Thoughts on flying over a city important in ancient China

I have just been away for three weeks, on a holiday to Hong Kong and Indonesia. My wife and I had never been to Asia before, so it was, for us, a journey into unexplored lands.

The holiday started off with what was for me an interesting moment. We had taken off from Heathrow airport (London) at 6.00 pm on the non-stop flight to Hong Kong, and I had had a fitful sleep through the night. As I awoke, I noticed from the map showing our current location that we were flying over the city of Chengdu.

For a long time Chengdu has been known to me as one of China’s most ancient cities. You can see it there, in our Timemap of China in 200 BC. It was already a significant city, therefore, at the very dawn of China’s long succession of imperial dynasties. You can also see it there in the Timemap of China for 2005, the final date covered by the Timemap of World History. And it’s there in every map in between.

Now, the criteria I have used for including cities in the various history maps – size, economic significance, political power, cultural influence and so on – are fairly subjective, but I compared my selections with those of other historians and I think I have made as a good a stab as any historical map-maker in including the most important cities at different times in history. Bearing this in mind, it is interesting that, of the cities that appear in the map of China for 200 BC, all, with one exception (Linzi), are also there in the map of China for 2005 AD; and of these, all, again with one exception (Changan/Xian), appear in every map between 200 BC and 2005 AD.

I haven’t had time to see if major cities in other regions of the world experience the same continuity. Chinese civilization has, throughout its history, shown a unique stability; nevertheless I rather suspect that cities in other parts of the world do show a similar endurance. Once a city has established itself as a major centre of economic and political power within a territory, it can endure many ups and downs. Indeed, the “downs” may strengthen its long-term longevity by undermining the situations of lesser towns and cities and so draw remaining trade routes and political authority more firmly to it.

When I have the time I think I’ll do a bit more digging into the continuity displayed by various cities.

By Peter Britton