A lost cap­i­tal haunted by ghosts and his­tory

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE -

The Mon­gol Em­pire spanned much of Asia and Europe. It built four cap­i­tal cities, the least known of which is Zhongdu, or Cen­tral Cap­i­tal.

It is a con­fus­ing name be­cause dif­fer­ent places have been called Zhongdu, in­clud­ing Bei­jing, which, dur­ing the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271-1368), was named Zhongdu be­fore it was changed to Dadu, or Big Cap­i­tal. In the west, the most fa­mous was Shangdu, or Xanadu, lit­er­ally Up­per Cap­i­tal, thanks to Marco Polo’s vivid de­scrip­tion and Sa­muel Co­leridge’s opi­um­hazed imag­i­na­tion.

Zhongdu was 265 km north of Dadu and 195 km south of Shangdu, a short drive out­side what is now down­town Zhang­bei. It was en route when royal en­tourages trav­eled be­tween the two cap­i­tal cities. For those ac­cus­tomed to gal­lop­ing in the wilder­ness, there was not much rea­son to turn a stopover into a palace city.

But Em­peror Wu­zong (12811311), or Ku­lug Khan, was not the kind of monarch who thought ra­tio­nally. Dur­ing his three-and­hal­freign, he es­sen­tially bankrupted the coun­try by lav­ish­ing gifts on those loyal to him and hav­ing huge armies of su­per­nu­mer­aries. Only 10 days af­ter he as­cended the throne, he or­dered Zhongdu to be built. Mirac­u­lously, it was com­pleted in just one year.

Wu­zong was a mil­i­tary hero. He snatched the crown from his younger brother Ayur­bar­wada be­fore the lat­ter could get to it. Per­haps to ap­pease him, he of­fered suc­ces­sion rights to the brother, reach­ing an agree­ment that their de­scen­dants would get the throne al­ter­nately.

But the bat­tle for suc­ces­sion turned vi­o­lent. Af­ter Wu­zong’s sud­den death at the age of 30, Ayur­bar­wada killed his loy­al­ists and re­moved Zhongdu from the ex­alted sta­tus of a cap­i­tal city. It was a pop­u­lar move con­sid­er­ing it was a drain on the state’s cof­fers and did not ful­fill any func­tions. It was not even asum­mer­re­treat like Shangdu.

Zhongdu sur­vived for 50 years, slightly longer than half of the 97 years of the Yuan Dy­nasty. (The Yuan started from the time Kublai Khan pro­claimed it as a con­quest dy­nasty, while theMon­gol Em­pire can be traced fur­ther back to his grand­fa­therGenghisKhan.) It wit­nessed the com­ings and go­ings of seven em­per­ors be­fore it was torched in 1358 by peas­ant rebels.

The folly of a capri­cious over­lord then lay in ru­ins for six and half cen­turies. The winds and sands of his­tory were so relentless that for many years it was mis­taken as a mar­ket­place for cat­tle called “The White Sheep City”.

But Yin Zhix­ian thought oth­er­wise. The lo­cal his­tory teacher had no­ticed frag­ments from the ru­ins that be­longed more ap­pro­pri­ately to a palace. Fur­ther arche­o­log­i­cal digs con­firmed his sus­pi­cion, but it was not of­fi­cially de­ter­mined un­til 1997 that the ru­ins were the site of Zhongdu.

By then much dam­age had been done.

In the 1950s, a lo­cal dam used stones dug up from the ru­ins. And in the late 1970s, a new high­way cut through it.

But leg­end has al­ways pointed to the ex­is­tence of some­thing larger and mys­te­ri­ous in this par­tic­u­lar place.

Fa­tal traffic ac­ci­dents were re­ported to be fre­quent in the sec­tion of the road that trans­gressed the ru­ins.

In the 1930s, when lo­cal res­i­dents tried to erect build­ings inside the grassy mounds, strange things hap­pened.

The first house­hold saw its roof col­lapse right af­ter com­ple­tion.

Ghost sto­ries were so ram­pant that the few who dared to live inside had va­cated it by 1960.

The palace area sat on a 3-meter-high plat­form, with a length of 620 me­ters north to south and 560 east to west.

There are 27 dis­cernible ru­ins in this area.

The in­ner city with the palace at the cen­ter was 1,740 by 980 me­ters and was 1 meter higher than the outer city, which was about 3,000 me­ters on each side.

One of the pieces ex­ca­vated is an an­i­mal or­na­ment from one of the palace tow­ers. It was usu­ally ranked tenth in a 10-piece set. The only other place with sim­i­lar or­na­ments is the Hall of Supreme Har­mony inside Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City.

To see these ar­ti­facts and fill out gaps in your imag­i­na­tion, you need to visit the 9,000-sq-m Zhongdu Mu­seum in down­town Zhang­bei, and you will ex­pe­ri­ence the glory days of the peo­ple on horse­back and how they con­quered and ruled far and wide.

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