Xi’an, also known variously as “Chang’an,” “Jingzhao,” and “Haojing” in ancient times, is the capital of Shaanxi province. Xi’an borders on the Wei River on the north and the Qin Mountains on the south. It sits at the center of China as the gateway and transport hub connecting eastern China with the northwestern and southwestern regions. Eight rivers converge on the city, hence the old saying: “eight rivers encircling Chang’an.”
Xi’an is one of the time-honored birthplaces of Chinese civilization. It was first populated in the Paleolithic Age by Lantian Man around 600,000 to 800,000 years ago. This was followed by the Banpo Man of the Neolithic Age.
Called “the capital of ten dynasties,” Xi’an served as the capital of China longer than any other city. In 1057 BCE, the Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–771 BCE) established its capital, Fengyi, in what is now southwest of modern Xi’an. The Western Zhou were followed by the Qin (221–206 BCE), the Western Han (206 BCE–24 CE), the Former Zhao (304–329), the Former Qin (350–394), the Later Qin (384–417), the Western Wei (535–556), the Northern Zhou (557–581), the Sui (581–618), and the Tang (618–907) dynasties.
Various factors contributed to Xi’an’s long tenure as a capital. Firstly, it sits in the Guanzhong Plain which is surrounded by high mountains forming natural barriers which make the city easy to defend and difficult to attack. Secondly, the fertile soil and well-developed agriculture provided the capital with abundant supplies. Thirdly, early on, the Western Zhou and Qin rulers chose Xi’an as their political base, and thus after they unified the realm they made Xi’an the center of government. Hence the infrastructure was great for later dynasties.
In 350 BCE, the Qin state moved its capital to Xianyang (present-day Xi’an) which became the political, economic, and cultural center of China after Qin Shihuang (First Emperor of the Qin, 259–210 BCE) annexed the other six rival states in 221 BCE. The emperor expanded the city from its location on the north bank of the Wei River outward to include also the south bank of the river. He ordered the renovation of the Xianyang Palace and began the construction of a series of luxurious palaces, such as the Epang Palace. To consolidate his imperial power, the emperor expanded the national transport network centered in Xianyang, linking today’s Shandong, Liaodong Peninsula, and south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.
After the fall of the Qin dynasty, Xianyang was renamed Chang’an and continued as the imperial capital of the Western Han dynasty. During that period, the city, with its 35-square-kilometer inner city that accommodated hundreds of thousands of residents, was three times as large as Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, Chang’an developed into an international metropolis with a diverse population, flourishing economy, and thriving artistic and religious cultures. Admiring Chinese culture, various countries such as Silla (Korea), Japan, Persia, and the various caliphates sent their students to study in Chang’an. The Tang emperors not only permitted foreign trade and study in China, but also allowed foreigners to take the imperial examinations and to receive government appointments. In addition, music, dance, and clothing styles from central and northern Asia were popular in Chang’an.
The construction of Sui dynasty Chang’an, which was planned by the architect Yuwen Kai (555–612), was completed over a long period stretching through the Sui and Tang dynasties. Covering more than 840,000 square kilometers, the superbly designed multifunctional imperial capital was the world’s first city with a population exceeding one million. The Tang Chang’an was the model of urban planning for later Chinese cities, particularly imperial capitals. The influence of its design also extended to neighboring countries, with Japan’s Heijo-kō (present-day Nara) and Heian-kyō (present-day Kyoto) closely patterned on the designs of the Tang capital.
Since 1949, large scale industrial development has transformed Xi’an into a major modern city. As China’s western transport hub with well-developed highways and railroads, today’s Xi’an appeals to world tourists with its numerous historical attractions.