The most populated country in the world covers a vast territory inhabited by different ethnic groups and religions. As you can imagine, it’s not easy to rule such a big and important country. No wonder China changed its capital so many times throughout history. Moreover, it’s a country with a very long and rich history. Thus, it’s no surprise many Chinese cities were national or regional capitals.
Some historical capitals of China have lost their importance over time. They are barely middle-sized cities. Others have grown into regional, national, or international powerhouses. Beijing, for instance, has remained the capital of China and its most important city throughout the centuries. While some host layers of heritage, evidence of their historical importance, others are home to only a handful of sites.
Four Great Ancient Capitals of China
The Four great ancient capitals of China are Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, and Luoyang. All four cities were national capitals on several occasions, sometimes even for a long time. Xi’an and Luoyang are some of the most ancient Chinese capitals. Nanjing became the national capital a little bit later and Beijing centuries after. The four cities were also seats of regional kingdoms.
The four ancient Chinese capitals are very different today. Beijing, Nanjing, and Xi’an have managed to maintain their position as important political, cultural, and educational centers. They are amongst the ten largest cities in China. While Beijing is the national capital, Nanjing and Xi’an are provincial ones. Beijing and Xi’an are also China’s top tourist destinations. Luoyang, on the other side, is a city of barely two million people.
Former names: Ji, Yanjing, Nanjing, Zhongdu, Dadu, Daidu, Khanbaliq, Jingshi
Beijing is undoubtedly the most important Chinese city. The earliest traces of human settlement on the present-day territory of Beijing date back to the 11th century BC. Beijing was then called Jicheng, and it was the old capital of China’s Ji kingdom. Through centuries it was also the capital of smaller, regional kingdoms. During the Ming dynasty, Beijing was the northern capital, thus its name. It was also the Qing dynasty capital, the seat of the Republic of China, and is still the capital of the People’s Republic of China.
Today, Beijing is a modern and cosmopolitan city with a great past and even greater future. It revolves around the monumental Forbidden City, where Chinese emperors lived for almost 500 years. Other remnants of the imperial past include the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Bell and Drum Towers, and several royal mansions. The nearby Great Wall of China, one of the world’s largest man-made structures, is part of Beijing’s imperial legacy.
Former names: Zongzhou, Xianyang, Chang’an, Daxing
Xi’an has been an important city throughout history. It was the first capital of united China under the Qin dynasty. At that time, its name was Xianyang, and its exact location a few kilometers northwest of the present-day city. It was later the capital of several kingdoms, including the Western Han, Xin, Eastern Han, Western Jin, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, and Tang dynasties. Impressive, right?
Xi’an’s glorious past can still be seen all over the city and beyond. The city center is inside a giant City Wall, China’s most famous. Though the current wall dates back to 1370, it contains layers of an older wall from the Tang dynasty, when Xi’an was China’s capital. Three majestic structures date back to those times: the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. Nevertheless, the most impressive site is outside of the city. The royal mausoleum from the 3rd century BC is home to more than 8800 Terracotta Warriors!
Former names: Jianye, Jiankang, Tianjing
Nanjing came into prominence in the 3rd century when it was the capital of the Eastern Wu dynasty. Later on, it was the capital of the Eastern Jin and all four Southern Dynasties during the Three Kingdoms period. At that time, its name was Jianye or Jiankang. After the rise of the Ming dynasty, it was once again the capital of China. When the dynasty split, Nanjing was its southern capital (thus its name). Nanjing was also the former capital city of the Republic of China, right before Beijing.
Nanjing is the famed old capital of China with a special place in national history. Numerous historical layers bear proof of the glorious past. The majestic City Wall of Nanjing was built by the Ming Dynasty founder right after he established Nanjing as his capital in 1368. Though the Ming’s Palace didn’t survive, many historical places, including the monumental Ming’s Mausoleum, are still there. Additionally, Nanjing hosts numerous structures from when it was the capital of the Republic of China.
Former names: Qiongshi, Chengzhou, Dongdu
Since its unification in the 3rd century BC, ancient China often changed its capital city. In the beginning, one of the most common capitals was the city of Luoyang. It was the seat of the Eastern Han dynasty, the Western Jin dynasty, the Northern Wei dynasty, and the Wu Zhou. Finally, it was the capital of the Later Tang and the Later Liang dynasties during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. From then on, the city gradually lost importance.
Luoyang was an imperial city a long time ago. Thus, it’s no surprise that only a handful of sites from those times still exist. Ming dynasty razed the ancient Luoyang City Wall to the ground. What we see today is a newer wall from the Qing dynasty. Nevertheless, two impressive historical sites close to the city have survived up until today. Longmen Grottoes is one of the best examples of Chinese Buddhist art. The White Horse Temple, on the other hand, is the oldest Buddhist temple in China!
Other Chinese Capital Cities
Among the numerous cities that governed China at least once, the most important ones are Kaifeng, Hangzhou, and Anyang. Together with the previously mentioned four cities, they are the so-called seven ancient capitals of China. Kaifeng is part of the group since the 1920s, Hangzhou since the 1930s, and Anyang since 1988. In 2004 Zhengzhou became the eighth historical capital. The other two former Chinese capital cities worth mentioning are Datong and Chengdu.
Chengdu is among the ten most populated cities in China, while Hangzhou and Zhengzhou are among the top twenty. All three are cosmopolitan megalopolises, capitals of their respective provinces. Additionally, Chengdu and Hangzhou are some of the most popular tourist destinations in China. Datong, Anyang, and Kaifeng are much smaller, with a population between one and two million people. However, all three are home to unique historical heritage.
Former names: Laoqiu, Daliang, Bianjing, Dongjing, Nanjing
Kaifeng is the next most important ancient capital of China after the four great ones. It dates back to the 4th century BC when it was the capital of the State of Wei, part of the Zhou dynasty. After the Qin conquered the city, it laid in ruins for centuries. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, Kaifeng was the capital of Later Liang, Later Tang, Later Jin, Later Han, and Later Zhou dynasties. Finally, when the Song dynasty overthrew the later Zhou, they kept Kaifeng as their capital.
Kaifeng was an important city between the 10th and 12th centuries when it was the largest city in China, home to 600 000 people. It gradually started to lose importance, and in 1954 it lost status as the provincial capital. Today it’s a relatively small city with plenty of historical heritage. Numerous structures from the Song dynasty, including the City Wall, Dragon Pavilion, and Iron Pagoda, are still standing.
Former names: Xifu, Lin’an, Khinzay
Hangzhou became important during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period when it was the capital of Wuyue Kingdom. In the 12th century, after losing Kaifeng to the Jurchens, the Southern Song dynasty moved their capital down south to Hangzhou. It remained the national capital for over a century. According to some sources, it was the largest city in the world with more than one million people.
After the Mongol invasion, the capital of the newly established Yuan dynasty moved from Hangzhou to Beijing. Nevertheless, Hangzhou remained one of the most important cities in the south for centuries. Today, it is an enormous city, the capital of Zhenjiang Province. It is built around the spectacular West Lake, with historical temples along its shores. Many of those temples are from the times when Hangzhou was China’s old capital.
Former names: Yin, Zhangde
Anyang is one of the oldest Chinese cities and its first stable capital. Originally called Yin, it was the capital of the Shang dynasty for more than three centuries. Yin was so important that people started calling the Shang dynasty Yin. In 1056 BC the King Wu of the Zhou dynasty razed the city to the ground. The ancient Chinese capital of Yu was approximately 2 kilometers north of the current city of Anyang.
Anyang never recovered from its former glory. Today, it is a relatively small city with little importance. Nevertheless, the archeological artifacts on the site of the ancient capital Yin are some of the most valuable in the whole country. They include the foundations of original palaces, temples, tombs, oracle bones, and oracle bone script, the earliest known Chinese writing. It’s a World Heritage Site.
Former names: Xibo, Aodu, Guanzheng, Guanzhou
Zhengzhou is even older than Anyang. According to a legend, the Chinese primogenitor Yellow Emperor was born here 5000 years ago. Between 1766 BC and 1046 BC, Zhengzhou (called Aodu at the time) was the capital of the Shang dynasty. In 1046 BC, the western Zhou dynasty conquered the city and moved its capital to Xi’an. We knew very little about Aodu until the archeological excavations of the 1950s discovered parts of the ancient city.
Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, is a modern, cosmopolitan city with a modest historical heritage. The only place worth mentioning is Zhengzhou Shang City, the archeological remains of the ancient capital. The site includes parts of the original wall, several palace rooms, and other buildings made of rammed earth. Ancient Aodu was right in the center of contemporary Zhengzhou.
Former names: Pingcheng
For centuries, Datong was the meeting point between the agricultural Chinese and the nomads of the Great Steppe. It was one of the most important cities on a caravan route along the Great Wall. From 398 AD to 493 AD, it was the capital of the Northern Wei dynasty. Later on, it was the western capital of the Jurchen Jin dynasty before it was sacked and destroyed by the Mongols.
Datong is a middle-sized city and a popular tourist destination. It was one of the most important cities in ancient China, and many of its historical sites have survived until today. The nearby Yungang Grottoes is another fascinating Buddhist site carved into stone. The site dates back to the late 5th century when Datong was the capital city. Another outstanding place close to Datong is a unique 6th-century hanging temple. The city center hosts a reconstructed Ming dynasty city wall, a couple of ancient temples, and China’s oldest Nine Dragon Wall.
Former names: never changed its name
Chengdu is the only major Chinese city that never changed its name. Historically, Chengdu was more important on a regional level. It was the capital of many smaller kingdoms, most of them named Shu. During the Three Kingdoms period, Chengdu was the capital of the Shu Han State. Later on, it presided over several short-lived states. During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, it was the capital of the Former Shu and the Later Shu. During the Chinese civil war, Chengdu was briefly the capital of the Republic of China.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province and a major political, educational, cultural, and tourist center. It is a thoroughly modern city with cool contemporary architecture and a few historical sites, including various temples and monasteries. However, Chengdu is famous for something else. It hosts the only urban panda sanctuary in the world, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.