relocated to the ancient capital city Luoyang (Loyang).

The capital city remained in Luoyang until the beginning of the Sui dynasty in 580 c.e. Emperor Wendi, the first of the Sui emperors, commissioned the building of a new Chang’an in 582–583 c.e., a declaration he made from the old Han Chang’an.

The new Chang’an, much like its Han cousin, was built using a mix of geomancy, feng shui, matching topography to the hexagrams in the Yi Jing (I Ching), and comparing city design to the position of the stars. Therefore the city was split into two symmetrical halves with avenues running east to west and north to south forming wards, or city blocks.

The palace city, primary residence of the emperors, was located at the northernmost point of the city, a location that represented the North Star. Buddhist monasteries were built in the southwest section of the city, the most dangerous location according to geomancy, because it was believed they helped ward off bad luck.

Directly south of the palace compound was the imperial city, which housed the administrative offices of the government, and acted as a buffer between the son of heaven and the throngs of commoners occupying 88 percent of the space in Chang’an.

The residence wards included two large market areas with approximately 220 bazaars hosted in each. City officials strictly regulated these centers of trade.

In addition to a standardized system of weights and measures, all products underwent strict quality control. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the marketplace attracted merchants, restaurant owners, and entertainers from Central Asian tribes and kingdoms such as the Uighurs and Sogdians.

The Tang dynasty and its capital at Chang’an began its decline during the An Lushan Rebellion of the mid-eighth century c.e. Over the next century a succession of attacks from Tibetans, rebels, mutineers, and warlords forced much of the business and its residents out of the city.

In 904, the last Tang emperor fled Chang’an for Luoyang, abandoning Chang’an to the weeds. It eventually decayed and collapsed, never again serving as the capital of China.