How China was governed

If we want to know how a society really works, the best place to start is to see how the settlements are structured. How do the towns, and in particular, the capital cities, really work? Are they based round a marketplace, as in Greece and Rome? Are they centred round temples or cathedrals or castles as was Medieval England? Or are they placed round palaces, like most of the great societies of the pre-market economies? China is a society based round Palaces – one might almost say it is THE Palace-based society. If therefore we are to understand how China really worked, we need to look at its capital cities and the palaces that dominated them.

Beijing Preserving Harmony  P660-661

The ‘Preserving Harmony’ hall in the Forbidden City at Beijing.

Surprisingly, there were a number of capital cities in China. Indeed whenever a new dynasty was established, the new rulers liked to establish a new capital.  The first capital of the united empire was in the West at Xian, known at the time as Chang’An. Geographically it was at the end of the Silk Road that brought treasures from the West, but really it became the capital for the more prosaic reason that when the six warring states were fighting it out, it was the westernmost state the Qin who finally united China, and their capital was at Xian.

Thereafter new capitals tended to be laid out in a line across central China: 250 miles east of Xian is Luoyang, which became the capital of the Eastern Han dynasty, when the Han dynasty split up. Then 120 miles further east was Kaifeng, which became the capital in the glorious Northern Song dynasty. And when the Barbarians pressed down and captured Kaifeng, a new capital was established 600 miles to the south-east at Hangzhou, not far from the sea. And between them was Nanjing, on the banks of the River Yangtze where the early Ming rulers had their capital. And then to the North was the Northern capital, Beijing, which went through several reincarnations; but it became the capital of the Ming, and then the final Qing dynasty, and was eventually chosen to be the capital of modern China.

Not only do the capitals vary in place, they also varied within the places. At Xian for instance, there are three, possibly even four major sites. At Beijing there are three successive cities overlapping each other while at Luoyang there are again three or four different sites for the capital city

But to Western eyes, the big surprise is that all Chinese cities were laid out to a common plan, according to the rituals of feng shui. They were all rectangular, normally square, and laid out on a geometric basis so they lie exactly north-south, east-west. The palace was in the North facing south, surrounded by the Imperial city, while the rest of the city was set out in a rigid grid system, so if you are a Chinese arriving at a strange city, you would know immediately where you were and could immediately make your way to the Palace.

In our study of analysis of Chinese cities, we will look at just two cities which set the scene for all the rest. First we start with Beijing, a word which means ‘Northern capital’, because not only was it the largest and latest capital city, and the one that is still the capital today, but it is the only capital where the central palace, the so-called Forbidden City is still miraculously preserved. However the Forbidden City is merely the inner part of the palatial complex; beyond it there is the Imperial city, the Inner city, and the Outer city, to say nothing of the Summer Palace by a cool lake, 10 miles to the north, where the royal family often lived for part of the year.

Little Goose 408

The Little Wild Goose pagoda at Xian

And then we look at the earlier great capital at Xian. This began by being the Han city of Chang ‘An, but then in the Tang, a new city was constructed to the south east, when it became the biggest city in the world with over 1 million inhabitants. It was however an extraordinary rigid system which we need to consider in some detail. Nevertheless, it worked, and the Tang dynasty was a huge success. However the system broke down in the subsequent period of disunity and we shall look briefly at how very different, more flexible system arose in this succeeding Song period at their capital of Kaifeng.

Pingyao Bell tower 821

The Bell Tower at Pingyao

But how did the system work in practice? China was divided up into numerous counties, between 1000 and 1500 in all, each with a town at its centre, each town being surrounded by an impressive wall, most of them built in the Ming period around A.D. 1400. And in each county town there was the Governor’s house, the Yamen, and we need to ask what being a governor meant and how China was administered. I will look at one town in particular, Pingyao, to see how the system worked at the county town level.

The Chinese Empire was a very successful system which lasted for 2000 years, during which time China grew to be the most populous country of the world and for much of the time the richest and most successful. But it was not an empire built on conquest: the heart of China was established by the first emperor, and it gradually expanded to the south to include the rich rice-growing regions of the great Yangtze river. True, there was constant fighting on the northern borders, as the horse-riding nomads of the steppes constantly tried to get their hands on the riches of the settled inhabitants, but this was normally the Chinese repelling invaders rather than doing the invasions themselves. But for much of the time China remained the same, and the limits of China as established by the first Emperor in 220 BC still remain very much those of China today. It was very successful over a very long period, and we need to look at it closely to try to elucidate the secret of its success.


On to The Forbidden City


2nd June 2015