Building Chang'an
constructing an ancient city

Set B, Module 2: Building Chang'an

by Ryan Bradeen, 2002
designed for students of world history, geography and Asian studies at the secondary level and beyond.
Estimated project time: 3 days


Our modern visions of ancient cities are created mostly by combining our main sources of information: written documents describing the cities, artistic depictions and archeological work. In the following activity you will recreate Tang era Chang'an from written descriptions of the city. Objectives for this activity are:

  • develop a spatial understanding of ancient Chang'an;
  • understand how modern recreations of ancient cities are created;
  • learn the basic elements of a Chinese planned city.

Stories of Old Chang'an

Three readings, each of which describes Chang'an during the Tang dynasty (618 - 906 CE) are provided. Each of the readings are compiled by scholars who have reviewed the surviving written documents and the archeological record of the city. Read each description. In their basic information they are the same, but each will add different details to your overall picture of the city.

"A Splendid Capital" by Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization, p. 241-242

During the Tang dynasty Chang'an became the largest and most cosmopolitan capital in the world, with a population of more than one million. Much of the city had been destroyed in the fighting that ended the Western Han dynasty. Taizong [the second Tang Emperor] rebuilt and expanded it to cover nearly 30 square miles. The surrounding walls were three stories high, with even higher gatehouses. A grand avenue nearly 500 feet wide led from the southern gate to the imperial palace, which lay in the heart of the city, then continued on to the northern gate. It cut the rest of Chang'an in two—the eastern and western sections.

The city was further divided into 108 rectangular wards, each surrounded by a wall that was entered by four gates. (A ward was like a small city within a large one.) The wards in the western section were inhabited by merchants, workers and craftsmen. Every night large drums were beaten to signal the closing of the ward gates. No one was allowed on the streets after dark except the armed soldiers who patrolled them. Bells in the temples and watchtowers were struck at daybreak to mark the reopening of the gates.

The eastern section of Chang'an was called "the Imperial City." It was made up of boulevards lined with the elegant estates of the wealthy officials. Each estate was a separate ward, surrounded by a wall with gatehouses and watchtowers. In this way, the wealthy people lived much as they did in Chang'an during the Western Han dynasty.

North of the palace were beautiful parks, where bamboo leaves rustled in the wind, lotus flowers floated on artificial ponds, and wisteria with tumbling blue flowers wound around open "summer houses."

There were two large markets, east and west. The eastern market was fairly small and served the needs of the wealthy households. The western market was huge. It drew thousands of merchants from such faraway places as Syria, Persia and India. Visitors to this bustling marketplace were often entertained by strolling players, street acrobats, and storytellers.

Read two other descriptions of Tang era Chang'an:

Building Chang'an:
constructing a model of a traditional Chinese city
by Suzanne Art

From very early times, the Chinese sited their important cities and buildings according to astrological principles. The remains of Anyang and Chang’an (capitals of the Shang, Han and Tang dynasties) as well as the design of the Forbidden City (built during the Ming dynasty) are excellent examples of the ancient design.

Ideally, an imperial capital city was square in shape, its four sides facing the four cardinal points of the compass. The Chinese believed the earth was square – actually, it had five directions: north, south, east, west and center. The city was surrounded by a massive wall made of rammed earth. Each side of the wall had three gates. The number three was considered a favorable number and, being uneven, was associated with yang (the more active of the dual forces, yin and yang). The streets within the city formed a grid. Nine streets ran north-south, nine others ran east-west, all meeting at precise right angles. (Nine, being the highest single digit, and a yang number, was associated with imperial power.) The imperial palace was surrounded by its own wall. All important buildings in the city faced south. The city was "protected" on the north by a hill or mountain (representing yang), while water – a canal, moat, or small river – flowed along the southern wall (representing yin). The Chinese associated each of the four directions with a particular animal: east with the dragon, south with the phoenix, west with the white tiger, and north with the tortoise.

Based upon the readings above, build a "bird’s eye view" model of Chang'an.

Supplies needed are poster board (measuring about 20 by 30 inches), clay (Crayola Model Magic works well), markers, glue, scissors, yellow construction paper (optional) and a package of popsicle sticks. Groups of three or four students can work on a single city.


  1. First, draw a square (approximately 1 foot on each side) in the center of the posterboard. This marks the outer wall of the city. Write the names of the four cardinal directions on the board at the appropriate sides of the square.
  2. Then draw an inner square, about a third the size of the outer one, near the northern wall of the city. This will represent the wall of the imperial palace.
  3. Now, using rulers, carefully draw a grid within the outer wall but outside the palace wall. There should be nine lines going north and south and nine lines going east and west. Make the center line of the north-south lines wider than the others. This is the imperial avenue. The squares within the streets are the city blocks. Draw little rectangles within each block to represent dwellings. Make some of the squares green – these are the parks.
  4. Now take some brown clay and roll it to make a worm about 8 inches long. Place it on one side of the city wall and gently stretch it out and mold it so it resembles a wall. Do the same thing for the other four sides. At the corners, mold the two pieces of clay together, forming a slightly taller part that can represent a corner watchtower. Now you have the basic structure of the city wall. Make slightly smaller "worms" and form the wall that surrounds the palace.
  5. The next step is to put three gates in each side of the outer wall. To do this, determine the center of a wall (6 inches in if the wall is a foot long) and mark it with a dot on the posterboard. Then divide each of the halves in half again. (Measure three inches to each side if the wall is a foot long.) Mark each of these with dots on the board. Cut the Popsicle sticks into small pieces measuring about half an inch. Push the pieces of wood into the places in the wall that you have marked for the gates. You should end up with 12 gates. Make a central gate in the southern wall of the imperial enclosure.
  6. Now roll some blue clay into an 8-inch worm and press it into place in front of the southern city wall. This represents a stream or canal flowing past the city. Cut a Popsicle stick in thirds and use the pieces to make bridges leading from the gates in the southern wall and crossing the water. Take a larger amount of gray, brown, or black clay to mold a small hill or mountain and place it on the northern side of the city.
  7. Using pieces of construction paper, clay, or other materials, make a yellow square and place it in the center of the palace walls. This represents the yellow-tiled roof of the palace itself.
  8. Once your bird’s eye view of the city is complete, draw a picture of each of the following animals next to the initials of the four directions outside the city: north – a tortoise; east – a dragon; south – a phoenix; west – a white tiger. Or make figures of the animals out of clay and place them in their proper positions.

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