Ancient Paths in the Central Plain
By Liu Xiaofang
The ancient central plain in China has been a land of power, a cradle of Chinese civilization and a witness of great empires. Characterized by prominent geographical status in history and inaccessible landform with mountains all around, the central plain was described as mountainous districts with deep valleys and spectacular peaks, which serve as natural defenses.
For ancient people, the Mount Long with deep valleys in the west, as well as Qinling Mountains and the ancient Sichuan Road, was insurmountable. Besides, the ranges of mountains in the north were all natural defenses.
Inaccessible and difficult as it was, it was built 3,100 plus years ago and had been the capital of Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties for 1,200 years. Four military passes that carried the flow of taxes, posts, troops and goods from around the country surrounded the plain, promoting political stability, economic boom, talent development, cultural exchanges and social advancement. All these achievements can be attributed to roads extending in all directions. The basic structure of ancient roads can be traced back to Spring and Autumn Periods and the Warring States.
Driving skills contribute to the development of ancient roads.
According to The Cambridge History of China—The Qin and Han Empires, during the 20 years before and after Qin unified China, about 6,800 km of roads were built, longer than the 5948 km built in Roman Empire. Besides, the national lines of Qin were about 69m in width while the standard width in Roman Empire was the only 8.5m. Such great achievement is not only attributed to the personal ambition and power of the first emperor of Qin but also the innate driving skills.
According to Historical Records, a distant ancestor of Qin, Fei Chang, familiar with traffic and skilled at driving, made great contributions in the war between Shang and Xia leaders, driving for Shang and defeating Xia. His offspring also served as drivers of emperors and enjoyed high status. In the Western Zhou dynasty, one of the descendants drove for Emperor Mu and suppressed the rebels. He was granted a piece of exclusive land as the reward and thus paved the way for the rise of Qin Empire.
Proficiency in driving needs a good command of traffic conditions and when such skills passed from generation to generation, Qin expanded and manifested its ambition. Therefore, legends and facts about carving our roads prevailed.
The remaining ancient path at the north and south foots of Qinling Mountains was built in 267BC. More than 200km in length, it was built on the cliff by drilling holes and piling up wooden plates. In the Spring and Autumn Period when gunpowder hadn’t been invented, smart ancient people used the technique of firing and cooling to build roads in difficult conditions. They drilled three rows of square holes with 30cm on each side and 50cm in depth, inserted spiles and built canopies on the upper piles. In the middle roads were paved and the lower part served as support. It took 8 years before the path was completed in 259 BC. Today when traveling along the valleys, holes on the cliff can be seen, showing the hardship of ancient workers.
In the early period of Qin, the motivation of building roads lied in their driving habits and skills. When the first emperor of Qin came to power, the construction of roads developed farther. According to Historical Records, in the 27th year of his reign, the first emperor of Qin built more paths and set up national roads. According to historians in the East Han Dynasty, the national roads were governed by the emperor and still remain today. It is recorded in The Book of Former Han that the Qin emperor built national roads all around the country. Each path was over 100m in the width and trees were planted every 10 meters. That is to say, national roads are like expressways, the middle part of which is exclusive to royal members.
It was Hun people who overthrew the Qin dynasty. During the reign of Qin, Hun controlled some regions in Ningxia and Shaanxi, which were 250-plus kilometers from Xianyang, the capital of Qin, and it took troops within 24 hours to reach the capital. In the face of the enemy, the emperor sent powerful cavalrymen to the camp of Hun at the foot of Mount Yin within 3 days, building a 700-kilometer Qin path and ensuring the security of the empire, as is proved in Historical Records. In a large-scale archaeological excavation conducted by Archaeological Research Institute of Shaanxi in 2009, 9 to 10 paths from 3 different dynasties with 50m in width were discovered, showing that as the first expressway in the world came into being in Germany in 1931 when Hitler was in power, the Chinese ancient paths which resemble the modern highways have existed for more than 2,200 years.