An Ancient City Plays out Its Bygone Legend
The military reform known as “shooting while on horseback in Hu dress” and launched by King Wuling of Zhao, made Zhao a powerful state and gave fame to Handan, Zhao’s capital.
According to historical records, the city of Handan began to thrive in the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC). As a prosperous city of the state of Jin in the region on the northern bank of the Yellow River, Handan became the place where various political forces in the north fiercely competed against each other. In 386 BC, Marquess Jing of Zhao moved the capital of Zhao to Handan. Handan was in its heyday for more than 150 years as Zhao attained more power. During this period, it was not only the political, military and economical centre of the state but also the most important commercial metropolis in what is now the Beijing-tianjin-hebei area. However, in 208 BC, Zhao ended up in collapsing and Handan disappeared into oblivion.
More than 2,000 years later, archaeological work was conducted on the site of this ancient city. Today, in the southwestern part of Handan, Hebei province sits on the ruins of the bygone capital of Zhao. Even today, there are still some winding and undulating city walls as high as several meters around some of the ruins. The relics and foundations of old buildings are inside. Remnants of many city gates still exist around the ancient city also.
King Wuling of Zhao’s Military Reform
To people today, “shooting while on horseback in Hu dress,” which means “learning from others’ merits,” is just an expression. However, during the Warring States Period (475–221 BC) more than 2,000 years ago, the utterance of this phrase made the nobles in almost all of the vassal states horrified with the exception of King Wuling of Zhao (reign: 325–299 BC), its inventor. The Zhao military began to wear Hu (styled) attire and shoot from horseback in battle and seemed to become unparalleled overnight. As a result, the vassal states that fought against Zhao didn’t fare so well. The calamity that would befall the state of Zhongshan under the besiegement imposed by King Wuling of Zhao was like an alarm bell ringing incessantly in their ears.
During the Spring and Autumn Period, King Wuling of Zhao (reign: 325–299 BC) was looking for a strategy to help Zhao survive. He finally decided to reform his military and the way his troops fought.
In the Central Plains, the military was composed of infantry dressed in heavy suits of armour and bulky, cumbersome chariots. They looked grand but were less effective in battle. In contrast, a nomadic cavalry was more flexible andwas especially suitable for long-distance operations in complicated terrain. King Wuling of Zhao was determined to carry out a reform so as to establish a powerful cavalry and increase the military strength of the state of Zhao. The reform became known as “shooting while on horseback in Hu dress.” After the reform, Zhao reached its heyday, becoming a powerful state in the east which could contend with the state of Qin. In 296 BC, Zhao’s
troops completely annihilated the state of Zhongshan and extended its territory from the north to the south.
A Fashionable Metropolis
With the stabilisation of the state, King Wuling of Zhao and the subsequent kings began to spend more time building Handan as the capital city. After extensive construction, Handan quickly became the largest political, economic, military and cultural centre in the vast area on the northern bank of the Yellow River. In the initial archaeological excavation, people believed that the ruins of Zhaowang City in the southwestern part of present-day Handan was the entirety of the capital city of Zhao, and Handan as the capital of Zhao was regarded as a city without an outer city. However, the conclusion wasn’t consistent with records. It wasn’t until later that cultural relics discovered beneath the present-day city proper of Handan corroborated what was described in the documents. The larger city corresponding with Zhaowang City is known as Dabei City, whose heyday ranged from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). It covered the greater part of today’s urban area of Handan.
Composed of Zhaowang City ( the imperial city) and Dabei City ( the city of residents, outer city), Handan, as the capital of Zhao, finally proved to be a city with an area of about 18.88 million square metres. Apart from the grand city buildings, archaeological excavations indicate that more than ten ancient city sites including Yang City of Yongnian County, Jie City of Fengfeng and Jiangwu City of Cixian County have been discovered around the ancient city of Handan, forming something of a megalopolis- like cluster of cities around Handan.
Thanks to the mightiness of the state of Zhao, Handan became a “central city” and “super-first-tier city” leading the trend in China during the Warring States Period. According to Yantie lun (“discourses on salt and iron”) in the Han Dynasty, “because of their prosperity, cities such as Zhuo and Ji in Yan, Handan in Zhao, Wen and Zhi in Wei, Xingyang in Han, Linzi in Qi, Wan and Chen in Chu and Yangdi in Zheng all became wellknown cities.” Among these famous cities, Ji, Handan and Linzi could be called the “cities of cities.” Because of its role as a transportation hub from south to north, Handan became known as a “fashionable city” and gained considerable fame among its contemporaries. The widelyknown idea of “attempting to walk like residents in Handan” (imitating others and thus losing one’s own individuality) could also be considered praise given to Handan by the people who yearned for the way of life in the big city.
Fleeting Glory Days
More than 2,000 years later, today one can only find the glorious past of the city people scrambled to come to in ancient books.
In his “Zhaodu fu” (“ode to the capital of Zhao”), Liu Shao, a thinker in the late Han Dynasty, described a spectacular portrayal of Handan as the capital of Zhao with his ornate writing. By translating classical Chinese into vernacular Chinese, people today can still feel the grandiose momentum of the capital city. “There are roads leading in all directions and the city walls of the capital extend more than 50 kilometres. There are undulating, connected buildings whose columns are decorated with colourful paintings. There are sculptures of peacocks and beasts on ledges, which look like phoenixes spreading their wings, about to soar into the sky. Pillars of the main halls, as red as fire, look like they lead to the sun. Ornamental dragon- shaped carvings and paintings wind their way along on bridges. These are all part of the capital city situated in the southern territory of the state of Zhao. A building cluster representing the state of Zhao known as Congtai stands in the eastern part of the state.”
Zhaowang City was a place full of history. It is here that Mao Sui, who is well regarded, volunteered his services on the strength of his glib tongue. The vehement debate regarding the idea that “A White Horse is Not a Horse (sophistry)” between Confucian Kong Chuan and Gongsun Long, developer of logic, took place here. Various scholars such as Xun Kuang, Yu Qing, Li Mu and Zhao She wrote books, theories and developed their schools of thought, succeeding in spreading the influence of the state of Zhao throughout China.
Having experienced over 2,000 years and been eulogised by men of letters through the ages, the ruins of the ancient city have become precious for the study of politics, economy and culture of the state of Zhao, as well as urban architecture and layout of imperial palaces during the Warring States Period. Standing on the city wall of Zhaowang City, strolling in the Garden of Zhao, standing beside Xuebu Bridge and snaking along Huiche Lane, you can almost hear the footsteps treading on this land, as if opening dustladen doors.