A History of Xi'an, the Ancient Capital of the Tang Dynasty

Terracotta warriors in Xi'an, China
Sara Naumann

Xi'an is currently the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China, but in ancient times, it was the cultural and political capital of all of China for hundreds of years. It was during the Tang Dynasty that the city of Chang'an (now Xi'an) was a gathering place for traders, musicians, artisans, philosophers, and more in the court the Tang. They came via the Silk Road that terminated in Chang'an.

First Settlements in the Region

Fertile and tillable, the land in southern Shaanxi Province has been settled for thousands of years. The first inhabitants lived 7,000 years ago in late Neolithic times and settled the area near the Wei He, a branch of the Yellow River, in present-day Xi'an. A matriarchal farming society, the Banpo people's settlement has been unearthed and can be visited on a tour of Xi'an today.

Zhou Dynasty

The Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC) ruled China from Xianyang (then called Hao), just outside present-day Xi'an. After the Zhous moved their capital to Luoyang in Henan province, Xianyang remained a large and influential city.

Qin Dynasty and the Terracotta Warriors

From 221-206 BC, Qin Shi Huang Di unified China into a centralized feudal state. He used Xianyang, near Xi'an, as his base and the city became the capital of his empire. To protect his newly established state, Qin decided a large defense barricade was required and began work on what is today the Great Wall.

Despite his empire not seeing two decades, Qin is credited with founding the imperial system that saw China through the next 2,000 years. Qin bequested China with another tangible treasure: the Terracotta Army. It is estimated that 700,000 men worked on the tomb that took 38 years to build. Qin died in 210 BC.

Han and Eastern Han Dynasties & Chang'an

The Han, (206BC-220AD) who conquered the Qin, built their new capital at Chang'an, just north of present-day Xi'an. The city thrived and under the Han emperor Wudi, who sent an envoy Zhang Qian west to seek an alliance against the Han enemy, inadvertently opened the Silk Road.

Tang Dynasty - China's Golden Age

After the Hans, wars broke the country apart until the Sui Dynasty (581-618) was established. The Sui emperor began reviving Chang'an, but it was the Tangs (618-907) who moved their capital back and established peace throughout China. The Silk Road trade flourished and Chang'an became a city of worldwide importance. Academics, students, traders, and merchants from around the world visited Chang'an, making it a cosmopolitan metropolis of its time.

After the Tang Dynasty fell in 907, Chang'an fell into decline. It remained a regional capital.

Xi'an Today

Xi'an is now a place of industry and commerce. The provincial capital of Shaanxi, which is rich in natural resources like coal and oil, Xi'an produces much of China's energy. Because of this the city is is sadly quite polluted, which can certainly affect your enjoyment of the city when visiting. However, there is quite a lot to see and do in Xi'an, so it's definitely worth considering.

The largest tourist destination draw is to the astounding Tomb of Emperor Qin and the Army of the Terracotta Warriors. This site is about an hour (depending on traffic) outside of downtown Xi'an and takes a few hours to visit.

Xi'an itself has some interesting things to do. It is one of the few Chinese cities that still has its ancient wall. Visitors can buy a ticket to the top and walk around the old city. There are even bicycles to rent so you can circumnavigate the city atop the wall on bikes. Inside the walled city, there is an ancient Muslim quarter and here, wandering the streets in the evening, sampling the street food, is as much a Xi'an adventure as any.

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