Terracotta Clues:
a case study in the logic of capital location

Set A, Module 1: Terracota Clues
by Ryan Bradeen, 2002
designed for students of world history, geography and Asian studies at the secondary level and beyond.
Estimated project time: 1 day

The purpose of this activity is for you to consider the logic behind the siting of a capital within a region. Capitals are human designations, meaning that people chose to make one place or another capital. Therefore, since capitals are chosen by humans, there must be a logic to their selection. A place might be chosen as a capital for geographic reasons like being on the banks of a river or near productive farmland; or for economic reasons like being near important trade routes. There may be military, religious or historic reasons why a site is chosen to be capital. Whatever the reason, decoding the logic behind capital location provides insight into the priorities of the ruling powers in a society at the time the capital was selected.

Chang'abChang'an, the modern city of Xian in central China, was capital of China for nearly 1100 years through the Zhou (1000 - 221BCE), Qin-Han (221 BCE – 220 CE) and Sui-Tang (581 - 906 CE) dynasties. Its name means "Everlasting Peace". Obviously for it be the capital for so long, this location must have had strong and persistent advantages that appealed to the leaders of dynasties. This location should therefore be an excellent place to attempt to decode the logic behind the selection of Chinese capitals.

This assignment has the following objectives:

  • to solidify your command of China’s geography;
  • to introduce China’s dynastic progression;
  • to understand the human logic behind capital selection;
  • to develop your analytical skills and your use of historic and archeological data;

The Introductory Set:
  1. Where was the first capital of the United States? What were some of the reasons for its choice? Write a list of three reasons. (US Map)
  2. Why is Washington DC the current capital? Add at least one item to your list.
  3. What was the first capital of your state? Why was it chosen? Why has it remained the capital or why was it changed? List three reasons. (state maps)
  4. From your responses to the above questions create a list of five factors that influence the selection of capital locations.

A: Tang Period Chang'an (580 - 906 CE)

Chang'anDuring the Sui-Tang dynasties (580 – 906 CE), Chang'an (map) was the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. We have several accounts of the city at that time. By carefully reading these accounts we can detect some of the reasons why Chang'an was the most logical position for China’s capital during this era.

  1. Create a list of five reasons for selecting Chang'an as capital. Support each reason with a one or two sentences explanation and page references from the readings.

Terracotta WarriorB: The Qin Period (221 - 206 BCE)
We know much less about Chang’an during the Qin period than we do about the city in the Tang period. We know the most about the First Qin Emperor’s tomb and the Terracotta Warriors he buried there to guard it. Use the CITY webgate, Terracotta Warriors PhotoSee Gallery and your research to develop a basic understanding of the First Qin Emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di and his Terracotta Warriors.Once you have completed your research answer the questions below.

Because the Terracotta Army was meant to protect the Emperor in the afterlife, it tells us a great deal about how the first Qin emperor perceived his world and who he perceived as his enemies. Examine a map of the Emperor’s tomb site. Locate the Terracotta Warriors on the map.

  1. What other major projects were undertaken by the Qin emperor? How are the Terracotta Warriors similar or different from the other projects undertaken by Qin Shih Huang-di?
  2. What feature of the warriors is most surprising to you?
  3. Many of Qin Shi-Huang's projects were aimed at standardization and to make his world more uniform and ordered. How then do you explain the unique faces given to each Terracotta Warrior?
  4. What direction do the warriors face? Who was the enemy from which the Terracotta Army was designed to protect the Emperor?
  5. Who was the Great Wall designed to protect ? Who was it designed to defend against?
  6. If the main enemies of the Emperor were those you listed in questions #4 and 5, why would Chang’an be a good choice for capital?
  7. Add your answer to #6 to your list of reason why Chang’an was selected as capital during the Tang dynasty (above). Prioritize your new list in order of importance. Develop a paragraph-length explanation of why you believe your #1 reason is most important.

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