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The Fall of Lo-Yang

Arthur Waley profiles life and ideas in the 3rd century Chinese capital at the time of its capture and destruction by Huns.

In a.d. 311 Lo-yang, the capital of China and the greatest city of the whole eastern world, was captured and sacked by the Huns. For several centuries northern China was under foreign rule, and when at the end of the sixth century the north passed once more into Chinese hands the, culture of the great native dynasties that ruled a powerful and united China (such, for example, as that of the T’ang) was in many ways a synthesis of nomad Turkic and traditional Chinese elements. The year 311, then (like the year 410, when the Goths sacked Rome), marks a turning-point in history. Gibbon, before describing the sack of Rome, pauses to give a general account of the city and the people who lived in it. We may well follow his example. What, then, materially and spiritually, was Lo-yang at the beginning of the fourth century? The name is familiar to modern readers, for it figured fairly constantly in war-news at the time of the Japanese invasion. It lies in the north-west corner of the province of Honan, some twenty miles south of the Yellow River. The population at the beginning of the fourth century was about 600,000. That of Rome may have been somewhat larger; otherwise there was probably no city in the world of that size. It measured about two miles from north to south and was about one and a half miles wide. The main streets were divided into three parts. In the middle, the Imperial Road ran between walls about three and a half feet high. Only the Emperor and his family and the highest officials (Presidents of Boards, and the like) could use this central road. Ordinary people used the tracks that ran on each side of it, and these tracks were “One Way”; traffic going from one of the city gates to the centre used the left-hand track; traffic going in the reverse direction used the track on the right. These main, roads were flanked by avenues of elm and sophora.

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