The header image shows Xuan Zong, the emperor under whom the Tang Dynasty reached its height. It stands at the end of the Great Tang All Day Shopping Mall,  a mile long shopping mall which is the glory of the modern town of  Xian


Tang horses backrground 930
Horses and their Groom, one of the masterpieces of Tang art in the British Museum

In the Tang dynasty (AD 618 – 907),  Xian, or Chang An, was one of the greatest cities in the world has ever seen. It had over 1 million inhabitants – the same size as Rome at its greatest and at the time – A.D. 700 –challenged only by Baghdad as the greatest city in the world. This was the time when China overtook the West and while western Europe was sinking into the Dark Ages and Constantinople was turning in on itself, Tang China was increasing in splendour and population. The arts flourished – few of the paintings survive, but we can see the splendid highly glazed earthenware figures and pots which decorate our museums. And it was a great cosmopolitan city situated at the end of the Silk Road and thus always open to influences from the desert and from the West. But how did Xian work?

Xian worked in an incredible rigidity. It was laid out in a strictly grid system. The Northern third was occupied by the palaces but the rest of the town was divided up into ‘wards’, over 100 of them, surrounded by high walls entered only by four gates which was locked shut at night. The world has never seen such a highly organised – one might almost say claustrophobic – town. And yet it ‘worked’.

Chang'An planXian in the Tang period, laid out according to a rigid grid plan and divided into wards. Note the Palace city and the Imperial city at the top and the East and the West markets to either side. However the emperors later moved out to the Daming Gong, or Daming Palace at the top right.

Plan from Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats by Heng Chye Kiang


To the south was the great gate to the city, the Minde gate, with five portals, each wide enough for two chariots side by side. This opened on to the main road through the city, the Vermillion Bird Road. At the far end was the Imperial City, but this was 5.3 kms away. This central road was huge, being 155 metres wide: Heng Chye Kiang calculates to be 45 lanes wide in modern terminology. It was lined on either side with locust trees.

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The Bell Tower at night, one of the showpieces of modern Xian.

The city was made up of ‘wards’, some 109 of them, measuring between 350 x 300 paces to 655 x 450 paces. They were surrounded by a wall 10 feet high and there were only four gates, one in each wall: it must have looked very grim with no shops opening on to the main streets, just a series of blank walls. At sunset every night the drums beat out 800 times and on the 800th stroke, the ward headman closed the gate for the night, while at dawn the drums beat 300 times and the gates were opened. A later Drum Tower still exists, though the Bell tower, built by 1384 and moved to its present site in 1582 is the more spectacular. A poem by Li He (791-817) illustrates the significance of these drums:

The thumps of the dawn drums hurry the rising sun,
The sound at eve beckons the moon rise.

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The Little Goose pagoda at Xian, one of the best surviving buildings from the Tang period.

 Not all the wards were occupied by dwellings: many were occupied by temples, both Buddhist and Daoist. Two brick built pagodas still survive: the Small Wild Goose Pagoda and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 707, was added on to one of the largest monasteries: it was originally a town house owned by the emperor, but when his father died, the emperor Zhongzong dedicated it as a Buddhist monastery, providing livelihood for 200 monks who specialised in translating the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. The pagoda, which today is the main attraction, was in fact added on to the far end as an afterthought.

Plan of Small Goose 405
Plan of the monastery of the Little Goose pagoda. It is a good example of what was originally a Tang townhouse, given by the Emperor to be a monastery. The pagoda was later added at the far end

The monastery is an interesting example of the layout of a wealthy house. There were also a number of wealthy houses, but these were strictly regulated by the Sumptuary Laws. Officials of the third rank and above were limited to halls of five bay construction and a gateway of three bays. Officials of the sixth rank and below could only have a hall of three bays and a gateway of one bay.

One ward was occupied by an imperial palace (not the Imperial palace – just a spare one)   and a number of wards were occupied by officials. However a number of wards in the south west appear to have been unoccupied and were used for agriculture or kitchen gardens. Several were even given over to military training. Xian at its height contained over a million inhabitants, but even so, the city was so big that it could house them all with space to spare.


The Markets

Tang dish BM 5940
The Tang dynasty exulted in its fine highly glazed polychrome dishes. This example is in the British Museum.

 There were also two great markets, one in the east and one in the west, both of them occupying the space of two wards so that both were virtually 600 paces square. Each was divided into nine quarters where the different trades were concentrated. The markets were of international importance because Xian was at the end of the Silk Road trading to the West. However mostly they were given over to a whole range of activities, butchers, printers, musicians, as well as restaurants, wine shops, fast food shops and brothels. There were inns and warehouses and a form of proto banks in the form of safe deposit foundations. A popular form of entertainment were the public executions, which took place in the markets, and the heads of criminals were then displayed on stakes. But they were only open for a few hours a day; 200 drum beats marked the opening at noon, and 300 gong beats one and three quarter hours before sunset marked the closing. But the markets were huge: when fire broke out in AD 843, 4,000 shops in 12 streets were destroyed.

To the north of the main city was the Imperial City, the administrative heart of the empire. Here were the scribal offices, – the Agricultural Department and the Administration of Economic Affairs. There was also housing for thousands of guards and their horses as well as the Rites and Reception Bureau, and the Sacrificial Ceremonies Bureau.

To the north of the Imperial City was the Palace City where the Imperial household lived. However it was soon abandoned when a huge new palace was built outside the walls of the city, to the north east, known as the Daming Palace. This was built in 634 by the Emperor Taizong for his retired father and was only finished in 663 when the Imperial family finally moved in. This again was huge, being 1.6 miles long by 0.9 miles wide, but it has had an interesting after life: the whole palace was burnt down at the end of the Tang dynasty when the capital was moved to Luoyang, and the site was abandoned.

AP of Hanyan
Aerial view from Wikipedia of the restored foundations of the Hanyuan Hall, the largest of the buildings in the Daming Palace.

In the first half of the twentieth century it was covered by slums, but then it was proposed to improve the area and turn it into government offices. However in 1957 the archaeologists were able to establish that it was indeed the site of the Daming Palace and from 1959 – 1960 the biggest of the halls, the Hanyuan Hall was excavated. There was then a ding dong battle between the archaeologists and the officials which the archaeologists won, and it was decided to make the whole area into an archaeological park. Further surveys and excavations established the position of the other two main halls and a number of subsidiary buildings, and eventually in 2010 the whole archaeological park was opened to grand fanfares. I do not think it has been a great success – so far. The impressive foundations of the Hanyuan Hall have been restored and several of the other palaces have been outlined, but there is nothing very spectacular for the average tourist to see, so it is not yet on the tourist itinerary and is used mainly for kite flying. But it is a magnificent concept, a complete Chinese palace which survived virtually intact underground. One day it will be the Pompeii of China.

The Tang city was not the first city in the area. It is sometimes claimed that the sequence begins at Banpo, a Neolithic village dating to around 3000 BC where 45 dwellings have been uncovered with one oversize structured at the centre: was this the ruler’s house? The first major city was at Xianyang near the modern airport, which was the capital from which Qin, the first emperor established China as a unified Empire: 20 miles east to the East was his tomb, with its hidden terracotta Army.

The Han dynasty established itself on yet another site, but it was with the Tang dynasty (AD 618 – 907) that the great city of Chang An which underlies the modern city of Xian was founded. However the magnificent walls that one sees today were in fact built by the Ming Dynasty in 1370 and cover only part of the area of the original city.

The rigid layout of the city was no doubt due to the ritual system of sheng fui. The instructions for this were laid down in one of the classic Chinese texts, the Shu Jing or Book of Documents said to have been written by the Duke of Zhou around the 12th century BC but probably compiled between 400 and 200 BC. Sheng Fui believes that natural phenomena – mountains, wind, and water must be harmoniously interrelated in order to ensure auspicious human existence. The site must be oriented exactly north-south, preferably exactly square, surrounded by walls with exactly 3 gates on each side. The Palace, if not in the centre, was on the Northern side facing south so the Emperor could look down on all his subjects – and get the maximum amount of sunlight.


The discrepancy

Nevertheless there is surely something of a discrepancy between the artistic exuberance of the Tang period and the highly regulated city in which it was produced. Whenever modern scholars talk about the Tang dynasty, the word they use is ‘cosmopolitan’. Yet how does being cosmopolitan fit within the confines of such a regulated city? Part of the explanation is that the ruling classes in the Tang dynasty were the descendents of the northern Wei dynasty who came from the Xianbei tribes of Mongol origin. In the chaos of the dark ages between Han and Tang, the Northern Wei, who formed the final dynasty, established a kingdom at Datong where they adopted the Chinese way of life and then moved their kingdom further south into the Chinese heartland at Luoyang.

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Camel and its rider in the Shanghai Museum.

They were eventually ousted by the Sui and then the Tang dynasty, but – say this quietly – the Tang dynasty had a lot of Northern Wei blood in them too. They had northern Wei habits such as their love of hunting and horse riding, and this is often reflected in their art, where the wonderful earthenware figures often show camels, which are not Chinese animals at all, and they are often accompanied by their grooms and riders, who are dressed in the dress of the nomads of the steppes and the deserts.


This was the time that the Silk Road to the west opened up, and the export of Chinese silk was balanced by imports from the West. The Korean and Japanese empires also went through periods of prosperity and remodelled themselves on the Tang model.

It helped too that the court became a major patron of the arts. There was a mania for listing and classifying, and we know the names of over 370 artists, all classified as to who was the best. But though we know their names, none of their works has survived. Perhaps the best surviving example is a half-finished tomb painting which shows the skilful drawing, only half of which has been covered by the paint.

The highly restrictive ward system did not survive long. The first cracks appeared following the great An Lushan rebellion (755-763 AD) which was only put down by a great weakening of imperial power with the rise of local warlords. The ending of the ward system can by marked in three ways. The first was that commercial activities, which should only take place in the two official markets, began to take place inside the wards. Secondly there was a disregard of the curfew; and thirdly people began to burrow through the walls surrounding the wards and make their own private entrances. There was a big scandal when an all-night musical performance took place in one of the temples (which is where you held your all-night raves), and when it was discovered by the vice-prefect he simply joined in the celebrations. Eventually in the Huang Chao rebellion in 860 AD the whole city was torched and never really recovered. The capital was moved 500 miles east to Kaifeng.

The Tang dynasty officially came to an end in AD 907 and was followed for 50 years by the “Five Dynasties”, none of whom managed to impose law and order over the whole country. And it was during the Five Dynasties that the ward system finally collapsed.



Qingming by Zhang Zeduanb Along_the_River_detail
A scene from the Qingming festival scroll. Note how the houses along the main road have all been turned into a shops with the shopfronts spilling out into the road. Behind them are two fine townhouse while in the road itself, two gangs of pack animals strain to pull a cart carrying a large stone building block.

The Song dynasty saw the emergence of a very different form of town life. This is best exemplified in the most famous of all Chinese paintings entitled “Along the River during the Qing Ming Festival”. The Qing Ming Festival is the great Chinese spring festival. It takes place every year on the 4th or 5th April, and the Chinese government has recently given way and made it into an official public holiday. Qing Ming means ‘tomb sweeping day’ and it is the first day of spring when you go out and celebrate the open air life and sweep out the tombs of your ancestors. A day of jollification all round, and in the early 12th century, the great painter Zhang Zeduan   painted the celebrations taking place in the then capital city of Kaifeng in a long thin scroll, 25 cms (10.4 inches ) tall by 5.25 meters (17ft) long. Later copies were made and the one that is usually illustrated is the one made in 1737 AD, which is in full colour (you can tell the difference by looking at the famous section of a large ship going under a bridge. In the original all is chaos and the ship is going to bump into the bridge. In the later copy all is under control and the ship has furled its sails and is being pulled through). But the picture as a whole shows the festival taking place along the main road in Kaifeng. There is no trace of a ward system and the houses all spill out over the road with tables put out on the road for people to dine, as in London today. It is all very civilized.

Qingming by Zhang Zeduanb Along_the_River_7-119-3
This is the complete scroll of the Qing Ming festival painting, as compressed by Wikipedia. Click on it, and then click on it a second time and it will come to full size. Then start at the right hand end, follow it up along the river, through the walls, under the bridge and then along the main street of the town. 


The very openness of the Song dynasty, as illustrated by the picture, makes it the most attractive of all the Chinese dynasties. This is the time when the examination system really got going. The exams began in the Tang dynasty but only some 15% of officials were appointed on their exam results, the remainder were appointed from their family positions. But by the Song dynasty this has risen to 30% and as a result one saw the rise of a professional bureaucratic elite, who gained further prestige because they were favoured by the emperors as being a protection against the power of the local warlords who always posed a latent threat to the emperors.

Nevertheless many of the ideals of the ward system as exemplified in Chang An persisted throughout Chinese history, and the layout of Beijing, the city of which we have the best details, owes much to the inspiration of the long gone Tang cities. China is the Palace system par excellence: we in the West tend to be rather appalled by the rigidity – at least as seen in the Tang cities. But it worked, and we should note its success.


But what of life out in the provinces? How were the ordinary people of China governed? For this, we must turn to Pingyao, today one of the foremost Chinese tourist towns, but which nevertheless forms a good example of what a of how a typical Chinese county town worked.



 18th July 2015