Neha Patil

Ancient Chinese urban planning

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Ancient Chinese urban planning

Ancient Chinese urban planning is the application of the traditional principles of Chinese architecture to urban design. These traditions can be summarized as: fengshui geomancy and astronomy; the well-field system; gaitian cosmology; qi as a medium of energy connecting man, earth, and heaven; political power shared between a military aristocracy and educated advisers; the holy place bo; a three-tiered economic system under absolute state control; early writing; and the walled yet portable capital city as a diagram of political power.


Early development

Urban planning originated during the urbanization of the Yellow River valley in the Neolithic Age. The process in China, as elsewhere in the world, is related to the process of centralizing power in a political state. Although several cultures formed competing states, the direct ancestor of the Chinese state was Longshan culture. Therefore, the earliest Chinese urban planning was a synthesis of Longshan traditional cosmology, geomancy, astrology, and numerology. This synthesis generated a diagram of the cosmos, which placed man, state, nature, and heaven in harmony. The city was planned in the context of this cosmic diagram to maintain harmony and balance, principles important in Chinese law.

Neolithic Age urbanization

Urbanization begins at Banpo (4,800-3,750 BC) on the Zhongyuan plain of the Yellow River. Banpo grew from a typical Yangshao village in both size and organization until the construction of the Great Hall ca. 4000 BC. Like Eridu in Mesopotamia, Banpo in East Asia was the first instance of specialized architecture, something other than a house. Physically, Banpo was composed of 200 round pit houses and the Great Hall across 5 hectares and surrounded by a ditch. These pit houses were sited for solar gain by aligning the door to the Yingshi asterism just after the winter solstice. Already, at this early stage the principle of south-facing entry was firmly established.

As in other Neolithic communities, life at Banpo was synchronized to the agricultural year, which was timed by the movement of the Big Dipper, which functioned as a celestial clock. The Book of Odes describes this annual cycle. Beginning in spring, adolescents swam through the flood waters at the triangular confluence of two rivers. They emerged shivering, and in this state they were infused with the souls of ancestors buried in the earth who had reemerged at the springs of the Yellow River. In this energized state they procreated in a location deemed to possess magical earth energy. These locations were unsuitable for agriculture, usually a hill, and therefore were uncleared primeval forests. Consecrated procreation was essential to maintaining the cycle of life. When the flood waters receded, the triangle was divided into fields between the families. In autumn there was a large festival at the completion of the harvest. In winter, the men left their homes and retired to the Great Hall, where they were led by the village elders in drinking and singing to repel the cold.

The needs and beliefs of Banpo society created the prototype Chinese urban form. The springtime sacred procreation sites became, in time, the Holy Place called bo . Moreover, the connection between ancestors, earth, and fertility developed into a theory of qi energy and fengshui geomancy. The Book of Burial elaborates this theory. Man is considered concentrated Qi, when his bones are returned to the earth they become re-energized by Qi. The living descendants are affected by the Qi generated from the bones of their ancestors, "as a lute string will pick of the vibration of another lute string near it." In this theory, the world was an active matrix of Qi into which graves, houses, and cities must be carefully inserted by fengshui principals to maintain harmony. The shape of this world was described by a parallel cosmology of a round heaven revolving around a square earth. This gaitian cosmology originated from neolithic astronomy. This cosmic diagram is depicted on jade bi and cong used to talk to sky and earth spirits, respectively. In particular, Yangshao pottery decorated with Big Dipper inscribed on a nine-in-one square (earth) surrounded by a circle (heaven) already depicts a cosmic diagram of earth divided into nine parts. This nine-in-square, in time, became basis of the well-field system, which was the basic geometric and legal module of urban-regional planning. Likewise, the Great Hall became the prototype of later palaces and imperial cities.

Longshan Culture (3000-2000 BC) arrived from the east one thousand years after Banpo in the same area. This arrival is mythologized by the story of the Yellow Emperor, a man of vigorous energy who dispensed law, standardized measures, invented writing, and conquered. The Longshan tribes formed a superstratum over Yangshao culture. As they fused ideologically and socially, all the elements of a new state and civilization appeared. Culturally, protowriting in the form of the Longshan Script was used on oracle bones. Politically, a Longshan warlord ruled with the help of a Yangshao adviser. Both the use of oracle bones, and the rule of a king with adviser had continuity into the Shang Dynasty. The first capital was Chengziya in 2500 BC followed by Taosi in 2300 BC and finally by Erlitou in 2000 BC. Longshan Culture developed directly into the Xia and Shang Dynasties.

The hierarchical and militaristic aspects of Longshan culture are evident in their cities. Their shape is a walled square filled with square houses. The transition from round to square homes is always accompanied by centralizing power in history. The square shaped city, itself a product of centralized power, historically arises a from a military encampment. It is the city as a diagram of political power. The new order made its mark on the Urban-Regional context. Three levels of settlement emerged in the early Longshan state, village called Jū (0-1 ha), city Yi (1-5 ha), and capital called Dū (<5 ha). These three tiers of settlements are the physical realization of central place theory. The original Yangshao Jū villages formed a matrix of production that channeled goods upward to larger Longshan Yi and ultimately to the Dū. Political power was therefore defined as the amount of the highly productive matrix of agriculture and villages under control. The greater the area, the more wealth passed upwards to the capital. Other cites were economically unnecessary as there were neither long distance trade nor markets. Currently, the division of urban and rural areas is still poorly defined in China.

The final Longshan capital, Erlitou is the physical manifestation of massive social change in China c 2000 BC. Erlitou began in the Neolithic as a Yangshao bo, with later additions of altars and temples. It was a sacred city, even when absorbed by the Longshan tribes, and thus was never walled. Erlitou was the site of transition into the Bronze Age. The legendary Xia Dynasty may have been the ruling class of Erlitou.

Bronze Age urbanization

Erlitou is sited at the confluence of the Luo and Yi rivers, a sacred place known as the Waste of Xia. Geographically, the Waste of Xia marked the center of the nine-in-one square earth. During the transitional Erlitou Culture, diverse Neolithic traditions were woven into one coherent harmonious philosophical and political system. In this system earth was the mirror of heaven ruled by the Jade Emperor. Residing in Polaris, he sent the heavenly breath of Qi down to earth through meridians. The Qi concentrated in mountains and rivers, and by informed site planning a building and even a city could fit into this energized matrix. Politically, Qi flowed from heaven through earth into and the through the divine emperor, through his city, and out of the gates into his realm. The emperor kept heaven and earth in harmonious balance through his absolute power. An adviser class interpreted the omens of heaven to inform his actions. Geographically, the state was square shaped and centered on the ruler. As described in the Book of Documents, China is a square of 45,000 li with five nested squares spaced at 500 li to create five zones. Beginning at the center, Royal Domain (500 x 500 li), Noble Domain, Domain of Peace-Securing, Domain of Restraint, and Wild Domain. Outside the fifth zone, the barbarian tribes lived. The Xia and Early Shang place was a miniature diagram of this cosmos. It had a traditional Longshan square shape oriented strictly north-south since Qi flows that direction (Polaris in the north). This square was further subdivided into nine parts based on the now ancient nine-in-one square, which had become a prosperity symbol. A rectilinear walled settlement for servants and craftsmen formed around this palace.

The nine-in-one square was transformed into the Holy Field symbol, sometime during the Shang Dynasty. In a myth the founder of the Xia Dynasty, Yu the Great, received the Holy Field symbol from a magical turtle sent by heaven. Its importance cannot be underestimated as it is the geometric basis of ancient Chinese architecture, urban planning, and geography. By the time of the Xia Dynasty, the nine-in-one square territory of earth was divided into nine states (九州; Jiǔzhōu).

Although an important stage in urbanization, Erlitou was not a true city. It was a palace complex surrounded by an oversized Neolithic village. During the Bronze Age, expensive bronze artifacts belonged exclusively to the aristocracy, and the peasants still lived at a neolithic level of development. There was a succession of these palatial du capitals during the Xia and into the Early Shang Dynasties. Each successive capital had a higher level of development until the Late Shang capital Yin. Yin was the first true city and represented the culmination of Longshan Culture. The design of the palace at Yin was copied by the Zhou Dynasty to create the palace at Zhouyuan, which consolidated all the addition and experimentation of Yin over centuries. Although a copy, Zhouyuan was innovative for its high level of planning. This feature of Zhou urbanism would later be implemented on a national scale. Politically, the Zhou tribe, a vassal of the Shang dynasty, moved through a series of three capitals, Fan, Bo, and Shen, before settling at their ancestral capital, Zhouyuan on the Weishui River.

Classical Standard

When the Zhou took control of China from the Shang, they upset the natural and harmonious order of the universe, and there was a serious legal question over their divine right to rule. The sudden death of their leader shortly afterward seemed to confirm that they had violated the will of heaven. The acting regent, the Duke of Zhou, acted quickly to restore the balance by resettling the Shang aristocracy, scholars, and craftsmen in the Holy Waste of Xia. He designed a new holy city, Chengzhou, according to strict cosmological principals to house them. Finally, he moved the 9 ding to be stored there. It was believed by these actions harmony would be restored and heaven would grant the Zhou the right to rule China. This work, although based on centuries of design precedent, was a radical synthesis and the first truly planned city in China. With Chengzhou, the Duke of Zhou established the classical standard of urban planning. Most new cities were modeled after its design. Ultimately, its forms were codified in the Rites of Zhou.


The cities were planned by based on an enlarged Holy Field. The Holy Field symbol is essentially numerology applied to the nine-in-one square. Each square is numbered 1–9 to form a magic square of M = 15. Symbolic meaning based on homophony of the integer names had existed since the Xia Dynasty; however, this symbolism became fully expanded to Numerology during the Zhou Dynasty. The Holy Field was used to conceptualize many systems such as astronomy, geography, and politics. The Center is the subject of the system, the inner eight squares represents the means through which the subject acts, the twelve outer edges are amplifications of their qualities. The four squares of even integers at the corners are yin and the five axial squares of odd integers are yang. This was considered the correct balance of yin and yang to keep a harmonious flow of Qi.

The ideal city was therefore a diagram of this multipurpose cosmological symbol drawn upon the landscape. The Rites of Zhou codified how the Holy Field would be transformed into a city. Moreover, it dictated planning from a residential to regional scale.

The construction (ying) of the capital city by the artisans each side is 9 li (~3 km) in length with three gates; 9 longitudinal and 9 latitudinal lines divide the interior of the city with north to south road 9 times the carriage gauge in width (9 gui); the ancestral temple is on the left (of the palace city in the middle) and Sheji altars for the god of land and the god of grains on the right side; the palace faces the imperial court and backed against the market and the court and market are both one hundred mu (1 fú).

A temple of ancestors was placed in square 7, a temple of agriculture in square 3, and an audience hall in square 1. The market was not considered of high importance and placed in square 9 to the north of the palace. The palace was located in square 5 of the Holy Field. The palace itself was a copy of the one at Zhouyuan. Square 5 was enclosed by fortifications to form the Inner City (Chinese:城 ; Pinyin: Chéng). The edge of the Holy Field was enclosed in a second ring of fortifications and referred to as the Outer City (Chinese:郭; Pinyin: Guó). The fortifications were specified as 20 m wide and 15 m high. The wall of the Outer City was pierced by 12 gates aligned with 3 major North-South avenues and 3 major East-West avenues. Parallel with these avenues, were 6 minor avenues for a total of 9 avenues running North-South and 9 avenues running East-West. These 18 avenues were specified as the width of nine chariots (Chinese: 24 bu; SI: 30 m), and divided the city into wards (Chinese: 坊; Pinyin: fāng) of 1x1 li. Conceptually each ward was an individual village, thus the capital was 81 villages within a wall. Inside each ward individual land was parceled out in modules of 8 mu (66.5x66.5 m, 4,553.47 m2). The 8 mu standard plat could accommodate one aristocratic residence or be subdivided into as many as six smaller residential plats. The flexibility of this simple system allowed great diversity within each ward, but great homogeneity at the city scale.

The Zhou classical standard extended the concept of modular planning used in the Capital to the regional planning scale. The city was part of a modular regional system of urban economics. It mirrored the hierarchy of the state in a smaller scale. Each module, whether urban or rural, in the hierarchy therefore had the same population base and political power. The economic rank of a city determined its size, as measured in li (Chinese: 里; Pinyin:lǐ) which was considered to be the length of a village as set by the Yellow Emperor. The value of the li at the time of Chengzhou was 358.2 m. At the smallest scale even the plats were built out into standardized Chinese houses as prescribed in the Rites of Zhou.

Zhou Urban Hierarchy:

  • Capital city 9 × 9 li 81 wards of 1 li
  • Primary city 5 × 5 li 25 wards of 1 li
  • Secondary city 4 × 4 li 16 wards of 1 li
  • Tertiary city 3 × 3 li 9 wards of 1 li
  • The first city planned and built according to the Zhou classical standard, Chengzhou (1036 BC), illustrates the ideal city. First a suitable site was determined with correct Qi resources, a hill in the north (Mt. Mang) and river in the south (Luo river). Next, the center was determined by a compass, and a furrow was plowed to mark the edge of the wall. Then the a central place was built in square 5, finally the land was parceled out. Chengzhou, although the official capital in name and a holy city was never the political capital of the Western Zhou dynasty. Rather, a smaller version of Chengzhou called Wangcheng was built nearby in 1021 BC. Because of their proximity both cities are erroneously called Luoyang in history.

    Iron Age urbanization

    As China moved into the Iron Age the total control of the Zhou over their empire dissolved into multiple states; each one, however, used the precedent set by Chengzhou to build their capitals. This period, called the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, was a time of great urbanization in China. Chengzhou itself finally became the political capital of the Eastern Zhou in 510 BC (its fortification tripled in width). The cities lost the strict rank to size hierarchy imposed by imperial authority and grew according to their economic and military functions. This period, although politically chaotic, was a great period of urbanization and experimentation with architecture and urban planning.

    Along with the growth of cites there was a parallel growth of urban society; independent merchants, artisans, scholars, and the like all emerged as a new social class at this time. In addition to the growth in the Yellow River Valley, the Yangtze River Valley began to urbanize under the cultural model of the Zhou Dynasty. The cities of states such as Wu, Yue, Chu, and Shu had regional variations on the Zhou classical standard. By the time of the Qin Dynasty conquest there was a great diversity of wealthy cites across China, excluding the Lingnan region.

    The city marketplace with tower was a new feature of this era that marked the beginning of an integrated economic function of cites. The architecture of the warring states featured high walls, large gates, and towers. The development of the tower as a symbol of power and social order especially defined this era. The tower usually projected outward at the top to create an image of strength and intimidation. The new marketplace was always overlooked by a tower.

    Imperial Era

    The imperial era of urban planning was marked by the theory of a national master plan which extended imperial authority uniformly across China by creating a hierarchy economic and political of cites. The origin of this master plan was a Han Dynasty idealized memory of Zhou Dynasty rule as a golden age, that never existed. In this national master plan the empire of China was divided into provinces based on the earlier Nine Regions of Zhou, thus maintaining the concept of China as a square Holy Field. Each province was divided into prefectures and each prefecture into counties. In the center of each county was a walled city. The county edge was one day march from the walled city. In this way imperial authority was omnipresent. The network of imperial administrative cities was overlaid on an existed network of unwalled villages and townships. One county therefore ruled over several townships and many more villages. This system of taxation and law imposed on a very productive matrix of agricultural villages is a continuation of the social system created by the Longshan and Yangshao cultures. The apex of this national master plan was a new creation, the imperial capital. The imperial capital was designed as a microcosm of the national master plan.


    Historically, the cities of the six states were combined into one unified regional system under the Qin Dynasty unification of China. Also under the Qin Dynasty Chengzhou lost its status as a holy city and was renamed Luoyang in 236 BC. The Qin Dynasty destroyed most of the Eastern Zhou urbanization to concentrate its collected wealth at the capital Xianyang. Colonization of the Lingnan and Ordos regions began at this time, using a modified version of the Zhou classical standard of urban design. The Qin created a national system of military garrisons on a three-tier administrative hierarchy as a practical measure to control the population according to strict legalistic principles. Ironically because legalism was so repressive the Qin lost power in a revolt and were replaced by the Han Dynasty, who continued the Qin system of imperial administration under a more a balanced confucian doctrine.

    At its inception the Han Dynasty was immediately faced with the task of rebuilding the urban infrastructure which had been destroyed by Qin Dynasty purges and the war of succession after its downfall. The Han rebuilt China according to a national master plan from the Zhou Dynasty which had never been realized. To this end Han Dynasty scholars collected the scraps of knowledge that survived the Qin Dynasty purge to write the Book of Diverse Crafts, which was the basis of urban planning until the modern era. Thus the rebuilt cities, new cites, and colonial cities were uniform to this imperial standard, and Chinese urban society flourished once again.

    The County

    During the Han Dynasty official administration extended only to the county level. The county (县; xiàn) was the primary unit of government control which harnessed the productive power of the villages in its area of control to concentrate wealth. The county was thus a city-state in function with two parts; a walled settlement 1×1li at the geographical center of territory. The city had no name of its own, it was named by adding the suffix -cheng to the county's name. The territory of the county was divided into districts called townships (乡; xiāng) which were subdivided into villages (村; cūn). Villages generally had a population of 100. Currently the village level is the lowest level of administration in China. These local units, counties, were collected in groups of 8-10 called prefectures, and the prefectures were gathered in groups of 12-16 to form provinces. Economically, the county was a market for productive countryside, which consisted not only of agriculture, but also townships and villages of people to work the land and produce goods by cottage industry. The county extended military control over a segment of this productive matrix and was the entry point for goods to channel upward to the Imperial City. There were approximately 1500 counties in China proper. This economic structure was later modified by commercial towns in the Middle Ages.

    A county was controlled by a magistrate in a walled complex in the walled county center. He was responsible for tax collection, justice, postal service, police, granaries, salt stores, social welfare, education, and religious ceremony. The magistrate's complex (yamen) was sited at the center of this the city at the point where the main east-west street crossed the main north-south street. The main entrance was in the south and axially aligned along the main north south street connecting to the south gate of the walls. Two arches on the east west street marked the entry forming a small plaza. The south side of the plaza was a dragon wall and the north was the main gate of the compound. This gate lead to a courtyard passing through this courtyard to another gate, called the gate of righteousness, lead to the main courtyard of the complex. The north side of this courtyard was the central hall where the magistrate worked the two side halls contained the six offices. Behind the central hall was another courtyard and hall where the magistrate met with higher-ranking officials. The three courtyard compound formed the center of the complex to the east west of it were other halls, offices, granaries, stables, libraries, official residences, and prisons.

    Imperial city

    The imperial capital was meant to exist outside of any one region, even the one it was physically located in. To achieve this it used a text based plan, a cult of heaven, forced migration, and symbolization of the city as the Emperor. The evolution of the imperial capital occurred in three stages, first the super-regional capital on Xianyang, followed by the semi-regional and semi-textual capital of Chang'an, and finally fully realized in the fully textual capital of Luoyang. The capital city of the Western Han Dynasty, Chang'an, was built to exceed its predecessor, Xianyang. Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty, would in turn become the model of all future imperial cities.

    As the empire was divided into counties prefectures and provinces

    Later developments

    After the fall of the Han Dynasty China entered a period of Decline which Ended with the Tang Dynasty. A new urban paradigm was created at this time.

    Neoclassical Standard

    The Yuan Dynasty revived the old classical standard of the Zhou Dynasty. This standard was used until World War Two at which time modern Chinese urban planning began.


    Ancient Chinese urban planning Wikipedia

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