China // The Yellow River //

Xi’an and around

There’s no doubting the historical pedigree of XI’AN (西安, xī’ān). Between 1000 BC and 1000 AD, it served as the imperial capital for no fewer than eleven dynasties, and as such it comes as no surprise that the place is filled with, and surrounded by, a wealth of important sites and relics. The list, which is growing with each passing decade, includes Neolithic Banpo, the Terracotta Army of the Qin emperor, the Han and Tang imperial tombs, and, in the city itself, two Tang-dynasty pagodas, the Bell and Drum towers and the Ming city walls, as well as two excellent museums holding a treasury of relics from the most glamorous parts of Chinese history.

However, visitors are also advised to prepare for a modicum of disappointment. Historically significant though it may be, today’s Xi’an is a manufacturing city of five million inhabitants, filled with traffic and prone to heavy pollution – issues that can make visits to the outlying sights a bit of a chore. Yet most visitors are able to see past these failings, perhaps best evidenced by a large foreign community, many of whom come to study, as the colleges are regarded as some of the best places to learn Chinese outside of Beijing.

Brief history

Three thousand years ago, the western Zhou dynasty, known for their skilled bronzework, built their capital at Fenghao, a few kilometres west of Xi’an – one of their chariot burials has been excavated nearby. When Fenghao was sacked by northwestern tribes, the Zhou moved downriver to Luoyang and, as their empire continued to disintegrate into warring chiefdoms, the nearby Qin kingdom expanded. In 221 BC, the larger-than-life Qin Shi Huang united the Chinese in a single empire, the Qin, with its capital at Xianyang, just north of Xi’an. The underground Terracotta Army, intended to guard his tomb, are this tyrant’s inadvertent gift to today’s tourist prosperity.

His successors, the Han, also based here, ruled from 206 BC to 220 AD. Near-contemporaries of Imperial Rome, they ruled an empire of comparable size and power. Here in Xi’an was the start of the Silk Road, along which, among many other things, Chinese silk was carried to dress Roman senators and their wives at the court of Augustus. There was also a brisk trade with south and west Asia; Han China was an outward-looking empire. The emperors built themselves a new, splendid and cosmopolitan capital a few kilometres northwest of Xi’an, which they called Chang’an – Eternal Peace. Its size reflected the power of their empire, and records say that its walls were 17km round with twelve great gates. When the dynasty fell, Chang’an was destroyed. Their tombs remain, though, including Emperor Wu’s mound at Mao Ling.

It was not until 589 that the Sui dynasty reunited the warring kingdoms into a new empire, but their dynasty hardly lasted longer than the time it took to build a new capital near Xi’an, called Da Xingcheng – Great Prosperity. The Tang, who replaced them in 618, took over the capital, overlaying it with their own buildings in a rational grid plan that became the model not only for many other Chinese cities, but also the contemporary Japanese capital Hei’an (now Kyoto). During this time, the city became one of the biggest in the world, with over a million inhabitants.

The Tang period was a golden age for China’s arts, and ceramics, calligraphy, painting and poetry all reached new heights. Its sophistication was reflected in its religious tolerance – not only was this a great period for Buddhism, with monks busy translating the sutras that the adventurous monk Xuan Zong had brought back from India, but the city’s Great Mosque dates from the Tang, and one of the steles in the Provincial Museum bears witness to the founding of a chapel by Nestorian Christians.

After the fall of the Tang, Xi’an went into a long decline. It was never again the imperial capital, though the Ming emperor Hong Wu rebuilt the city as a gift for his son; today’s great walls and gates date from this time. Occasionally, though, the city did continue to provide a footnote to history. When the Empress Dowager Cixi had to flee Beijing after the Boxer Rebellion, she set up her court here for two years. In 1911, during the uprising against the Manchu Qing dynasty, the Manchu quarter in Xi’an was destroyed and the Manchus massacred. And in 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was arrested at Huaqing Hot Springs nearby in what became known as the Xi’an Incident.