The Historical Capitals of China
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The Historical Capitals of China

China has had many capitals throughout its long and often turbulent past. Historically there are four ancient ‘great’ capitals of China; this figure has been increased to seven or even eight historical capitals according to the China Ancient Capital Society when after archaeological research and finds in 2004 dating from the Shang Dynasty elevated the city of Zhengzhou( the present day capital of Henan province), to the list.

The four ancient capitals are the current capital city of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing the northern capital.  The title of southern capital city refers to the modern city of Nanjing, while the one time western capital was in Xi’an, although at that time it was known as Chang’an. The fourth city to hold the acclaim of great ancient capital was Luoyang.

Kaifeng, a city in Henan province and located close to Zhengzhou was added as a fifth capital in the 1920’s. The city of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province was added to the ever growing list of former capitals in the 1930’s with Anyang, a third city from Henan province becoming the seventh ancient city after a proposal by archaeologists in 1988.

The following list includes the cities previously listed and when they held the title of capital of China (in whatever form it was at that time in history) as well as some earlier or temporary cities to have a claim to once being given the role of China’s capital city.

Anyang, in the country’s eastern central province of Henan held the title of capital during the period of the Yin being in control in the Shang dynasty dating from around 1600 BC until 1046 BC, at that time the city was known as Yin.

Beijing, the current capital has held the position of capital city on several occasions under many different names. The capital since 1949 was known as Peking and also became referred to as Peip’ing and Beiping before the current name was introduced. It first became capital during the Spring and Autumn Period in the State of Yan from 722 until 481 BC and then called Ji. Under the Liao Dynasty of 907 until 1125 it was known as Yanjing and was a secondary capital.

During the Jin Dynasty of 1115 until 1234, Beijing was known as Zhongdu or ‘central capital’ under Emperor Shizong. Under the Yuan Dynasty of 1271 until 1368, the city was known as Dadu or ‘great capital’ in the Mongolian and Turkic languages of that time as reported by Marco Polo it was known as the ‘city of the Khan.’

The Ming Dynasty that began in the early 15th century until 1644 had the name of Jingshi for the city, simply meaning ‘capital.’ After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the ruling authority became the Qing from 1644 until they too were removed bringing an end to the Empire in 1912. The Republic of China ruled periodically in Beijing from 1912 until the country became the People’s Republic in 1949, during that period it was known as Beiyang.

Chengdu was the capital city for the Shu Kingdom in the period of the Three Kingdoms that lasted from 220 AD until 280 AD. The city was also briefly the capital of the ROC government under Chiang Kai-shek when the Sichuan city was the final enclave of that government during the Chinese civil war against the Communist Party of China in late 1949.

Chongqing, at that time the capital city of Sichuan province was the provisional capital during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) under Chiang Kai-shek when the capital was moved further inland to protect it from the invading Japanese army. Like Chengdu, the city was also briefly the seat of the ROC government during the conflict with the communist party that then saw the reformation into the People’s Republic.

Datong, also at that time known as Ta-t’ong, was the capital during the period of the Northern Wei Dynasty before the role of capital was moved to Luoyang in 493 AD.

In the Kingdom of Nanyue, in what are today parts of the provinces of Guangdong, Yunnan and Guangxi as well some of northern Vietnam, today’s city of Guangzhou was the capital from 206 until 111 BC. Nanyue is pronounced Nam Viet in Vietnamese and that countries name originates from here.

Hangzhou, the capital of the province of Zhejiang was the capital city of the Wuyue Kingdom from 904 until 978 AD during the period known as Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. During the Southern Song Dynasty, the city was known as Lin’an and ruled what was then China from 1127 until 1276.

During the Western Zhou Dynasty that ran from 1046 BC until 771 BC the capital was Fenghao, located close to what is today the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province in central China.

Kaifeng in Henan province was the capital city during four of the five dynasties during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period of China’s troubled past. During this period it was known as Daliang, Bianzhou, Dongjing and Bianjing although Kaifeng first appeared in the 2nd century BC and means, to ‘expand the borders.’ The city ruled from 907 AD until 923, then from 936 until the end of the Northern Song Dynasty in 1127.

Luoyang, another of the cities of today’s Henan province to have in its past been a capital of China was first given this role in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty from 770 BC until 256 BC. During this time the years from 722 until 481 were also known as the Spring and Autumn Period, while 403 until 221 BC is known historically as the Warring States Period. The decline of the Zhou dynasty was largely as a result of the Hundred Schools of Thought, the cultural expansion of Confucianism and Taoism as well as other schools of learning.

Luoyang then re-emerged as the capital in 25 AD when the Eastern Han Dynasty came into power, remaining capital during the Three Kingdoms period in the Kingdom of Wei and remaining as the capital city of the Western Jin Dynasty until 313. The city regained its role as capital from 493 until 534 under the Northern Wei Dynasty and then had its final short period of rule from 904 until 907 in the Later Tang Dynasty.

Nanjing, the capital of today’s province of Jiangsu has in its more recent past been known as Nanking and Nanching. Further back in history during its periods as capital of the various dynasties governing from there it has been known as Jianye and Jiankang. The city first became capital during the Three Kingdoms period under the Kingdom of Wu from 227 AD until 279. The next century under the Eastern Jin Dynasty it returned to power from 317 until the arrival of the Southern Dynasties, remaining capital until 589.

It was another eight centuries before Nanjing returned to its being the capital during the years of the Ming Dynasty from 1368 until 1421, until the Emperor Yongle moved the capital north to Beijing. At the end of that Dynasty the city briefly returned to being the capital from 1644 to 1645. In the 19th century during the Taiping Rebellion or Taiping Tianguo the city was known as Tianjing or ‘Heavenly Capital’ in the period known as the ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace and Prosperity’ from 1853 until 1864.

More recently Nanjing has been the Chinese capital when the country was the Republic of China in a period known as the Nanjing Decade from 1927 until the invasion by the Japanese in 1937. Finally during the Chinese civil war that followed Nanjing was the capital from 1940 until 1945 under the pro-Japanese collaboration government of Wang Jingwei and the period 1946 until 1949 under Chiang Kai-shek until he and his government fled to Taiwan.

In the 1920’s, the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province was the capital city of the government of the leftist Kuomintang under the leadership of Wang Jingwei and in direct opposition to Chiang Kai-shek.

Xanadu or Shangdu was the summer capital under the rule of Kublai Khan, it was located in what is today Inner Mongolia 275 kilometres or 170 miles to the north of Beijing. The city was burned to the ground in 1369 by the invading Ming army, only a grassy mound remains today of what was once a city built similar in style to that of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

The city of Xi’an, the present day capital of Shaanxi province has been the capital on a number of occasions. It was formerly known as Chang’an and nearby Fenghao was an earlier capital during the Western Zhou Dynasty until the capital was moved to the site of the present city. During the State of Qin in the dynasty of that name it was also capital from 221 BC until 207 BC when at that time it was known as Xianyang. It then continued to be capital under the Western Han Dynasty and the Xin Dynasty until 23 AD. The city returned as capital once again from 191 AD for just four years under the name of Chang’an in the Eastern Han Dynasty. Under the rule of the Western Jin Dynasty it was again the capital from 313 until 316 at the beginning of the State of Sixteen Kingdoms period. Xi’an or Chang’an was again the Chinese capital from 351 during the State of Former Qin and the later Qin until 417. The Western wei dynasty had the city as its western capital from 535 until 557, when it came until the authority of the Northern Zhou Dynasty and remained in the position of capital until 581. Under the Tang Dynasty it once again returned as capital in 618 until 907.

The city of Ye, also known as Yecheng was a famous city and one time capital in ancient China in the province of what is today Hebei. It was the capital of the Eastern Wei State and then the Northern Qi Dynasty from 534 AD until 577. In 580 the city was destroyed by invaders after it had been used as a base by forces resistant to the regime of that time. Recent excavations have unearthed many historical finds including 3,000 statues of Buddha carved from white marble and limestone in 2012 and believed to date from the middle of the sixth century.

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Comments (2)

Great details here!

Great research...thanks to you.

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