Henan: Silk Road, Central Plains
At the eastern edge of the Silk Road sat Henan Province. “One City, One Gate, One Pass, One Road” describes the four main aspects of this area on the glorious road.
During the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 8), the Western Regions developed with the spread of trade and culture between the east and west. Cultivars like sesame, broad beans, pomegranates, garlic, grapes and alfalfa came to the Chinese interior. The “heavenly horses,” the Ferghana and Wusun, came with them, and a wide variety of furs that flowed endlessly from the Silk Road into the Central Plains. Meanwhile, silk and silk textiles from the Central Plains travelled to the Western Regions and Europe. At the eastern edge of the Silk Road sat Henan Province. “One City, One Gate, One Pass, One Road” became a mosaic of the four gems that stood here on that once great road.
On June 22, 2014, the 38th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee was held at Doha, Qatar. China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan made a joint application for the Silk Road network of the Chang’an-tianshan Corridor onto the list of World Heritage Sites.
Among the Heritage Sites included were Henan Province’s Luoyang City Ruins of the Han (202 BC–AD 220) and Wei (AD 220–266) dynasties, the Dingding Gate Ruins of Luoyang of the
Sui (AD 581–618) and Tang (AD 618–907) dynasties, Xin’an Hangu Pass Ruins of the Han Dynasty and the Shihao Section Ruins of the Xiaohan Route.
Hangu Pass, Watching Over History
Located in the Guan Township of Xin’an County, the Xin’an Hangu Pass was built in 114 BC. To the west of the pass are high plateaus, deep ravines are to the east, the Qin Mountains are to its south and the Yellow River is at its north. With over 2,000 years of history, it is one of the earliest strategic passes of its kind and one of the most important relics along the Silk Road.
Hangu Pass is one of China’s most ancient passes. Owing to the mountain pass being surrounded by treacherous terrain on all sides like a box (han), the gate was given this name. Historically there have been three passes with the name “Hangu Pass”—the Qin Hangu Pass, the Han (Dynasty) Hangu Pass and the Wei (Dynasty) Hangu Pass.
According to the Emperor Wu Chapter of The Book of Han, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (reign: 141–87 BC) abandoned the Qin Pass in 114 BC, created the Hongnong Prefecture and ordered that Hangu Pass be moved to Xin’an. The pass was then moved to Xin’an, and is historically known as the Han Hangu Pass. Commander of the Han Navy General Yang Pu received an order from Emperor Wu to move the Qin Hangu Pass in Lingbao 300 li, or 150 kilometres (km), east to Xin’an County.
A year after the project to move the pass to the east, Emperor Wu quickly established a prefecture between the Qin and Han Hangu Passes. This was none other than Hongnong, a name heard far and wide in Chinese history. The prefecture itself controlled 11 counties, governing the belt along the Qin Hangu Pass.
Not only did the establishment of the Hongnong Prefecture strengthen an area around the capital, it gave the central government greater control over the route east of the pass. During the centuries that followed the Han Dynasty, the Xin’an Hangu Pass remained a critically vital military stronghold for multiple dynasties.
Xin’an Hangu Pass was well regarded. Many emperors set foot with its walls, and noted writers and scholars wrote frequently of the famed pass. Emperor Guangwu (reign: AD 25–57) of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220) once established the Dajia Palace (“Palace of the Imperial Chariot”) here at the pass, and Emperor Gaozong (AD 649–683) of Tang and Wu Zetian (only female ruler in ancient China, reign: AD 690–705) likewise built Hebi Palace (“Palace of Harmony”) here.
Today the ruins of Han Hangu Pass itself have long since vanished, but the relics within the area give testament to the Silk Road’s abundant prosperity.
From June 2012 to October 2013, the Luoyang Municipal Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology began an archaeological excavation of the Han Hangu Pass ruins. Excavating an area totaling 3,325 square metres (sq.m), the Institute essentially established the defence system used by the Pass, as well as the location of its eastern and southern walls. The excavation of the ruins of Han Hangu Pass’s eastern wall was recognized as one of the top ten new discoveries nationwide in archaeology of 2013.
The Ancient Xiaohan Route a Deep Impression in Shihao
The ancient Xiaohan route lies between the eastern capital of Luoyang and the western capital Chang’an within ancient Shanzhou (today’s Shan County, Henan Province). Not only was the route between the Xiao Mountains called the “belt between the two capitals,” it was also part of the Silk Road.
As much of its path runs along the Xiao Mountains and crosses the Hangu Pass, the route has been called Xiaohan for ages. Starting at Luoyang, the route travels westward to the Tong Pass, snaking across the mountain ranges and winding through valleys along the Xiao Mountains.
Following the opening of the Silk Road, the Xiaohan route was linked with other routes and began seeing traveling merchants and carts in droves. Changing from a local to international route practically overnight, Xiaohan was a major part along the Silk Road.
The Xiaohan route runs 200 km along the hilly eastern edge of the Loess Plateau. As much of the route is surrounded by mountains, lush forests and the Yellow River itself, travelers were able to subsist off the land during their journey between the capitals.
The Xiaohan route is still preserved today. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Shihao section of the World Heritage Site. At the northern foothills of Jinyin Mountain, Shihao’s limestone road stretches 230 metres (m) from northwest to southeast. Its decidedly uneven surface is only a few metres wide, yet this was one of the major Silk Road routes in the Central Plains, where travellers and carts laden with supplies took to the road a thousand years ago.
There are some ancient cart wheel tread marks, hoof prints and reservoirs that can still be seen at the Shihao site. The Shihao section was built entirely
on the limestone there, and both the main thoroughfare and rest areas rolled into one section of road. The roads were traveled by the cartload. A millennium of wheels and beasts of burden taking the route left deep impressions in the rock.
The scant few hundred m of the Shihao route make up the only one of 33 roads that were accepted in the UNESCO application as a roadway heritage site of the Silk Road. Although there are tracks that can be seen along the Silk Road on the routes around Gansu’s Beishi Cave Temple and Ningxia’s Mount Meru Cave, neither can compare with Shihao— nor were they part of the Silk Road’s main route.
Around the Shihao Heritage Site are such remnants as rest turnouts, stone hearths and beacon towers. The foundations where thatch huts once stood at the turnouts, along with the stone hearths that travelers used to cook their meals further illustrate the lasting history that occurred here.
In 759, the poet sage Du Fu (AD 712–770) travelled the Xiaohan route, tearfully writing his “Three Officers” and “Three Partings.” In the middle of the An Lushan Rebellion, Du Fu was made civil servant of Huazhou. Leaving Luoyang for the city, he passed through Xin’an, Shihao and Tong Pass. Wherever he went, the land was filled with victims of the rebellion. The war left the masses starving, with little hope to survive. In anguish, the poet put blood and tears to quill, writing his renowned “Three Officers” and “Three Partings.”
Sections totaling 6 km more of ancient road remnants have currently been discovered, some buried deep beneath the earth, beyond the 230 m of the Shihao section. Going further off the Xiaohan route, to the old LuoyangTong Highway drowned under fields of grass, the modern Longhai Railway, the Lianhuo Expressway and the National and Provincial Highways, one can’t help but feel how much the times have changed.
Rise and Fall of Centuries
Luoyang was the capital during four dynasties—the Eastern Han, Wei, Western Jin (AD 266–316) and Northern Wei (AD 386–534)—spanning a time from the first to the sixth centuries, and was also called Hanwei Luoyang City.
On the Yiluo plains, 15 km east of today’s Luoyang with the Mang Mountains to the north, the Luo River to its south, Hulao Pass guarding the east and Hangu Pass controlling the west are the ruins of this ancient capital.
Hanwei Luoyang was a place that cannot be overlooked when discussing the history of the Silk Road. Many tales and events that people are familiar with today, such as Cai Lun’s papermaking and Zhang Heng’s development of cartography, happened here.
Since the opening of the Silk Road by Emperor Wu of Han, the connection between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions gradually increased, exchanging trade, culture and religion. Yet by the end of the Western Han, war and rebellion cut off the connection between the Western Regions and the Central Plains.
During the reign of Emperor Ming of Han (AD 58–75), the Xiongnu frequently invaded China’s borders. The emperor sent his armies and General Ban Chao (AD 32–102) to the Western Regions to strike against the Xiongnu.
Ban Chao left from the city of Hanwei Luoyang, taking with him talented diplomats and military strategists to clear a path through the Western Regions. He oversaw the area for over 30 years and was bequeathed the title of Protectorate of the Western Regions by the Eastern Han Dynasty and given a position of nobility.
The Eastern Han restored its connection with the Western Region and safeguarded the smooth passage of the Silk Road, improving the exchange of culture between China and the nations within Central and Western Asia.
Dong Zhuo (general and warlord, deceased AD 192) turned the flourishing 160-year old Eastern Han capital of Luoyang to ashes, marking the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty. Later, challenger for the throne Cao Cao (AD 155–220) undertook a massive project to rebuild the city, and restored it as the seat of the throne. At the end of the Western Jin Dynasty however, Liu Yao (deceased AD 329) once again put Luoyang to the torch, leaving the city naught but smoke in the wind.
Emperor Xiaowen of Northern Wei (AD 471–499) decreed that the capital would be moved to Luoyang and so the imperial capital of Luoyang was rebuilt on the abandoned ruins of the original city, and later became an immense city.
After the Northern Wei was separated into the Eastern and Western Wei dynasties, the Eastern Wei moved the capital to Yecheng. Wars occurred in the years that followed left the onceagain prosperous city in ruin. Following these disasters, Luoyang fell into ruin and
abandonment, gradually forgotten by the rest of the world.
The massive capital and stunning palace that once existed so many years ago have long since been lost to history. The remains of the city walls and the foundation of the Taiji Palace speak of Hanwei Luoyang’s rise and fall.
Hanwei Luoyang was one of the starting points of the Silk Road in the Orient. Its ruins represent the cultural characteristics of the Central Plains from the Eastern Han to the Northern Wei dynasties, representing a city that traversed both space and time, and spread and localised cultural and material exchange and Buddhist teachings on the Central Plains.
Dingding Gate, Witness to Luoyang’s Greatness
After the desolation of Hanwei Luoyang, trade centre of the Orient, Suitang Luoyang took its place. The fires during the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern (AD 420–589) dynasties laid waste to Hanwei Luoyang. After restoring control over the nation, Emperor Yang (reign: AD 604 –618) of the Sui Dynasty sought to build a new Luoyang on the western side of the old city.
In AD 605, ministers like Yang Su (AD 544–606) and Yuwen Kai (AD 555–612) would “hire two million workers” each month to build the new city. To the north of the new city were the Mang mountains, with the Dragon Gate to its south. The majestic Luo River, which previous dynasties had also used as a natural barrier, flowed through the inner city.
Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty became the first Emperor to pass through the city’s southern gate, known as Dingding Gate, which was part of the main thoroughfare through the outer city. Its name comes from a ritual vessel (ding). Upon receiving the nine vessels King Wu of Zhou (reign: 1046–1043 BC) sent to Luoyang, the gate’s name was changed to Dingding Gate (“The Gate where the Ding were sent”).
Emperor Yang’s plan was a major contribution to construction of that period. The river crossed through the city, and following the Sui dynasty, the Suitang Canal was excavated. The salt, fish and horses of the north and the silk and porcelain of the south could then take the canal straight into Luoyang for trade, turning the city of Suitang Luoyang into a locus of trade between East and West.
Emperor Yang of Sui established the Sifang Guan outside Dingding Gate, which was used to receive envoys from kingdoms far and wide, as well as for handling municipal and trade matters. A great deal of importance was placed on relations with the Western Regions during the Sui and Tang dynasties, both expending an enormous amount of human, physical and monetary capital to govern the borderlands.
It was here at Suitang Luoyang that Emperor Yang of Sui once held grand parleys with envoys, particularly those from the Western Regions, and even held large, international trade meetings.
Suitang Luoyang was capital of the Sui Dynasty for 15 years, after which it became the capital of such dynasties as the Tang, Later Liang, Later Tang and Later Zhou. Likewise, Dingding Gate retained its place as the capital’s main gate. It wasn‘t until the end of the Northern Song (AD 960–1127) that the gate slowly fell into disuse.
The ruins of Dingding Gate represent the height and splendor of the Silk Road. It witnessed the zenith of agricultural innovation in the Orient from the seventh to the tenth centuries, and held an intimate connection with the prosperous traders that came to the capital.
Some animal tracks on the Silk Road have survived the test of time and are generally the most enduring marks. During the excavation of the Dingding Gate ruins, a 90-m wide road from the Tang dynasty was discovered, full of cart tracks, hoof prints, even human footprints.
Among these prints is an astounding hoof print 20 centimetres in diameter, which experts have confirmed was made by a camel. Often called the “ships of the desert,” camels were a critical tool in transporting goods across the Silk Road. They were at Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) during the Han and Tang periods, and here, at the ruins of Dingding Gate, this camel footprint shows the connection between Suitang Luoyang and the Silk Road.
Today the Dingding Gate Ruins Museum, built above the ruins of the gate itself, look out toward the Fangtang City Gate, the Youcheng Gate, the city walls and the towers of the city and the palace. The space between the palace and city towers has been made into an exhibition area focused on showing the storied history of the Dingding Gate ruins and the relics unearthed during the archaeological excavation of Suitang Luoyang. In the city tower exhibition hall, one is greeted by a 1:800 scale model of Suitang Luoyang that gives an understanding of the city’s massive scale long ago.
Xin’an Hangu Pass Ruins
The restored foundation of a pagoda at Yongning Temple of Luoyang
The Museum of Dingding Gate Ruins of Luoyang