Xi'an, the largest city on the southern bank of the Wei River, is in northwest China. It is the political, economic and cultural center of the province of Shaanxi. Shaanxi Province should not be confused with Shanxi Province to the east. The slight difference in spelling indicates a tonal difference applied to the first syllable. To the north lies the Shaanxi Plateau, rising from about 2,500 feet above sea level to almost 4,000 feet on the northern provincial border adjoining Inner Mongolia, and, to the south, the Qinling Mountains, which are mostly over 6,000 feet with one peak, Taibai Shan, reaching 11,400 feet. The northern plateau shelters Xi'an from the biting northerly winds in winter, and the southern mountains protect the town from the hotter weather of the south.
The name of the province literally means "west of the pass" referring to the pass Tong Guan about 35 miles downstream where the Wei River enters Huang He, or the Yellow River. One of the reasons Xi'an was preferred as the site of the ancient capital was its greater immunity from attack because of its location west of the pass. The Wei Valley and middle Yellow River area of Shaanxi have been inhabited since the Neolithic Era or even before. The regions may be considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. The first Chinese states known today from written records were later established in the area, but before then, in 1066 BC, nomads came in from the east and founded the Zhou Dynasty. Sites in and around present-day Xi'an were established as the capital from this time up until the end of the Tang Dynasty, when Chang An, as the city was then called, was the most important center of Asia and the meeting point of the east and the west. When the Tang Dynasty was eclipsed by the Song Dynasty in 907 AD, the town went into decline and emerged from obscurity again only during the Ming period.
Xi'an, known in former days as Chang’an, meaning "Everlasting Peace", vied with Luoyang for recognition as capital of succeeding dynasties for over 2,000 years. Being "inside the pass", Xi'an was easier to defend. Luoyang, about 200 miles downstream and therefore much closer to the food-growing areas of the North China Plain, was easier to provision.
There is no doubt that the areas surrounding Xi'an were populated by Neolithic settlements as far back as 6,000 BC. The excavations just outside Xi'an, at Ban Po village, have shown conclusive evidence of the Yang Shao culture.
Thousands of years later, the Zhou kings established their capital only a few miles away from the present-day city. Four Tumuli, reputedly those of the four Zhou kings, are located across the River Wei to the northwest of present-day Xi'an. There are some doubts about their origin and the historical records also show contradictions on this point.
Qin Shi Huang Di, the first emperor of unified China (221 BC), set about enlarging the settlement of Xian Yang, some fifteen miles north-west of the present-day Xi'an. This town, established under earlier Qin rulers as the capital, became heavily populated, so that in 212 BC Qin Shi Huang Di decided to move his court to the south bank of the River Wei. A vast palace, E Pang palace, was begun. However, the work was never completed in his lifetime, and some years later (206 BC), when the Qin Dynasty fell to the Han Dynasty, this and most of the other palaces were destroyed.
The conqueror Liu Bang, first emperor of the Han, established the site of his capital only a few miles north of modern Xi'an. Some of the older palaces were restored and new ones constructed. During the time of the Western Han, imperial tombs were built, nine in the hills running down to the north bank of the river and two in the southern hills in the fork of the Chan River.
From about 25 AD the town went into a ?decline that lasted about five and a half centuries, until in 582 the emperor Wen Di of the Sui Dynasty established his capital southeast of Chang An. The town flourished and continued its development under the Tang Dynasty, so that in time it became the most important center in Asia, with a population of about a million people living in a vast, well-laid-out city protected by large walls and ramparts. The area of the old city was greater than that of present-day Xi'an.
All but two of the Tang emperors have their tombs in the hills far back from the north bank of the Wei. There are fifteen tombs in a line extending about 100 miles eastward, and the farthest one is near the Yellow River. The town was extensively damaged, when the Tang Dynasty fell, and thereafter went into another long period of decline. After that, it was never again the capital of China. So the town remained undeveloped until the Ming Dynasty, and even then it was only about one-fifth of its former area. During the reign of the Qing Dynasty it was considered one of the most beautiful towns in China; but when the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911, it went into another decline. Thereafter there was little development until after the 1949 revolution, when a program of industrialization was introduced and the area repopulated.
The people of Shaanxi have struggled for thousands of years to tame the waters of the province by digging canals, making dams and irrigating the agricultural areas. Even today water conservation projects are of great importance to the province, and there has been an upsurge in capital construction in this sector. Hillsides are being extensively terraced for growing crops, planting trees and shrubs thus to prevent soil erosion; lessen the impact of droughts, and long-time scourges of the area. One forestation program, known as the "great wall of greenness", extends some 220 miles in length.
The major agricultural crops are wheat, rice and maize, but rape and hemp are the major cash crops. Since the south of the province, particularly the Han valley region, is subtropical, rice production accounts for about 80 percent of the total crop harvested. However, the Wei River valley around Xi'an raises about 90 percent of the cotton and 70 percent of the wheat produced in the province.
Shaanxi is rich in coal; and other minerals such as iron ore, manganese and copper are also mined. Crude oil is also extracted in the province. Since 1949, emphasis has been placed on the development of secondary industry, so that Xi'an now possesses factories that turn out machinery, electrical instruments, cement, chemical fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, paper, sewing machines, plastics, chemical fibers and textiles. The motor industry is under development.