Spec Tech: The End of the Silk Road

Chang’an: The city at the end of the Silk Road…

…or at the beginning.  It depends on where you’re standing.  And when.

For a citizen of First Century BCE China, Chang’an is the capital of the western Han Dynasty.(1)  It also marks the start of the Silk Road – the epic overland route linking the ancient empires of East and West.  Here, behind a moat and 8m high walls, Chang’an is one of the largest and most organised cities of the ancient world.  Even its perimeter is an orderly rectangle, aligned on the cardinal points, which featured as a key aspect of early Chinese cosmology.(2)  Within these fortifications, there are nine districts.  Streets are laid out on linear grids. Markets are regulated by teams of government officials, and large public gatherings are only legally permitted in designated areas. But don’t let that controlled appearance fool you. As we’ll find in this third instalment on life in pre-industrial cities, Chang’an has moments of both beauty and brutality.

Look up to the south ridge. On the other side of those inner walls stand several palace complexes, where the emperor and immediate members of the imperial family live out their entire lives. Unlike those brash, showy rulers in the West, Chinese royalty derive status from being hidden from the common people.  Emperor Wu, the longest reining ruler of the Han Dynasty, currently sits on the throne.  Or perhaps he’s strolling the pagodas overlooking his garden of exotic creatures (including a white elephant and black rhinoceros), which are stocked to resemble the fantastical menageries of the heavens.  More likely Wu is holed up in his inner retreat. He established a university for scholars of the Classics, enabling him to inject Confucian filial piety back into civic life, yet he thinks his own sons are plotting to take the throne.  Some call him paranoid. Perhaps he’s just wise.

Even as we leave the palace behind, everything looks rather grand.  These wide boulevards easily accommodate both pedestrians and a stream of gilded carriages.  Here in Chang’an, the traffic is almost musical.  Hoof beats drum under the tinkle of tassels and charms dangling from bridles and traces. The red and white houses lining the street are home to rich officials and aristocracy. I love how the treetops sway behind the ornately carved gates.  Inside, they’ll be hosting lavish feasts of roast piglet and kid, minced fish or quails with oranges.  Can you smell the leeks and ginger?  They’ll be served with lotus root and water chestnut, with pickles and chutneys on the side.

There will be wine, and entertainment, too.  By this era, wealthy families keep their own orchestras with flute, lyre, bells, drums and choir. I don’t blame you for being surprised.  Only a few generations ago meat and alcohol used to be reserved for festivals. But frugality is out of fashion under Emperor Wu, despite his Confucian leanings.  Game is hunted indiscriminately and out of season, excess is the order of the day.  You know what the old timers say, though?  Le ji sheng bei. When happiness reaches an extreme, sorrow follows. (3)

Welcome to Chang’an’s western market.  At 250,000 square metres, it’s not that big.  Wait until you see its eastern counterpart, which is double the size.(4)  Smoke stinging your eyes? That’s because the western market is dedicated to manufacturing, such as the minting of coins and iron casting. Almost all of it is government owned and regulated.  It’s not like you could miss that fact, either. Not with the tower in each market dwarfing the civilian buildings in the city.  The flags flying atop them are a signal that the market is open for trade. Drums accompany their unfurling and lowering at the start and end of each day.  Trading outside legally sanctioned hours is banned and offenders face heavy fines.

Feel the radiant heat as we pass the pottery kilns.  Here, the terracotta human figures essential for imperial burials are produced.  The kilns fire day and night to keep up. The emperor and his kings all have several concubines,(5) so you can imagine the demand for servants in the afterlife.  But we’re not in the market for any of that. It’s the lacquerware that dazzles me.  Layers and layers of stained lacquer over fabric, wood or bamboo cores – far less likely to shatter than pottery, light as a feather compared to metal. Here in Chang’an they say that one lacquered cup is worth ten bronze ones.  With the stunning colours and designs that they feature, I’m not going to argue.

Ah, here we are, the eastern market.  Near to the northern gate, this truly is the beginning of the Silk Road.  You can browse through row upon row of these single-storey merchant sheds, all stacked high with bolts of shining, supple fabric.  I bet you couldn’t name a colour that you can’t find here, and the Han produce it all.  The regions to the north, especially up on the yellow river, are perfect for the cultivation of mulberries – silkworm food.  The plantations have been expanding since the start of the dynasty and the demand for silk is running hot.  Just check out the billowed sleeves on that minor aristocrat and his wife. Every season the fashion gets more outlandish – exaggerated eyebrows, hair as high as the market tower, sleeves near dragging on the ground. Such ostentation!

Avoid the eye of this sober looking official or he’ll think we’re up to something.  He’s the market chief’s deputy, and has 36 underling administrators doing his bidding.  They’re constantly sticking their noses into everything, assessing whether goods are of sufficient quality and that prices are in accord with state policy, which is reviewed each month by the market chief to ensure the government receives optimal taxes.  They’ll also be checking that price tags are hung on all goods to show the exact cost or the merchant will be fined.  At least displaying prices is easier than it used to be back when merchants used terracotta tiles. Now they have the latest and greatest – paper, my friend, paper!  Not vellum, not papyrus or any of that other chaff from the West. Real paper.

Despite all this regulation, the State can’t keep tabs on every little happening in the market.  Sure enough, there are black markets to be found, wandering swordsman for hire, diviners and shamanic cults.  And everyone knows that if you need to eliminate a political opponent, and you’ve got the gold, you should pay a visit to the Butcher’s Quarter.  Those men are as hard as they look, and their blades slice through all flesh just as easily as boar or goat.  Just don’t tell anyone I told you that. Crime is punished harshly here. The market doubles as the public courthouse and executions aren’t rare. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice the rotting and desiccated heads spiked onto the market walls?

But that’s enough of that.  Let’s go have some fun. There’s cockfights, cheap liquor and song to be found in the back alleys behind those grand houses on the boulevards. Just make sure you keep your purse full in case we get caught.  There’s a proverb that originated during Emperor Wu’s time…

‘The lad with a thousand pounds of gold in place,

will not part with his head in the marketplace.’

For something different, next time I’ll be looking at research methods for writers who want to use history or archaeology to inspire their speculative worlds.



1 The Han Dynasty, spanning 206 BCE – 220 CE, was considered the ‘golden age’ of Chinese history. The capital changed several times during the dynasty, though Chang’an was the imperial seat for roughly the first two centuries.

2 True, Chang’an’s walls form a slightly skewed rectangle, but that’s most likely to accommodate the Wei River and pre-existing palaces. In later centuries, the layout was it was interpreted as deliberate planning to model the city on constellations (including the big dipper), though this seems more likely a nod to later introduced astrological thought.

3 Loewe’s (2005) translation.

4 For context, there are approximately only 30 shopping malls across the entire United States today that have larger retail trading floor areas than this 2,000+ year old market.

5 Fundamentally different to common prostitutes. Concubines were classed into four different categories, with the uppermost, the ladies of ‘brilliant company’, garnering equal pay to an imperial chancellor – the highest administrative office in the empire.

Further reading:

Hardy, G. and Kinney, A.B.  (2005) The Establishment of the Han Empire and Imperial China.  Westport: Greenwood Press.

Loewe, M. (2005) Everyday Life in Early Imperial China During the Han Period, Indianapolis: Hackett.

Wang, Z. (1982) Han Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press.


3 thoughts on “Spec Tech: The End of the Silk Road

  1. The lacquerware reminds me if Kelewan! I wonder if it really would have made good armour?

    An excellent insight. I love all of the sensory detail!

    (Heads. Spikes. Walls.)

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