The many capitals of China

With roots in history that can be traced as far as 3,000 years, I have to admit that even the rich Catalan history languishes compared with what is today’s China.

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And with so many years on their account, the city designated as capital of the country changed many times, depending on factors such as time of the year, the reigning dynasty or just because the Emperor said so.

It was a common thing not only for China, but across Asia, where the capitals changed in a very specific way: balancing from one cardinal point to the other: north-south and east-west, and also naming them accordingly.

Take for instance Japan and its capital Tokyo: its kanji name is written 東京: ‘Eastern Capital’. Kyoto still has similar characters 京都: where the character ‘都’ in Chinese can also mean capital. ‘Eastern Capital’ (東京) was also a former name of Hanoi, Vietnam, during the Later Lê Dynasty. And Seoul in South Korea had the name Gyeongseong, written in hanja as 京城 or ‘Capital City’…

And China is no exception to this phenomenon. For example, when the location of the Chinese capital was swinging between Beijing and Nanjing during the Ming Dynasty, they were named respectively the ‘North’ and ‘South’ capital in relation to each other: in a map, 北 (Bei), 東 (Dōng), 南 (Nan) and 西 (Xi) are the 4 points of a compass, and adding the character 京 (jīng, capital)…

  • 北京: Beijing, northern capital.
  • 南京: Nanjing, southern capital.
  • 西京: Xijing, western capital, today named Xi’an (西安).
  • 南京: Dongjing eastern capital, today’s Kaifeng (开封市).

That doesn’t mean they kept their names when they lost their status as capitals: Beijing was renamed Beiping (Northern Peace) when Nanjing was the capital, and in exchange, Nanjing was renamed Tianjing (Heavenly capital) when Beijing was the capital.

During other dynasties, the capitals shifted more in an East-West direction. One pair was the ‘Western Capital’ Xidu (today’s Xi’an) and the ‘Eastern Capital’ Dongdu (today’s Luoyang), and the other was Beidu (‘North Capital’, today’s ) and Nandu (‘South Capital’, today’s ), all during the Tang dinasty. Note that the character () also means ‘capital’, just like 京 (jīng).

During the Japanese invasion of China, after the fall of the then capital Nanjing to the Japanese army, the Nationalist government went into exile to Chongqing, which became the capital of the remnants of the Republic of China, whilst the occupied territory split into several puppet states and their respective capitals:

After the civil war, the CPC installed their government in Beijing, proclaiming the People’s Republic of China, while the Kuomintang retreated to Formosa (Taiwan), keeping the name of Republic of China, and making Taipei its capital. The rest is history.

So we can say that even nowadays, ‘China’ has two capitals: Beijing for the People’s Republic of China and Taipei for the Republic of China, so you better specify. Or not…

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