China’s First Imperial Capital


Whenever Qin destroyed a feudal lord, an imitation of his mansion would be built on the northern slope of Xianyang, overlooking the Wei river. From the Gate of Harmony east to the river, halls and residences were connected by elevated colonnades to the galleries surrounding them. They were filled with captured bells, drums and beautiful girls.


Xianyang, situated on the lower reaches of the Wei river in China’s Shaanxi province, some 20 km (12 miles) northwest of present-day Xi’an, was the capital of the state of Qin from 350 BC and subsequently China’s first imperial capital. The site of the city as the state capital had been selected by Shang Yang, Prime Minister of Qin, in the 4th century BC, for its strategic position in fine agricultural land and its effective communications in the land at the ‘centre of the passes’. When Qin later emerged triumphant from among the seven separate states battling for supremacy during the period referred to as the Warring States, Qin Shi Huangdi became the First Emperor, unifying the massive area that we now know as China.

Animal mask ring holder from Palace 1, Xianyang. The scale of palace building is becoming apparent from excavation, which has revealed high-quality architectural fittings demonstrating the skill of contemporary bronze working.

Xianyang Municipal Museum, Shaanxi.

By the time he took control in 221 BC, Qin Shi Huangdi had already begun extensive building works in Xianyang, starting with the construction of the ‘New’ palace (later re-named for the Heavenly Apex Star, the symbol of the emperor), which is said to have been inspired by a trip he made to the Chickenhead Mountain, 195 km (120 miles) northwest of Xi’an. From the Heavenly Apex Star palace, a road led to Mount Li, where he built the Sweet Springs palace for the Dowager Empress. This latter palace was connected to Xianyang by a walled corridor leading from its front hall. The First Emperor is said to have then continued with the building of 300 palaces, culminating in the construction of the Epang (or Efang) palace in 212 BC.

Historical accounts describe the rapid development of Xianyang as the First Emperor sought to consolidate his rule. In 221 BC he forcibly moved 120,000 rich and powerful families to Xianyang (amounting to a total of perhaps 600,000 people including servants, concubines and slaves). He also ordered the careful reproduction of their original dwellings along the north bank of the Wei river, in a new settlement that stretched for many miles both above and below the capital. In this flurry of construction he is said to have conscripted 700,000 labourers (castrated or banished prisoners), although they were also busy constructing his famous tomb surrounded by armies of terracotta warriors.

A chariot pulled by four horses, found to the west of the First Emperor’s tomb. One of two chariots excavated, the fine details of the casting provide an accurate picture of open and closed chariots of the period and their equipment.

Qin Shihuang Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, Shaanxi.

Sima Qian (who died in around 86 BC), compiled the historical record of China’s history known as Shiji, or The Grand Scribe’s Records, and described the palaces and residences overlooking the Wei connected by colonnades to the galleries around them and filled with bells and drums and women captured from the feudal lords. The bells and bell racks may have been cast from the weapons he confiscated from the states he had subdued; likewise the twelve massive bronze statues which were placed in the courtyard of his palace. Fortunately, Sima Qian’s work has come down to us, though probably with alterations and interpolations, with the earliest surviving printed edition dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279).

Depiction of the Epang Palace by Yuan Jiang (fl. c. 1722–35), who was famous for his paintings of ‘historic’ buildings, often set in massive landscapes, showing how they were imagined centuries after their destruction.

Palace Museum, Beijing.

Xianyang was also improved by canal links to other river systems and a massive road network totalling 6,800 km (4,225 miles). This system of imperial highways radiating north, northeast, east and southeast from the capital was dominated by Meng Tian’s ‘straight road’ stretching northwards into the Ordos desert. The roads were said to be 50 paces wide and planted with trees at intervals of 9 m (30 feet). Surviving sections vary in width from 5 m (16½ ft) to 24 m (78 ft) in the grasslands. Near the capital, the central section of the road was reserved for the chariots of the ruling house, with messengers and officials taking the outer lanes. The passage of imperial chariots must have been an impressive sight, for the First Emperor chose black as the colour for all imperial regalia.

Construction on the Epang palace (thought by some to mean ‘gabled’ and possibly a temporary name) began in 212 BC, because it seems the First Emperor felt that Xianyang itself was too crowded. A great hall, said to be capable of holding 10,000 people, was built in the old Shanglin park on the south bank of the river Wei. A poem of the 2nd century BC describes a later imperial park, with natural rivers channelled through chasms and gorges and meandering through groves of cinnamon trees before flowing into great pools filled with turtles, sturgeon, salamanders, carp and bream, and with grebes and heron pecking at water-chestnuts and lotuses. The emperor’s plan was to link his palace with Xianyang on the opposite bank of the river by means of a covered walk so that he could travel incognito. However, it would appear that the great hall was the only part of the palace to have been finished by the time Qin Shi Huangdi died in 210 BC.

The Qin dynasty did not long survive the First Emperor’s death. In 206 BC a rebel army led by Liu Bang (who became the first emperor of the Han dynasty the following year) arrived in Xianyang, sealed up the treasuries and libraries and left. A rival rebel leader, Xiang Yu, then sacked Xianyang, massacred its inhabitants, killed the king of Qin who had surrendered bearing his seal of office round his neck on a vermilion cord, and destroyed everything behind him, leaving the Epang palace to burn for days.

Portrait of Qin Shi Huangdi, an imagined creation probably painted in the early 19th century, perhaps by a Korean artist.

British Library, London.

As timber was always the fundamental material used in Chinese constructions, very little survives of the early buildings beyond their foundations, which were frequently built over. Archaeologists investigating what is left of the Epang palace suggest that it was not in fact burnt down (and the account of its destruction owes much to the fact that it was written at the behest of the descendants of Liu Bang, who had defeated Xiang Yu). The remains of the great hall revealed complex systems of drainage with large ceramic pipes (which resemble the legs of the soldiers in the contemporary terracotta army in the First Emperor’s tomb) and decorative end-tiles. Fragments of wall paintings depicting massed horse-drawn chariots have also survived, although there is little else of the structure.

The palace hall was presumably a timber-frame construction; Qin and Han buildings achieved much of their dramatic height through being constructed on high stepped platforms made of tamped earth, around which timber-framed galleries were erected at the lower levels, thus creating the illusion of a multi-storeyed building. If the temporary name of the great hall is correctly interpreted, the roof must have been of hipped gable construction. The foundations of the main Qin palace have also been excavated, revealing pentagonal drainage pipes and decorative floor tiles.

Xianyang itself, once the imperial capital, was at least partially destroyed with the defeat of the Qin by the Han dynasty and has now become part of greater Xi’an. This is ironic, for today’s Xi’an also covers the ancient city of Chang’an, the capital of the Han dynasty, situated only a few kilometres upstream from its predecessor. The local museums, in Xianyang and at the Epang palace site, contain relics of Xianyang’s greatness during the Qin dynasty, although their contents are overshadowed by the nearby tomb of the First Emperor.

Detail of a mural fragment from Palace 3, Xianyang. The lively depiction of spirited horses pulling a chariot must have formed part of a magnificent series of wall-paintings adorning the First Emperor’s palaces.

Xianyang Municipal Conservation Center for Cultural Relics, Shaanxi.

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