Splendor of Xian in the Tang Dynasty

The splendor of Xian in the Tang Dynasty

Every visitor to the city of Xian has heard that the city reached its peak of splendor during the Tang dynasty, but given that today only the Great Goose Pagoda, the Small Goose Pagoda, and some performances inspired by the dances of that dynasty remain, it is difficult to imagine what that splendor consisted of. A reading of Edward Schafer’s «The Last Days of Chang’an» will help to understand the grandeur of the city.

Xian, traditionally called Chan’an, became the luxurious metropolis of the Tang, replete with princely mansions, flowering gardens, sacred shrines and international bazaars. This city owed its long pre-eminence, under many different names, to its strategic position on the Silk Road. The Tang continued to occupy the halls and gardens of the Sui, made many innovations, the most significant of which was the construction of the Great Bright Palace (Daming gong). During the first half of the 8th century, which coincided for the most part with the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, the city of Chang-an reached the height of its glory. Then, in the 10th century, with the fall of the Tang, the city was almost forgotten, until the tourist revival at the end of the 20th century after the discovery of the Terracotta Warriors.

The main access to the great palace was through the most central of the five gates that pierced the northern wall of the city proper, the Cinnabar Phoenix Gate, whose symbolism coincided with that of the Red Sparrow Gate in the southern wall of the ancient palace.  Hence the Dragon’s Tail Way, built of bluestone, climbed up to the main entrance of the palace in a series of convolutions imagined as the curves of a dragon’s tail.

The capital was built in the form of a rectangle, almost square, six miles east-west and five miles north-south. The city was walled, and had twenty-five broad causeways forming the basic framework, flanked by drainage ditches on either side; beyond these, there were footpaths along the low walls of the quarters (fang). These quarters, one hundred and ten in number, occupied small rectangles formed by the intersections of the streets. They were walled and each had a gate facing the streets at each of the cardinal points. At night the gates were closed and not opened until the drum announced the morning.

As Etiene Balazs has pointed out, the extreme police control of the capital made it an unpleasant place for aristocratic families, not interested in suffering so much control. The control, by the way, would be relaxed throughout the dynasty, and at the end of the VIII century there is already talk of lively night markets.

Roughly speaking, the upper classes lived in the eastern part of the city, and the lower classes in its western part. The Western part was a busy, raucous,  and multi-lingual cluster of bazaars and warehouses, whose visitors were also entertained by prestidigitators and illusionists of every nationality,  not to mention storytellers, actors, and acrobats. Here one sought for the precious symbols of exotic mystery, magic, and luxury.

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    City of Canals

    The city was crisscrossed by a network of canals, which carried water and formed a transportation network, which ultimately connected to the Wei River in the north, and were the main waterways by which goods were transported from all parts of the empire to the urban emporiums.

    Temples of Xian

    Medieval Ch’ang-an was a city of temples, some of them of a magnificence rivaling that of the imperial palace. It is said that during the first half of the 8th century the city had 64 Buddhist monasteries, 27 Buddhist nunneries, 10 Taoist monasteries, 6 Taoist nunneries, 2 Persian temples (one Manichaean and one Nestorian) and four temples dedicated to the Iranian god Ahura Mazda. The vast majority of these places of worship were erected in the western part of the city, where one would expect a greater concentration of piety among the poor.

    A City of Gardens

    Perhaps because of their perishable character, the gardens of Xian are rarely mentioned. Prominent in Tang times was the Lotus Garden, which had already been built by Emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty, but retained the name under the Tang, and was enlarged and beautified by Xuanzong, who placed many beautiful plants and pavilions in it, and replenished its water by creating the Yellow Canal extending eastward from the garden to the Ch’an River, a tributary of the Wei River.

    Some of the wealthiest men of the time took as much pride in their gardens as they did in their beautiful mansions. Many of these beautiful creations were celebrated by distinguished poets of the time – notably Po Chü-yi, who went boating in the pond at the residence of the magnate Bei Du. Another admired bamboo garden was that of Minister Pei Xiang’s mansion, complex enough to serve as a refuge for assassins.  The most splendid of all, probably, was the residence of Li Deyu during the reigns of Wen Zong and Wu Zong. This establishment, located in the district of An yi, near the oriental market, was remarkable both for the large size of its buildings and for the advanced taste of its gardens, with their fantastic stones and centennial pines, as austere as those in a painted picture.

    In addition to the fine architecture and landscaping of the gardens, birds were a desired feature in the best gardens, not only wild birds attracted by the lush foliage and its supply of berries and insects as food, but domestic birds procured to decorate the pond and stream. One example is the mansion of the Feng family, which kept, at mid-century, a large flock of ducks, geese and other birds under a special caretaker.

    Richly planted with trees and flowers, including willows, poplars, pink lotuses, marsh grasses and rushes, and attracting wildfowl of all kinds, the gardens drew elite visitors in every season. They were as popular in autumn, when the cries of the wild teals and wild geese could be heard, and when the tender chrysanthemums are tinged with gold, the deep springs are clear mirrors, as they were in spring.  Lang Lake itself was a fascinating object of contemplation.

    Houses of Prostitution

    The ninth century also witnessed the rapid development of public houses of prostitution that accompanied the rise of the merchant class and the money economy in the latter part of the Tang dynasty. These establishments were located near all the busy places, such as the city gates, markets and temples, but the representative neighborhood of the harlots was the North City, which occupied the northeastern part of the Ping kang quarter, and which already existed in Xuan Zong’s time, in the first half of the 8th century. The North City had three alleys running from east to west, each apparently with several dozen houses and several dozen women in typical houses. In the southern alley lived the largest number of famous courtesans; the northern alley had the fewest. In the smaller houses there was a single girl with her foster mother, who supplemented her income by selling candy and other refreshments.

    Schafer, Edward H. “The Last Years of Ch’ang-An.” Oriens Extremus 10, no. 2 (1963): 133–79.

    Balazs, Etiente. La Burocracia Celeste- Historia de la China Imperial. Seix Barral. 1974.

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