Article by Stephen Robinson
If you’ve lived in Xian for more than a minute or two, you might have noticed the word Tang pops up quite a lot here in Xi’an. The name corresponds to what is arguably one of the greatest Chinese dynasties, and what was indisputably the height of the power and prestige of Xi’an, then Chang’an. What you might not know is that there are many remnants of the historical city that have left their mark on modern Xi’an.
The Might of Tang
Tang Dynasty Chang’an was easily the largest city of its era, and rivaled the greatest cities on the planet at its height. Wealth and knowledge from the Silk Road and a strong central bureaucracy meant that the city prospered like no other. Dignitaries, representatives, and traders from places across the world came to Chang’an to pay tribute to the emperor, making the population of the city one of the most diverse of its time. A census in 742 put the number of residents (excluding travelers) at nearly two million people (Rome at its height, had only one million citizens).
The city was strictly organized, with urban planning being at the heart of its creation. Roads were straight and regulated to allow horse drawn carts to move quickly and efficiently through the streets, especially between the Great Eastern and Western Markets. It was said that at this time, if there was something in the world you would want to buy, you could find it at one of these two markets. Merchants were required to sell goods only in particular areas, leading to streets containing a single type of good, something that we can still see today. The different wards of the city were also strictly regulated, and were spaced as to prevent fires from easily spreading across the city. Some of the modern chengnongcun or city villages are heirs of these districts, with people having lived in the area for generations.
Tang Chang’an also boasted, much like the later capital in Beijing, a large Imperial complex, with Imperial City as a walled fortress within the larger city and the Palace City complex and the Da Ming palace complex. The main gate to the Imperial City, where much of the government business of running the empire was conducted, was centrally-aligned along what is now Zhuque Gate, with a road that extended south to the Ming De Gate. In the southeast corner of the city was the Imperial pleasure gardens, centered around Qujiang Lake. It was also during the Tang that the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda were completed. Much of what Xi’an is known for today comes from this time period.
What’s in a name?
All across Xi’an you will find places with ‘门’ or “Gate” in the name, such as Tong Hua Men, Kai Yuan Men, or Ming De Men. This is not just a fun bit of nomenclature, but an indication that that area was once the home of one of the great gates of the Tang Dynasty. There were three outer gates on each side of the wall facing North, West, East, and South, as well as numerous internal gates that connected the Imperial City, Palace City, and Da Ming Palace to the rest of the city. Even though the original Tang wall has long since disappeared, you can see remnants of it everywhere. There is also a recreation of a section of the Tang Wall in Qujiang, not far from Gemdale Plaza. There is also an artistic 1:1 scale replica of the Ming De Gate that has recently opened in the Ming De Men area, not far from the TV Tower.
In addition to gate names, you also have the name of the various wards, or neighborhoods of the city that now lend their names to the modern equivalent. Yong Xing Fang, the now popular street food market, is named after the district that was once just outside the Imperial City. The Great West Market now hosts a mall bearing the same name (though it is a fraction of the size of the original market). Everywhere, you can see the history of the city.
A Shifting City
A thousand years will change a city quite a bit, and Xi’an is no exception to that. The current city wall was built during the Ming Dynasty, and was partially built on the foundations of the Imperial city of Tang, but was further expanded to accommodate a population that (while still substantial) was greatly reduced during that era. The Tang Paradise Garden Park is located a bit north and west of its original location, and (as previously mentioned) the West Market was greatly reduced in size. In fact, some of the modern incarnations of these historical sites are very modern indeed, with both the Da Ming Palace area and Great Tang West Market being opened within the past 10 years.
Undoubtedly, there will be more of these types of locations that will pop up over the coming years, as Xi’an continues to grow in popularity, and the importance of history rises in the national identity, but even without this conscious effort to recreate the past, the impact of the Tang Dynasty on Xi’an is one that will last through the ages.
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