China Cities Culture and history

The many capitals of China

With roots in history that can be traced as far as 3,000 years, I have to admit that even the rich Catalan history languishes compared with what is today's China.

And with so many years on their shoulders, the city designated as the capital of the country changed many times, depending on factors as important as reigning dynasty or weather, time of the year or just because the Emperor felt like it. For example, here’s an overview of all the cities that have been or have claimed to be China’s capital:

But this shifting capital situation was common all across Asia, where capitals changed in a very specific way: balancing from one cardinal point to the opposite: north-south and east-west, and also naming the cities accordingly.

Take for instance Japan and its capital Tokyo: its kanji name is written 東京: ‘Eastern Capital’. Kyoto still has similar characters 京都: where the character ‘都’ in Chinese can also mean capital. ‘Eastern Capital’ (東京) was a former name of Hanoi, Vietnam, during the Later Lê Dynasty, and Seoul, in South Korea, had the old name of Gyeongseong, which is written in hanja as 京城 or ‘Capital City’…

In China, when the location of the capital was swinging between Beijing and Nanjing during the Ming Dynasty, they were named respectively ‘North’ and ‘South’ capital in relation to each other: in a map, 北 (Bei), 東 (Dōng), 南 (Nan) and 西 (Xi) are the 4 points of a compass, and adding the character 京 (jīng, capital), we have these:

  • 北京: Beijing, northern capital.
  • 南京: Nanjing, southern capital.
  • 西京: Xijing, western capital, today named Xi’an (西安).
  • 南京: Dongjing eastern capital, today’s Kaifeng (开封市).

That doesn’t mean they kept their names when they lost their status as capitals: Beijing was renamed Beiping (Northern Peace) when Nanjing was the capital, and in exchange, Nanjing was renamed as Tianjin (Heavenly capital) when Beijing was the official capital.

During other dynasties, the capitals moved East-West. One pair was the ‘Western Capital’ Xidu (today’s Xi’an) and the ‘Eastern Capital’ Dongdu (today’s Luoyang), and the other was Beidu (‘North Capital’, today’s Taiyuan) and Nandu (‘South Capital’, today’s Chengdu), all during the Tang dynasty. Note that the character () also means ‘capital’, just like 京 (jīng).

During the Japanese invasion of China, after the fall of the then capital Nanjing to the Japanese army, the Nationalist government went into exile to Chongqing, which became the capital of the remnants of the Republic of China, while the occupied territory split into several puppet states and their respective capitals:

After the civil war, the CPC installed their government in Beijing, proclaiming the People’s Republic of China, while the Kuomintang retreated to Formosa (Taiwan), keeping the name of Republic of China, and making Taipei its capital. The rest is history.

So we can say that even nowadays, ‘China’ has two capitals: Beijing for the People’s Republic of China and Taipei for the Republic of China, so you better specify. Or not…

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