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Map of Shudao (Roads to Shu), Guanzhong is the valley at the top right
|Literal meaning||Inside the Pass|
Guanzhong (Chinese: 关中, formerly romanised as Kwanchung) region, also known as the Guanzhong Basin, Wei River Basin, or uncommonly as the Shaanzhong region, is a historical region of China corresponding to the crescentic graben basin within present-day central Shaanxi, bounded between the Qinling Mountains in the south (known as Guanzhong's "South Mountains"), and the Huanglong Mountain, Meridian Ridge and Long Mountain ranges in the north (collectively known as its "North Mountains"). The central flatland area of the basin, known as the Guanzhong Plain, is made up of alluvial plains along the lower Wei River and its numerous tributaries and thus also called the Wei River Plain. The region is part of the Jin-Shaan Basin Belt, and is separated from its geological sibling — the Yuncheng Basin to its northeast — by the Yellow River section southwest of the Lüliang Mountains and north of the river's bend at the tri-provincial junction among Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan.
The name Guanzhong means "within the passes", referring to the four major mountain pass fortresses historically defending the region. The region was the traditional heartland of Qin state during Zhou Dynasty and thus often nicknamed the "800 li of Qin land". The Yellow River, Lüliang Mountains and the eastern end of the Qinling separate the region from the (then) politically orthodox Central Plain, which is located east of the strategic Hangu Pass and therefore was historically referred as the Guandong ("east of the pass") region by the Qin people, who later conquered the eastern states and unified China as a centralized empire — the Qin dynasty — for the first time during the 3rd century BC. Afterwards, subsequent prominent dynasties such as the Han and Tang (both considered China's historical golden ages) also had the crownland established in the Guanzhong region.
The four major historic fortified passes that enclose Guanzhong region are:
- Hangu Pass (in present day Lingbao City) to the east
- Wu Pass (in present day Danfeng County) to the southeast,
- Xiao Pass (in present day Jingyuan County[disambiguation needed]) to the northwest, and
- Dasan Pass (in present day Chencang District) to the west
Two more passes were later added, namely the Tong Pass (in present day Tongguan County) in the east, built during the late Eastern Han dynasty by warlord Cao Cao; and Jinsuo Pass (in present day Yintai District) in the north, built during the Tang dynasty.
Historically the most important pass was the Hangu Pass along the Yellow River which separates Guanzhong from the North China Plain. Guanzhong includes the central part of Shaanxi and the extreme west of modern Henan.
The average altitude of the Guanzhong Plain is around 500 m (1,600 ft). Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province and the largest city in Northwest China, is located at the center of the region. Other major prefectural cities in the Guanzhong region also include Baoji, Xianyang, Tongchuan and Weinan.
The Guanzhong region became the heartland of the Zhou after Jī clan leader Gugong Danfu relocated his people south from Bin (modern day Binzhou, Shaanxi) to evade the violent raidings by Xunyu, Xianyun and Di nomads. It is from Guanzhong region that the Zhou state prospered and eventually conquered the Shang dynasty to establish the Zhou dynasty in 1046 BC.
After the Quanrong nomads, with collaboration from Marquess of Shen, killed King You of Zhou and sacked the Zhou capital Haojing in 771 BC, the Western Zhou dynasty collapsed and the surviving Zhou court fled east to Luoyi. The Yíng clan, then a minor marcher vassal based in the Longxi Basin as a buffer state on the western frontier of the Chinese civilization, sent troops to escort King Ping of Zhou along the journey. In gratitude, King Ping granted a mid-level nobility to the Yíng leader, Count Xiang, and promised him authority to permanently claim any lands his clan can recapture from the nomads. The resultant Qin state then spent the next few centuries fighting off various nomads to its north and west and eventually consolidated its base in the Guanzhong Plain and the Loess Plateau. The Qin capital then relocated progressively east from Qinyi (in modern Qingshui County, Gansu) to Yong (in modern Fengxiang County, Shaanxi), then to Yueyang (in modern Yanliang District of Xi'an, Shaanxi), and eventually to Xianyang northeastly across the Wei River from the ruined old Zhou capital of Fenghao. Four passes were then built to defend this new heartland against hostile attacks from both the east and the west.
During the Warring States period, Qin grew powerful under Shang Yang's legalist reforms, and militarily became increasingly more successful, and its rivals to the east claimed that the Qin army was a "troop of tigers and wolves", and it was often said that "Guanzhong produces generals; Guandong produces ministers". After constructing irrigation systems such as Zhengguo Canal, the already fertile Guanzhong region became extremely productive, allowing Qin state to become the preeminent power, repeatedly defeating and seizing more territory from its rivals to the east, and eventually unified China and established the Qin dynasty in 221 BC.
After First Emperor's death, the Qin dynasty soon fell into chaos due to the corrupt rule of Qin Er Shi and Zhao Gao, and various rebellions broke out. In 206 BC, the rebel leader Liu Bang successfully invaded Guanzhong and forced the last Qin ruler, Ziying, to surrender the capital Xianyang, ending the Qin dynasty. Liu Bang entered the capital peacefully, and issued strict orders forbidding his troops from harming the locals. However, he was forced to hand over the control over to another more powerful rebel leader Xiang Yu, who pillaged and torched Xianyang and enfeoffed the Guanzhong region to three surrendered Qin generals Zhang Han, Sima Xin and Dong Yis, collectively known as the "Three Qins". However, merely four month later, Liu Bang returned with his newly appointed generalissimo Han Xin and reconquered the Guanzhong region, and used it as his base to eventually defeat Xiang Yu in the subsequent civil war. After establishing the Han dynasty, Liu Bang created a new capital named Chang'an, which is just across the Wei River from the ruined Qin capital Xianyang.
Since the Western Zhou dynasty, the area was the capital region of China for a total of 12 dynasties including the Qin, Western Han, Sui, and Tang. By the Tang dynasty the economic center of China had shifted south to the Yangtze basin and Guanzhong became increasingly dependent on supplies transported via the Grand Canal. After the destruction of Chang'an in the last years of the Tang, Guanzhong became less significant politically as well as economically in later dynasties.
- 冀朝鼎著，朱詩鰲譯《中國歷史上的基本經濟區與水利事業的發展》(北京: 中國社會科學出版社, 1981) pp. 75-76.