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China is an ancient civilized country with a long history of five thousand years known around the world. With the development of politics, economy or historical reasons, the capital usually moved to a new one, which results of numerous ancient Chinese capitals from different dynasties. On the vast territory of China, lots of large capitals were formed as political center as well as economic and cultural center. Generally speaking, migration of past capitals is east-west direction first and followed by north-south. Just because of their super status, ancient capitals such as Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou, Luoyang and others presented the highest level in fields of authorities and society during respective dynasties. So to speak, no tours in one Chinese capital in the past, no understanding of Chinese history you will get. The following seven ancient capitals Beijing, Xian, Hangzhou, Nanjin, Luoyang, Kaifeng and Anyang are the most famous on the list. And current reality shows Beijing, Xian and Nanjing are the best three reflections of Chinese dynasties of past ages with the most cultural relics in original look.
Location: Northeastern China.
Dynasties: 6 (Later Yan Dynasty, Liao Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty, Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty.)
As the most celebrated capital with over 3000 years and history of more than 850 as ancient capital, Beijing (previous name: Peking) is a world famous historical and cultural city and one of the seven ancient Chinese capitals. Once was the political, economic and cultural center for many ancient dynasties, therefor Beijing bred numerous historical heritages like the Forbidden City - the most magnificent imperial palace in the world.
Study of history shows the earliest records dates back to the Later Yan Dynasty from 1045 BC when Beijing was titled Ji (蓟) and Yanjing (燕京). Then it served as one of the deputy capitals from A.D 938 of Liao Dynasty and named as Nanjing (南京) during that period. Until Jin Dynasty, Beijing became a nationwide political center - the middle of the five capitals and the official metropolis in the following Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty. Modern era of Beijing began in the 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Looking back, major historical sites in Beijing were mainly generated from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, for example the Tiananmen Square intimately built in Ming and reconstructed in Qing, the majestic Forbidden City - royal palace for the two kingdoms, Summer Palace of Qing, Badaling Great Wall and Ming Tombs of emperor family wereerected in Ming Dynasty. Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian is another highlight of history of Beijing, where displays the first complete cranium fossil of Sinanthropus pekinensis – earthshaking finding on human development.
Location: Shaanxi Province, Central China.
Dynasties: 13 (Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Xin Mang, Eastern Han, Western Jin, Pre-Zhao, Pre-Qin, Later Qin, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui and Tang Dynasty.)
Xian (once called Chang-an) is one of the major birthplace of Chinese civilization and Chinese nation, as well as a member of the Top Ten Ancient Capitals in the world listed as the World Cultural and Historical City by UNESCO with ancient Rome, Athens, Babylon and etc in 1981.
According to the long history, Xian is the longest ancient Chinese capital established with the most dynasties and the easternmost origin of Silk Road in China, for there are 13 dynasties or regimes made Xian a capital for more than 1200 years.Therefore, abundant cultural and historical legacies were produced in this most influential ancient capital. After King Wu of Western Zhou Dynasty conquered Shang Dynasty, the authority took Xian to be the capital city Fenghao(丰镐); hence Xian started the capital status from then on. As time changes, Xian was later recognized as important capital repeatedly in Qin, Han, Sui Dynasties and more. The well-known Terrace Warriors & Horse in Xian is the exquisite masterpiece by the first emperor of Qin Dynasty. The last Tang Dynasty was the most prosperous age for Xian, when the economy and culture were flourishing into the leading position in the world, and Taoism and Buddhist gained unprecedented development at that time.
Location: Southwest Jiangsu Province, Eastern China.
Dynasties: 6 (Sun Wu, Eastern Jin, Liu Song, Xiao Qi, Xiaoliang and Chen Dynasty.)
Cultural & Historical Sites：Ming Tombs, Confucius Temple, Dabaoen Temple.
Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province and the only megacity in Yangtze River Delta, is the ancient capital of six Dynasties for about 500 years. Though the city got established for 2600 or so, it was identified as capital Jianye (建业)in A.D. 229 by emperor of Wu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period, hereafter, more dynasties inherited this choice and called it Jiankang (建康) during Six Dynasties. After renaming Moling to Jianye, King Sun Quan built many irrigation systems, strove to develop metallurgy of copper and iron and revered Buddhist around ancient Nanjing, Dabaoen Temple (the former Jianchu temple) - the earliest temple of Jiangnan and Southern China and the second Buddhist temple after White Horse Temple in Luoyang in China was built at that time.
In the Six Dynaties, ancient Nanjing was one of the largest cities in the world whose population reached to 1 million first. And Nanjing initiated the precedent system of axisymmetric layout, the architecture construction style and plan that had profound effect on the later ages of China and countries in East Asia. Now the Nanjing Library and The Oriental Metropolitan Museum both kept much more relics of ancient Nanjing during the six dynasties. Still Nanjing in Ming Dynasty played essential political and cultural part, therefore there are plenty of historical relics reserved from Ming e.g. Ming Tomb, Tai Ancient City Wall.
Location: Western Henan Province, Mid-eastern China.
Dynasties: 13 (Xia, Shang, Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou, Eastern Han, Caowei, Western Jin, Northern Wei, Sui, Tang, Later Liang, Later Tang and Later Jin Dynasties.)
Luoyang is another ancient capital for 13 dynasties same as Xian. Situated in West Henan Province and Middle reach of Yellow River, it is a main seminary of Chinese civilization and hub of ancient Sui Tang Grand Canal. Until now, Luoyang owns 5 World Cultural Heritage sites including Longmen Grottes, Hanwei Luoyang Ancient City Ruins, Dingding Gate, Huiluo Cabin and Hanjia Granary of the Grand Canal of China.
Xia Dynasty of 21 century BC is the earliest country set capital in Luoyang, the most abundant cultural relics - Erlitou Ruins from Middle and late Xia and early Shang Dynasty are one of the remarkable ancient legacy of China. Shang Dynasty also left the magnificent Luoyang Shang City Ruins built in 1600BC with rich pottery, copper wares and jade articles. After moving capital to east Luoyang during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty , Luoyang lasted the political center for over 500 years. Later to the Tang Dynasty of Emperor Gaozong who made Luoyang as the eastern capital with ancient Xian, then Emperor Xuanzong ordered to repair the Taoist shrine on Mount Songshan - Zhongyue Temple and granted name of Tizu Tower in Fengxue Temple, and changed Luoyang into Dongjing. When in Wuzhou Dynasty, Empress Wuzetian expanded Luoyang and renamed it to God Capital, excavated Longmen Grottes to a larger scale, renovated the White Horse Temple and worshipped the Buddhism spread in China.
Location: Mid - Eastern Henan Province, China.
Dynasties: 8 (Xia, Wei, Later Liang, Later Jin, Later Han, Later Zhou, Northern Song and Jin Dyansty.)
Cultural & Historical Sites：Dragon Pavilion, Iron Pagoda, Daxiangguo Temple, Kaifeng Fu, Fan Pagoda.
Being the only ancient capital where the center axis of city planning keeps originally all the time, Kaifeng used to be capitals for 8 reigns. Here is the inspiration of Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival (one of China’s top ten painting handed down from ancient times) and a rare city reserved stack of ancient cities overlaid others built in different dynasties.
Since King Sizhu of Xia Dynasty moved capital to Laoqiu (老丘-ancient Kaifeng), Kaifeng went through about 200 years as political center in Xia. Then in 361 BC, King Hui of Wei Dynasty moved capital back to Daliang (大梁-previous Kaifeng) from Anyi in Shanxi. From 907 A.D. of Later Liang Dynasty, there is more six dynasties successively made Kaifeng the capital for about 200 years, which includes two years in the first period of Later Liang, ten years in Later Jin, four years of Later Han, ten years of Later Zhou and 168 years as Dongjing (东京) during the Northern Song Dynasty and 19 years as Bianjing (汴京-ancient Kaifeng ) of late Jin Dynasty.
Present Kaifeng simply kept few cultural relics for the severely damage it suffered. The most historic site Dragon Pavilion consisting of many ancient architecture communities was the royal palace for the six dynasties. As for period of North Song, the 13-stored Iron Pagoda with height of 55.88 was built, the then Buddhist center and the biggest temple - Daxiangguo Temple got multiple expansion and Kaifeng Fu - government site was preserved originally.
Location: Norther Henan Province, Mid-Eastern China.
Dynasties: 7(Shang, Cao Wei, Later Zhao, Ran Wei, Pre-Yan, Eastern Wei and Northern Qi Dynasty.)
Cultural & Historical Sites：Yin Ruins, Yongji Canal, Lingquan Temple Grottoes.
Lies in the northernmost Henan Province, Anyang is known as one of the ten oldest cities of China where the Oracle Bone Inscriptions were found and the Book of Changes (周易) originated. Known as an ancient capital of seven dynasties, Anyang has two sites Yin Ruins and Yongji Canal of the Grand Canal of China listed as World Cultural Heritages.
Capital Yin in later Shang Dynasty for 273 years counts as the earliest stage of Anyang and it ended as Capital Ye (邺) in the Northern Qi Dynasty for 28 years. As a once prosperous capital, Yin is rich in archeological ruins and cultural sites. The best-known one is Yin Ruins made of emperor tombs, palaces and Huanbei Shang City from Shang Dynasty, which is the first ancient capital can be traced in literatures and confirmed by archaeology and the oldest Chinese character - Oracle Bone Inscriptions. Moreover, the Lingquan Temple Grottes starting in Eastern Wei Dyansty is a grotto complex with pagoda forest. Lane City (Youli City-羑里城) of Shang Dynasty has the earliest national prison and is the cradle where Zhouyi Culture was born.
Location: North Zhejiang Province, Southeast China.
Dynasties: 2 (Wuyue and Southern Song Dynasty)
Located in south-east coast region of China, Hangzhou is also one of the seven famous ancient Chinese capitals, the Wuyue Kingdom from Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period and the Southern Song Dynasty once set capital here. Though Hangzhou merely has 210 years history of capital role for two regional Dynasties, the short periods, especially the Southern Song Dynasty promoted growth of Hangzhou in all fields, including population, upgraded status in politics, economy and culture, even the West Lake was fully exploited and sharped. So the large number of cultural heritage and natural landscape in Hangzhou gains it membership of famous ancient capitals of China.
During Wuyue Kingdom, the emperor facilitated transportation between Hangzhou and coastland cities, made trade with ancient Japan and Korea. Besides, the kings built lots of Buddhist temples, stupas, and grottoes to breed Buddhism in China, such as expanded Linyin Temple up to nine towers, eighteen pavilions and seventy-two halls with lots of cliff inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures and stupas, erected Zhaoqing Temple and Jingci Temple. The original Leifeng Pagoda stands on Lei Peak of Sunset Mountain by the West Lake was constructed to celebrate the emperor's concubines get a baby by King of Wuyue. And Tomb of King Qian from Wuyue is the only well-preserved emperor tomb in Zhejiang Province.
Since 1138 of the Southern Song Dynasty, Hangzhou was officially pointed as an assistance capital which was described as the most beautiful city in the world and its prosperity is outstanding in the Travels of Marco Polo - a journey book by Venice travelers Marco Polo. During this time, Liuhe Tower - one of the best reserved ancient towers of brick and wood was rebuilt and an honorable story of national hero Yue Fei handed down.
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Except the above 7 great ancient capitals, there are much more historical cities in China used to be capitals for you to discover China’s regional culture and history, such as Chengdu, Zhengzhou, Guangzhou, Xianyang, Datong and etc. Tourists can search the Shu Culture in Temple of Marquis (Wuhouci), Shuming Tomb built during the Three Kingdoms Period and close to the living fossil – cute Giant Panda in Chengdu. Or visit amazing Hanging Temple, grandiose Yungang Grottoes in Datong of Shanxi Province to know more about the Buddhist art or culture developed in the early dynasties. Find the best interesting city tour in China as you like, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, Guilin, Zhangjiajie, Zhengzhou, Hong Kong, Yangtze River Cruise, and so forth in a suitable pace. Interested in that? Please feel free to contact our professional Travel Consultant who would give great service for you with nice quotation!
Top 3 tours chosen by most customers to explore in the best way. Check the detailed itinerary, or tailor your own trip now with us.
Nanjing / Suzhou / Hangzhou / Shanghai
Xian / Luoyang / Dengfeng / Zhengzhou
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[Important] Travel News for Expats: China travel is reopening now! Travel with China Discovery and learn about where to visit & requirements for each destination! Read Details >