The Peaceful City

Joining traditions and forging identity in the Northern Wei capital Pingcheng

Project organisers:

Univ-Prof. Dr. Lukas Nickel
Prof. Zhu Qingsheng 朱青生,Peking University
Prof. Wei Jian Renmin University of China

The “Peaceful City”, Pingcheng, located in the area of modern day Datong in Shanxi province, became the second capital of the Northern Wei in 398 CE. It would serve as the capital for one of the major powers of East Asia for almost a century. Despite its location on the fringes of the traditional heartland of Chinese culture, Pingcheng developed into one of the largest and most bustling metropolises of Asia. However, for all its importance in Medieval Chinese history, Pingcheng has so far received insufficient attention in research.

The Northern Wei state had been established by the Tuoba tribe of the nomadic Xianbei confederation in 386. It brought most of northern China under its rule within fifty years, developing into one of the major powers of East Asia. The Northern Wei decided to move their capital from Shengle in Inner Mongolia to Pingcheng just as the state was reinventing itself as an empire, with the Northern Wei ruler Tuoba Gui taking up the Chinese title of “Emperor”.

Through ambitious building projects, extensive population relocations from other parts of China and growing commercial exchange with other parts of Asia, the former garrison town was shaped into the capital of an empire. Pingcheng became home to an ethnically diverse population, including inhabitants from many parts of China, nomadic ethnicities from the north, and foreigners from other parts of Asia, all bringing in their own cultural heritage, religions, and skills.

This cosmopolitanism was reflected in the visual presentation of the city, marked by monumental Chinese-style city walls and palatial structures alongside nomadic felt tents and towering Buddhist stupas of unprecedented height and grandeur. The complex structure of Pingcheng’s society manifested itself below ground as well through the construction of lavish tombs, often embellished with murals, lacquered sarcophagi and elaborate sets of tomb figurines.

Transmitted textual sources from Southern China representing the Northern Wei as culturally backward have coloured 20th century scholarship of the area, with influential studies characterising Pingcheng as an “assembly of mud-houses” and even comparing it to a concentration camp.

However, excavations within the past twenty years have unearthed several temple sites, remains of imperial palaces and hundreds of tombs among other remains belonging to fifth century Datong. Vast numbers of tombs have been explored and published, remains of aboveground architecture and city walls documented, and Buddhist sites examined. The wealth of recent archaeological material, amplified every year by new finds, offers alternative insights and demands a re-examination of the significance of Northern Wei Pingcheng in Chinese history.

The project aims to reassess the place of Pingcheng in the art and archaeology of Medieval China. It aims to do so through a series of workshops hosted by University of Vienna, Peking University and Renmin University of China, and joint surveys followed by the publication of a comprehensive volume of essays.

The three workshops, which will take place annually in Datong, Beijing and Vienna, will bring together around 20 junior and established scholars with an expertise in the Buddhist sites, urban remains, and tomb archaeology. These workshops will allow scholars to research individually and discuss jointly the significance of the city and for the arts, religion, and society of Medieval China, building expertise and knowledge over several years.


The topics of the three workshops will be:
  1. Pingcheng: Heritages and Identity (16th-18th September 2019 Datong)
  2. Pingcheng: Religions in the Cityscape
  3. Pingcheng: Everyday Life and Death