Chang’an: Babel on the Yellow River

Today, inhabitants of major cities, particularly in Europe and America, take linguistic diversity for granted. To some extent, this has been true for a long time. On the streets of imperial Rome or Ottoman Constantinople, one would have heard dozens of languages spoken. But for uniqueness of landscape, as well as influence on future linguistic development, no city in history matches Chang’an during its golden age as the capital of China’s Tang Dynasty.

At first blush, this may be surprising. China is famous for its homogeneity. I worked for a summer in Shenzhen, a metropolis of twelve million built on global trade that literally borders Hong Kong, and encountered maybe one person per week who spoke anything other than Mandarin. Even Beijing and Shanghai pale in comparison to London and New York, and indeed Birmingham and Chicago.

But at its height in the 7th and 8th Centuries, Chang’an (present day Xi’an) was not just the capital of the world’s greatest empire, but the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. People from across Eurasia travelled to and resided in the city, which at nearly a million people was by far the biggest in the world.

Of course, the city’s predominant language, and the mother tongue of the vast majority of residents, was Chinese. But in a country where that label is applied to myriad present and historical dialects, we must be more specific. The capital dialect formed the basis for standard Middle Chinese, the dialect from which almost all modern ones descend. In the three-and-a-half centuries of chaos between the fall of the Han Dynasty in A.D. 220 and the rise of the Sui and Tang, Chinese dialects had diverged so much that Northern and Southern speech were mutually unintelligible. Of course, having passed through the prism of official Middle Chinese, they did refract again. But had the Tang not reset the clock, it is hard to imagine that China would have any linguistic (and indeed national) coherence today.

A map of modern China’s dialects. Min is the only one not descended from Middle Chinese.

The imperial capital also hosted China’s most important neighbours. Like many aristocratic Northern clans of the era, the Tang imperial family were themselves part barbarian, and enjoyed mostly friendly relations with the Mongol and Turkic tribes that traditionally menaced the Middle Kingdom. Chang’an is not far from the frontier, and was a natural home for pacified barbarians. Emperor Tang Taizong even had to disinherit his eldest son because he refused to speak Chinese and insisted on dressing and acting like a Turkic khan.

Other arrivals came from farther afield. Merchants from across Eurasia resided in foreign quarters, something like Chinatowns in the modern West. Persian nobles fleeing the Islamic conquest of their country set up a court in exile under the emperor’s protection. Chang’an would have been one of the last bastions of pure Old Persian. Surely to the princes’ chagrin, Arab merchants also arrived. One can still see Arabic signs and mosques that look like Chinese temples in modern Xi’an. China’s native Jewish community trace their history to the later Song capital of Kaifeng, but it is probable that Hebrew had a presence in Chang’an.

An ambassador from Da Qin (the Roman Empire)

Those who travelled the farthest to Chang’an were ambassadors from Constantinople. Thanks mostly to a stratospheric language barrier, Chinese accounts of the Far West tended toward the fantastical, but they do seem to have realised that something had changed since the last Roman emissaries arrived in the 280s. Someone may have noticed that the foreigners were now speaking Greek instead of Latin, and scholars started referring to their country as instead of the earlier . As a side note, it is possible that, as they passed through Afghanistan, the embassies may have encountered the last Greek communities which were originally settled by the troops of Alexander the Great and endured for centuries in the country’s lush valleys.

Xuanzang’s journey to the West resonates with modern audiences.

In two more ways, Tang Chang’an played a critical role in the subsequent linguistic development of East Asia. It was in the capital that Xuanzang, a novice at a Buddhist monastery, was frustrated to realise that Chinese versions of the Buddhist scriptures were incoherent, contradictory, or both. The texts are esoteric in the original, and had been translated by Indians whose command of Chinese was choppy.

Xuanzang spent years learning Sanskrit from Indian expats, and snuck out of China (travelling abroad was punishable by death) to drink from the pure well of Buddhism’s source. In spite of the fact that his journey was illegal, when he returned, he gained imperial sponsorship for the massive project of properly translating the Buddhist classics. It is thanks in no small part to the peripatetic monk’s linguistic prowess that Buddhism is now far more popular in China and East Asia more broadly than in its original homeland.

Even more momentous, scholars from the young nations of Japan and Korea arrived to learn from the Middle Kingdom. They brought home philosophy, high culture, and of course, language. Other East Asian languages were massively influenced by Chinese. I am at best an intermediate Chinese speaker, but I can easily recognise words in Japanese and Korean. They were both first written down in Chinese characters, and Japanese still mostly is.

Ancient Kyoto was designed in imitation of Chang’an.

In my opinion, by far the most interesting community in Chang’an would be found in the Tocharian quarter. Tocharians were an Indo-European people who settled western China at the same time their relatives were taking over Europe, Iran, and India. In the Tang era, they were important players, especially as their oases were vital points on the Silk Road. A modern visitor to the capital of medieval China would probably be shocked to find any towering blond and ginger Caucasians there. But there were a lot of them, and they were not even far from home.

Today, it is next to impossible to find anyone in Xi’an who speaks anything other than the local version of Mandarin. Inhabitants are proud of their city’s imperial past, but few have an inkling of the multinational kaleidoscope it once was. At its peak, it may have housed a million people. But for billions worldwide, its legacy pervades every day.

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets