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Nanjing, from the South | © Kevin Dooley / Flickr
Nanjing, from the South | © Kevin Dooley / Flickr
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What Were China's Capital Cities Before Beijing?

Picture of Fran Lu
Updated: 17 October 2017
Beijing has been China’s capital city for most of the last millennium, but with the country having a rich dynastic history since around 2100 B.C.E., it’s hard to obliterate the equally glorious history of other Chinese cities as ancient capitals.

Despite the fact that dozens of cities were once capitals of imperial China or states during, for example, the Warring States period and the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, there are an acknowledged “Six Ancient Capitals of China”, all of which are the most experienced at being the capital city of China. So what were the five ancient capitals before Beijing?

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City | © Ting Chen / Flickr


The now capital of the northwest China’s Shaanxi Province was once the capital city of 13 dynasties, including the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.E.), the first dynasty of Imperial China founded by Qin Shi Huang, and the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-9 C.E.) and Tang dynasty (618-684 C.E., 705-904 C.E.), the two most prosperous times in Chinese history. You probably can’t pronounce Xi’an correctly, but you must be familiar with the famous Terracotta Army constructed by Qin Shi Huang to guard his grand mausoleum in the city.

Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army | © Scott Swigart/Flickr


Now a prefecture-level city in central China’s Henan Province, Luoyang seems to be much honored by history buffs than the province’s current capital city, Zhengzhou. Other than having been the capital city of nine dynasties, Luoyang, located in the confluence area of Luo River and Yellow River, saw the origin of Chinese civilization and is regarded as the geographical center of China. Luoyang was also the starting point of Silk Road when the Eastern Han Dynasty’s diplomat Ban Chao (32-102 C.E.) restored the road.

The famous Longmen Grottoes is in Luoyang
The famous Longmen Grottoes is in Luoyang | © drnan tu / Flickr


The “Jing” in “Beijing” means capital city in Chinese, and while Beijing literally means “northern capital”, Kaifeng in today’s Henan Province, once named “Dongjing” in Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 C.E.), was the capital in the east. While emperors in Song dynasty upheld arts and literature, along with the fruitfulness of inventions and revolutions of relevant tools, Kaifeng was the center of an age when Chinese art and literature developed most prosperously. The notable painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival painted by the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145) is considered to be a vivid portrait of the then capital city Kaifeng.

A small section of the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, now kept at the Palace Museum
A small section of the painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival, now kept at the Palace Museum | Courtesy of the Palace Museum


You’ve probably heard the famous phrase that describes Hangzhou: “Paradise above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below”. Hangzhou is known among tourists as a place with beautiful lake scenery and the birthplace of Jack Ma’s Alibaba, but it is also one of the six ancient capital cities of China, being once the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-978 C.E.) and the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1276 C.E.).

Hangzhou’s West Lake
Hangzhou’s West Lake | © Vladimir K / Flickr


With a name that literally means “southern capital”, Nanjing was China’s capital city intermittently spanning the last two millenniums. The historic city was known as “the ancient capital of Six Dynasties (220-589 C.E.)” even ahead of Tang dynasty, retaining its unshakable position as the capital city during a time of instability and warfare. It was also the capital city from 1927 to 1937 during the Republic of China period before the brutal Nanking Massacre occurred. You can still see in today’s Nanjing, the traces of its history as various dynasties’ capital, including the Ming Palace and the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum.

Nanjing, from the South
Nanjing, from the South | © Kevin Dooley / Flickr