Acts Upon a Stage: A Look at Chinese Divine Culture through the History of Chang'an City

Li Xin

PureInsight | July 1, 2007

[] China, given
that name by westerners from the pronunciation of the Qin Dynasty,
which is the first empire in Chinese history, is also called the Divine
Land in Chinese culture. Chinese ancestors believed that this land was
the first stop when the gods and goddesses came to the mortal world
from heavens or paradises to create culture and civilization as human
beings, and that human culture is imparted by gods. There are many
myths and legends in the Divine Land, so the Chinese culture is also
thought of as a semi-divine culture.

Among the Chinese myths, there is a widely known tale that the bodies
of human beings were created by a goddess, Nuwa, from soil. According
to Buddhism, human souls come from the different paradises of various
Buddhas and are reincarnated in the mortal world again and again. So
the actual life is the soul but not the human body. The creation of
one's actual life is in the space of the universe. Some souls come to
the mortal world because they developed selfishness in paradises and
gradually their level was lowered until they fell into mortal world
("The Human Beings' Origin"). On the other hand, some of them are great
gods who bravely jump into the mortal world to save the beings who have
fallen here.

Chinese traditional culture emphasizes that people should follow the
edification of gods to be moral persons. Ancient China's science was
different from the science we've learned from the West in modern times,
because the study directly focused on the human body, life and the
universe. Chinese ancestors have, for millennia, taught the principles
of "valuing virtue," and many virtuous people have practiced
cultivation in Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism or other cultivation
methods to assimilate to the characteristics of the universe. Whether
modern people believe these myths and legends or not, the theories
included in them influenced Chinese people tremendously, and they are
widely reflected in the entire Chinese civilization and Chinese
people's life.

After reviewing the whole Chinese 5000-year history which began at the epoch of Yellow Emperor1,
one can find a very unusual and notable characteristic of cities and
towns. Just like a human beings' body, cities are also organisms so
they also follow the same fact of life: birth, growth, sickness, and
death. Then, human beings are like the souls of cities. Furthermore, if
taking cities to be great stages for dramas, the human beings in the
cities are actors. Most of the  time, the study of cities have
focused on scenarios of dramas or the skill of actors, which are also
ravishing. However, the meanings hidden in the drama, nevertheless, are
often ignored.

Looking at all the Chinese capital cities from the first dynasty, the
Xia (BC 2032 to BC 1600), to the last dynasty, the Qing (AD 1644 to AD
1911) or from the longest dynasty, the Zhou (BC 1066 to BC 206), to the
nearly shortest dynasty, the Qin (BC 221 to BC 207), one finds that
although the dramas shown in their capital cities were varied, there is
also a surprising commonality. From a certain viewpoint, one can tell
that they all teach people the same lesson: the flourishing and ruin of
cities is associated with the moral standard of the people there. This
is just like in the Chinese sayings, "although the earth is so
spacious, only persons with great virtue live there forever" and
"tyranny and incontinent desires without Tao lead to ruin." Chang'an
City, the capital city of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to AD 907) which was
the most rich and powerful dynasty in Chinese history, is a very good
example of this rule.

Setting the Stage: A City Built For Another Dynasty

In fact, Chang'an City, capital of the Tang Dynasty, was developed in
the Sui Dynasty (AD 581 to AD 618). After the end of the Han Dynasty
(BC 202 to AD 220), China had been in a divided situation for more than
300 years. Yang Jian, the founder of the Sui Dynasty, reunited China.
The first capital city was the old Chang'an City, the capital of the
Han Dynasty. However, after 800 years of warfare, the city was
dilapidated and the space was narrow. Yang Jian commanded that a new
capital city be developed.

After consulting the Xiangtu, which is the predecessor to the theory of Fengshui
for observing the landforms, the relationships of mountains and rivers
and local people's customs and local products, and Buwu, which is an
ancient augury to ask the deities about the good or ill luck of a site,
to decide which site was suitable for establishing the new capital, the
position of the new capital city was determined to be southeast of the
old capital. The first name of the new city was Daxing, which means
generous and flourishing.



Daxing City was the largest city in the world in that era. Its area was
nearly 84 square kilometers which was 7 times the size of
Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire in the
same historical period, and 6.2 times that of Baghdad, the capital city
of the Arabic Empire established in AD 800.

First, Old Chang'an City was demolished and the materials were
transported to build the new capital. The city was built at an
astonishing speed. In Only ten months the main parts of the city, such
as the palaces and most of the official buildings, were completed. The
other parts, such as markets and residential area for plebeians were
also measured and divided. Many captives and prisoners were used as
slaves. Farmers also had to serve for the court as laborers.

That farmers serve as laborers for the court is an institution of
feudal society in Chinese history. Virtuous emperors would only require
farmers to work after the harvest in Autumn and only work between 10
days to a month. As reward, emperors took the responsibility of
protecting them against aggression and rescuing them during disasters.
However, Yang Guang, the second emperor of the Sui Dynasty, continued
to force farmers to excavate the Great Canal while Daxing City was
under construction.

The Chinese people believed that every event could be analyzed based on
three factors: opportunities of time granted by Heaven, geographical
advantages, and unity among the people. Although Daxing City was being
built in a propitious location, it is not enough to make the Sui
Dynasty flourish. Without the people's support, after only a relatively
few years, the Sui Dynasty ended and was succeeded by the Tang Dynasty.
Consequently, without enjoying any of the fruit of their labor and only
playing in a short drama of themselves, the Sui left behind a great
stage for the Tang in Daxing.

The Great Tang Stage: "Capital City of Universe"

photo "CREATION" is from the 2007 NTDTV Chinese News Spectacular. The
legend portrayed in this piece is of a Buddha who brought deities to
humankind by reincarnating as Emperor Li Shimin and initiated the
culture of The Tang Dynasty. The Chinese characters in the background
mean "Grand Tang".

Contrary to most other dynasties, Tang did not demolish the capital
city of the former dynasty, instead, Daxing was still the capital but
the name was changed to Chang'an, which means long peace and harmony.

The Tang Dynasty flourished greatly under the just rule of Li Shimin,
the second Tang emperor, who was the real founder of the Tang Dynasty
and was considered to be the wisest emperor with great virtue in
Chinese history. Chang'an City boomed and the population increased
greatly. People flooded to Chang'an to witness its grandeur from all
over the world. By then, the large empty area of the city was filled
and the whole city was nearly completed.

As most of other capital cities in Chinese history, Chang'an City was
also a synthesis of the physical and spiritual aspects of civilization
and it is the best example. People in the city not only built the
physical form of their city, but also used their ideas from mythology
to guide their design of the city: the structure of the city reflected
the meaning of myths. In Chinese history, there never was any special
city planner or urban designer. This huge city was carefully designed
according to the Book of Changes and the Buddhist view of the universe.

Yin-Yang and Eight Triagrams according to the Book of Changes

The Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese book of divination dating
from the Zhou dynasty (1100 B.C.-221 B.C.).  The Taiji is the
symbol of the Tao School, popularly known in the West as the "yin-yang
symbol." Taiji evolves into the Eight Triagrams. The Eight Triagrams is
a prehistoric diagram thought to disclose the changes of the course of
nature. Eight Triagrams multiplied by Eight Triagrams is 64 changes.
Each of them has a meaning.

The relationship between the site of Chang'an City and divinatory symbols.

The image above shows that the site of Chang'an City had a gentle
downward slope from the southeast to the northwest. According to the
geographical altitude, it could be divided into 6 levels. After
calculations using Book of Changes, each level corresponds to one of
the 64 changes. From the best to the worst, the order of each level in
the area was ascertained, then the function of each area was decided by
the virtue reflected from the meaning of each change.


Purple color is the Palace City.

Dark color is the Royal City.

Green color is for markets.

Blue color is the lake in the royal park which was open to the public.

The master plan of Chang'an City in the Tang Dynasty.

The best was the fifth level, which has the meaning that "there are
flying dragons in the sky." However, the noblest area located was not
planned for palaces, but for Buddhist and Taoist temples. This is an
evidence of a deep reverence for the heavens in Chinese culture.
Although Chinese emperors were rulers of the entire nation and were
absolute monarchs, they were considered to be "the son of heaven," and
only ruled under the mandate of heaven and had to conform to the
Heavenly Tao. If they broke this mandate in their lives, then the
people and ministers would criticize them, or even overthrow them in
the name of "enforcing the Tao for heaven."

According to Confucius' explanation, the meaning of the second best
area is to "reunite the world in harmony and compassion without war,
(using) plentiful virtue to enlighten (people) ," which is exactly the
virtue that emperors should follow. In Chang'an City, it was located on
the second level and was planned as the Palace City, a huge courtyard
with all the residences and offices of the Emperor.

The third level of the city contained and reflected the meaning of "men
of honor are diligent all day long and maintain caution about their
actions and works even at night," which is exactly the virtue that
ministers should follow. The third level was planned as the Royal City,
a huge courtyard that included the office space for all governmental

In the same way, the first level was meant "cannot build" according to
the Book of Changes. Thus it was designated to be the Emperor's private
garden. The fourth level, with the meaning of "change follow
opportunities, spring forward to make progress," was planned for two
marketplaces. The sixth level with the meaning of "haughty dragon feels
regret" was designated to be a royal park which was open to the public.
On each holiday, the residents, no matter their standing, would often
come to relax and walk in the park. All the other areas were

As a result, although Chang'an City was not planned according to modern
theories of city planning, the land use is quite reasonable. The
locations of the great temples and markets were convenient for all the
residents. The Royal City was just south of the Palace City, so the
officials could deliver files to emperors very quickly without
disturbing the life of civilians. Everyone had the right and the
opportunity to enjoy the beautiful urban and natural scenery from the
high tower in the park.

The core of Chinese culture is "harmony between heaven (or nature) and
humankind." All the numbers of the blocks and the numbers on the gates
in the city wee decided by astronomy and the lunar calendar. In fact,
the whole city was a model of the universe.

Chang'an city blocks.

Not only were the Royal City and the Palace City enclosed by city
walls, every primary block was also enclosed by walls. There were small
temples, workshops, and retail establishments in each "small city."
Thus, though the gates of the "small city" would be closed during
night, people's lives were not inconvenienced. Also, inside each of the
"small cities," every residential or official building was also divided
by walls. This layout is a reflection of the Buddhist view of universe:
that small particles/worlds form large particles/worlds, and large
particles/worlds form larger particles/worlds, to infinity, which has
been recognized to be correct by modern physics. Both the spirit and
physical form of Chang'an City simulate the universe. In the words of
Meiwei Dayan, a professor at Japan Central University, Chang'an City
was the "the capital city of the universe."

In short, the planning of Chang'an City emphasized the meaning of
virtue and imitated the natural system. The design helped the Chinese
people to remember the virtue they should have and made it easy for
them to simulate the characteristics of universe.

Drama on Stage: Culture & Life in Chang'an

The Tang Dynasty held an open attitude to different faiths. The local
religions such as Taoism and Confucianism, and Buddhism from India, as
well as several other religions from Persia existed simultaneously.
Living in a very open spiritual world and enlightened by the moral
theories in religions, people in the Tang Dynasty were tolerant. They
enjoyed and absorbed foreign cultures. Chang'an City was the terminal
of the Silk Road. The western market in Chang'an was the international
trade center of the world. According to the record in Tang Six
, more than 300 nations and regions had business relationships
with Chang'an. Nearly 10,000 families from western foreign countries
lived in the city, especially the area around the western market. There
were many foreign inns staffed by foreign serving women chosbb en for
their beauty. The most celebrated poet in Chinese history, Li Bai,
often wandered among them. Foreign food, dresses, music were the
fashion in Chang'an City.


Foreign trade caravan            Chang'an market scene   

People in the Tang Dynasty absorbed many different countries' cultures
and many countries also dispatched legates to learn Chinese culture.
Even now, in Japan, people still have the strong feeling of being taken
back to the Tang Dynasty after seeing traditional, ancient Japanese


The main hall of Nanchan Temple, AD 782, Shanxi, China, the oldest
wooden structure that has been found in China until

The main hall of Eastern Temple, Nara Period(AD
710 to 794), Japan.

In traditional Chinese culture, according to the theory of Yin-Yang,
"the male takes charge of exterior issues while the female takes charge
of interior issues." This would create a harmonious relationship of yin
(female) and yang (male) in families. People in the Tang Dynasty also
followed this rule but were not doctrinaire or extremist. Females also
could attend social activities such as banquets and even went on
excursions riding on horses.

Madam Guoguo going on a spring excursion. Xuan Zhang. (713-741)

According to Confusionism, female virtue should consist of softness,
goodness, courtliness, prudence, and courtesy. Empress Zhangsun, Li
Shimin's wife, was a female with a great reputation for virtue.
Although she did not directly influence political decision-making, she
often wisely advised Li Shimin to accept criticism from his ministers.

Furthermore, females even had the chance to be involved in political
activities in the Tang Dynasty. Wu Zetian, Li Shimin's imperial
concubine, became the only female emperor in Chinese history and was
renowned for great achievements. In turn, she appointed some talented
females as ministers. Although this seems to reverse the natural order
of yin and yang by having the woman rule, Wu Zetian's story
demonstrates a larger truth of Chinese mythology, that the greatly
virtuous return to their home in heaven. Wu Zetian commanded that a
great statue of the Buddha be built in the nearby Luoyang City. It is
said that the countenance of the statue resembled that of the female
emperor, that she was, in fact, godlike.

The Great Buddha Statue in Longmen Grotto. Taken by Xin Li (2002).

In short, the Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty was intricately
related to its flourishing and achievements. It was a society in which
morality was high, people held great virtue and respected all races,
nationalities, groups, and genders, It flourished economically,
politically and also spiritually. This was also undoubtedly an
embodiment of the universal characteristics of truthfulness, compassion
and tolerance that was the guiding principle of Chinese people in this

The Last Act: Ruination of Chang'an City

After the diadem returned tothe Li Family, Emperor Li Longji, who was
the grandson of Wu Zetian, created another age of wonder on the
foundation created by Li Shimin and Wu Zetian.

He reduced palace expenditures and appointed able and virtuous
ministers. China became very rich and the population of the Tang Empire
increased to 48.91 million. This is the peak and golden era in the Tang

However, according to the theory in Book of Changes, if something is
too puissant, it will decline. That is one of the reason why Confucius
taught people to keep their hearts in the middle of the road.

Li Longji became proud of his achievements. During his dotage,
attracted by her beauty, he married his daughter-in-law, Yang Yuhuan2,
and ignored governmental affairs.

As a result, the An Shi Rebellion occurred and continued for 8 years.
Chang'an City was badly mangled and could not be rehabilitated because
other rebellions had happened in border areas and the materials could
not be transported to Chang'an.

The drama in Chang'an City was ended. Even the stage was dismantled, not by other people, but by themselves.

In AD 904, the Tang Empire had to abandon Chang'an City and moved to a
new capital city east of Chang'an. The governments attempted to use the
material of Chang'an to build the eastern capital, Luoyang. Many
buildings in Chang'an were dismantled and the wooden material was cast
into the river. However, instead of floating to Luoyang, the majority
of the wood got lost in the river. A grand city, which was built
dramatically, dramatically disappeared, not only the form of city, the
architectures, but even the material as well.

The Moral behind the Scenes

In the contemporary era, people discuss sustainable development a lot.
The interdisciplinary studies and innovation in technology provide
people more spaces and more methods to achieve the goal. Nonetheless,
many civilizations were ruined not due to lack of technology, but due
to the ruin of human beings' morality. Chinese architecture is a
beautiful manifestation of Chinese culture throughout the ages and a
living historical textbook for thousands of years of descendants to
learn from. The ancient Chinese believed that human beings should
esteem heaven and earth, cherish nature and other creatures, and
respect each other. Indeed, overlooking the entire Chinese history, the
rise and fall of dynasties is related to human being's moral values.
Those who are able to assimilate to the universal characteristics
prosper, while those who go against it decline. In many great myth and
legends, one can learn a great deal from their essential core meaning
and, as the ancient Chinese saying goes, "although the earth is so
spacious, only persons with great virtue live there forever."


1The Yellow Emperor lived 5,000 years ago and is recognized as the symbolic ancestor of all Chinese people

2one of the four great Beauties in Chinese history

Add new comment