Historians of premodern Chinese urbanism have long assumed that the origins of the Chinese imperial city plan stem from a passage in the Kaogong Ji (Record of Trades) section of the classical text Rituals of Zhou which describes the city of the King of Zhou. Taking this description as the single source of all Chinese capitals, these historians have gone on to write that any Chinese imperial city constructed during the last 2,000 years not only has much in common with any other one, but that all have been built according to a single scheme. Yet the plans of the two most important Chinese imperial cities, Chang'an in the 7th to 9th century, and Beijing after the 14th century, indicate that a crucial feature of the Chinese imperial urban plan, the position of the imperial palaces, is in the north center at Chang'an and roughly in the exact center at Beijing, thereby dispelling the myth of the direct descent of all Chinese imperial city plans from the King of Zhou's city. Moreover, an examination of excavated cities of the first millennium B. C. shows that the Chang'an plan, the Beijing plan, and a third type, the double city, have their origins in China before the 1st century A. D., when the Kaogong Ji is believed to have been written. Moreover, all three city plan types can be traced through several thousand years of Chinese city building. After stating the hypothesis of three lineages of Chinese imperial city building, the paper illustrates and briefly comments on the key examples of each city type through history. More than 20 cities are involved in understanding the evolution of the imperial Chinese plans. Thus this paper also includes many Chinese capital plans heretofore unpublished in a Western language. The plan of Chang'an is different from that of Beijing because the latter city was built on the ruins of a city designed anew by the Mongol ruler of China, Khubilai Khan, with the intent of adhering to the prescribed design of the Kaogong Ji; whereas Chang'an was built according to a plan used by native and non-Chinese rulers of China only until the advent of Mongolian rule (with one exception.) Finally, this paper examines the assumption that there was little variation in Chinese imperial city building. A main reason for the assumed uniformities in Chinese capitals is because the imperial city is traditionally one of the most potent symbols of imperial rule, such that digression from it might imply less than legitimate rulership. Thus it can be shown that Chinese and non-Chinese dynasties had their actual city schemes amended for the historical record through the publication of fictitious city plans.
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Research Article| December 01 1986
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Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt; Why Were Chang'an and Beijing so Different?. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 1 December 1986; 45 (4): 339–357. doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/990206
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