China / Beijing

Introducing Beijing

Beijing, the capital of the People's Republic of China, is a modern and international metropolis of historical significance. It is the place where the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the Central People's Government of China are located, and it is the political, economic and communications center of China as well as the center for foreign trade. Beijing is also the country's scientific and cultural center where the scientists, scholars, artists and technicians as well as people in all fields are making their great contributions to the construction of China. This fast changing city gives an impression of a modern city with strong traditional flavors.

Origin of the City

In about one or two thousand years BC, some small settlements began to appear on the Beijing Sub-plain. One of them was located around the present Guanganmen area in the southwestern Beijing. As time went by, Guanganmen settlement became a center for north and south communications. With the development of production and the flourishing in commerce, it grew into a prosperous market town in the Zhou Dynasty (11thcentury-256 BC), and then it was called the City of “Ji”. That was probably the earliest appearance of the city Beijing. The earliest written history of Beijing can be traced to more than 3,000 years ago. Since there was no detailed record to prove the exact beginning of the city, the argument for the exact founding year of the city of “Ji” among historians lasted for many years. But later, according to historical records, the historian and professor Mr. Zhao Guangxian got the result. The year when King Wu of the Zhou Dynasty overthrew the Shang Dynasty (16th-11thcentury BC), is the year when the city appeared. So later, according to the calendar, records, astronomical phenomena and the Halley Comet, the year of 1046 BC, is considered as the year Beijing city appeared.

Names of the City

Beijing was first recorded as the city of “Ji”. Later in the 11thcentury BC, the Kingdom of Yan established its capital at the city of Ji, and named it “Yanjing”. That is why the locally brewed beer is called Yanjing Beer. The city of “Ji” served as the capital of Yan for 800-900 years and it was an important metropolis in northern China. In 221 BC, during the Qin Dynasty (221BC-206BC), Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, defeated other six kingdoms and established a unified and centralized state with its capital in Xianyang (in present Shaanxi Province). The state of Yan ceased to exist and the city of “Ji” became a common prefectural town, which was still regarded as a major trading center and a place of strategic importance. But the city of “Ji” was in no position to be compared with the capital cities of Xianyang, Chang’an of the Han, Sui and Tang Dynasties. In the Sui Dynasty (581-618), it was named “Zhuojun”. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it was renamed “Youzhou” with the capital in Chang’an (Xi’an today). As time continued, the city was respectively named Peidu, Zhongdu, Dadu, Beiping and finally Beijing which means northern capital.

The Capital City in Different Dynasties

During the long process of history, Beijing had been the capital city for five dynasties. They are Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties until the 1911 Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen which overthrew the Qing Dynasty.

Liao Dynasty (907-1125)

In the 10thcentury, the Khitan, a Mongolian tribe from the West Liao River area in northern China, established the Liao Dynasty in 907. Then the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was succeeded by the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in the south. In 936 Liao occupied “Youzhou” and named it Nanjing and designed it as a secondary capital of the Liao Dynasty. In 938, the city became one of the five capitals of the Kingdom of Liao. Since then, the historical position of the city had changed tremendously. It changed gradually from a city of military strategic importance to the political center of China. However, the city was soon renamed “Yanjing”. Ever since then, the city had been the capital city for later dynasties.

Jin Dynasty (1115-1234)

In the 12thcentury, the Nŭzhen tribe from the Songhua River in the northeast drove away the Khitan of Liao. In 1115 they set up the Jin Dynasty with the capital in Huining (today Heilongjiang Province). Later they occupied Yanjing in 1122. In order to maintain their control over the Yellow River Valley and at the same time remain in easy contact with their base in the northeast, the Jin rulers moved their capital to the city of Yanjing in 1153. Then Yanjing was made the capital of the Jin Dynasty and its name was changed to Zhongdu (Central Capital). Thus Zhongdu became the center of rule over half of China. Large scale construction was carried out in Zhongdu under the Jin Dynasty. The old city borders were enlarged to the east, west and south. A new imperial palace was built after the imperial palace at Bianliang, the capital of the Northern Song (960-1127) Dynasty (present city Kaifeng, Henan Province). Only under the Jin did the city really take shape as an imperial capital, though its size was much smaller than the later dynasties. Its location was in the southwestern part of the present day Beijing. After the Imperial Palace was completed, it was well-known for its luxury, sumptuousness, gorgeousness and splendor.

Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368)

The Jin Dynasty lasted no more than 100 years, and then the Mongolians intruded. In the early 13th century, the Mongolians in the north gathered strength rapidly. In 1215, a cavalry force led by Genghis Khan broke through the Nankou Pass, to the south of the Badaling Great Wall, and captured Zhongdu (Central Capital) where there was fierce fighting with the Jin troops, and the magnificent city was nearly razed to the ground. At that time, Zhongdu of Jin was only the capital of half China in the north, while the Southern Song Dynasty occupied the south of China. In order to bring all China under control, Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis khan, came from Mongolia to Zhongdu in 1260 and it was here that Kublai established the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. After the defeat of the Southern Song, he brought north and south China under control. In l272 Kublai Khan moved the capital from the north to Zhongdu and made it as his capital, which was called Khanbaliq (Khan's City) and known as Dadu in Chinese (Great Capital). Ever since then, Dadu of the Yuan Dynasty became the political center of the whole country and the national capital of unified China. Its position of a national capital was maintained, though some minor changes under different names in different dynasties, down to the present day.

The prosperous city of Dadu attracted many merchants and foreign traders, and the frequent contacts between Yuan China and foreign countries promoted the growth of economic and cultural exchanges. The Yuan rulers were probably much more open to the outside than the rulers in the Ming and Qing or other dynasties. A few foreigners were even appointed as officials in the Yuan Imperial Court. The famous Italian traveler Marco Polo came to China with his father and uncle in November 1271 and received special favor and was appointed as a consultant official of the Yuan Empire by Kublai Khan. Later, he described in his book of “Travels”: “On the banks of a great river, there stood an ancient city of great size and splendor which was named Khanbaliq, or Khans city.” Today, we can still see some Yuan buildings in Beijing.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang successfully led the rebellion and overthrew the Yuan Court, then established the Ming Dynasty with its capital in Nanjing. In the same year of 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang dispatched general Xu Da to launch the northern expedition against the last Yuan emperor in Dadu, who then abandoned Dadu and fled back to the Mongolian steppes. After general Xu Da drove the last Yuan emperor out of Dadu, Beijing was renamed Beiping (Northern Peace). After that, Zhu Yuanzhang made Zhu Di, one of his sons as a prince of Yan and gave Beiping as his domain. So Zhu Di became a regional King of Beijing garrison with a large number of troops. In 1398, Zhu Yuanzhang died. Because his eldest son died before him, so his eldest grandson Zhu Yunwen succeeded the throne. One year later in 1399, Zhu Di launched the civil war upon the capital of Nanjing under the excuse of “wiping out the evils for the country”. The war lasted for three years and Zhu Di finally usurped the power from his nephew, the second Ming Emperor, and became the third Ming Emperor. Since Zhu Di had been a frontier commander in Beijing for many years, he realized that Beijing was a city of strategic importance to the whole country, and a peaceful northern boundary was very important to the whole country too. In order to resist the raid by the remnant Mongolian forces more effectively and further controls the northeastern area in China, Emperor Zhu Di ordered the construction of the Forbidden City from 1406 to 1420, and officially moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing as well as changing the city name from Beiping to Beijing in 1421.

Emperor Zhu Di rebuilt Beijing on the foundation of Dadu, drawing on different architectural styles from other earlier Chinese capitals, especially Nanjing. First, he changed the size of the city wall by moving the Yuan northern city wall much further to the south. So the southern city wall was pushed from the Yuan boundary along present day Chang an Avenue to the present day Qianmen (Front Gate). A city wall, more than 20 kilometers long enclosed the city with nine city gates, on which nine big city gate-towers were added later. After that, the Forbidden City and the Imperial City were built along the south to north Central Axis inside the city of Beijing. During the reign of the Ming Emperor Jiajing (1522-1566), the outer city wall was added, but because of the financial problems only the southern suburbs were enclosed. Beijing then became a “double town” with a square “inner city” inside and an oblong “outer city” only to the south. When the rebuilding was completed, Beijing was much larger than Yuan Dadu, and its outlines were very different. The Forbidden City was located in the center, and then the Imperial City, inner city and oblong outer city, one within another. This layout remained unchanged until 1949.

The Ming Emperor also built a south to north Central Axis in the city, which is about 8 kilometers long that passes through the entire city, from Yongdingmen (Gate of Eternal Pacification) in the south through Zhengyangmen (Front Gate), Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Jingshan Park and at last to the Drum and Bell Tower in the north. The Great Wall of China to the northwest of Beijing was also built under the Ming Dynasty as a protective project. The Ming emperors also built their tombs in Beijing, which is the famous imperial burial ground known as “The Thirteen Ming Tombs” in Chinese. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, because of the government corruption, a peasant uprising army led by Li Zicheng attacked Beijing in the spring of 1644. Finally, the uprising army took over Beijing and overthrew the Ming Dynasty. The last Ming Emperor Chongzhen committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree in the Jingshan Park just behind the Forbidden City; then the Ming Dynasty was over.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

However, the fruit of the uprising fell into the hands of the Manchu, a minority nationality in northern China that had long set their sights on central China, but were held back by the Great Wall. With the help of a Ming general Wu Sangui, the Manchu troops passed through the Great Wall and defeated the peasant uprising troops. Only 42 days later, after Li Zicheng entered Beijing, Manchu forces occupied Beijing and claimed the founding of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted for 268 years with a total of 10 sovereigns. The city of Beijing became the capital of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. After the Qing rulers entered Beijing, they spent a large amount of money and effort on improving and rebuilding new pleasure grounds in and around the city. For example, the improvements were made to the Forbidden City. After that, the Qing emperors continued to use it as their imperial palace. The Tibetan-style White Dagoba in the Beihai Park was also built at that time. The greatest achievement of the Qing Dynasty is a vast complex of the imperial gardens and palaces laid out during the reigns of Qing Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) and Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). They are known as “The Three Hills and Five Gardens” on the northwestern outskirt of Beijing. The Fragrant Hill, the Jade Spring Hill and the Longevity Hill are the three hills. The five gardens are: The Garden of Everlasting Spring (Changchuyuan), the Garden of Perfection and Brightness (Yuanmingyuan, old Summer Palace), the Garden of Clear Ripples (Qingyiyuan, Summer Palace), the Garden of Tranquility and Brightness (Jingmingyuan), and the Garden of Tranquility and Pleasure (Jingyiyuan). But in 1860 and 1900 the Anglo-French Allied Forces and the Eight Power of Allied Forces invaded Beijing respectively, and they burned down the three hills and five gardens into ashes.

Anyway, the Qing rulers maintained most of the Ming constructions in the city and stayed in the former Imperial Palace. The architectural achievements of the Qing rulers are mainly the Imperial Gardens and Qing Tombs. In 1911, the revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) overthrew the Qing Dynasty. Then, under the leadership of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Republic of China was founded. But the rivalries among the warlords plunged the country into ceaseless civil war. The May 4thMovement of 1919 started in Beijing heralded the New Democratic Revolution in China. On May 4th1919, massive student demonstrations shook Beijing and soon it developed into a nationwide movement. It was the beginning of a new awakening of the Chinese people in their struggle against feudalism and foreign imperialism. The struggle paved the way for a new democratic revolution and for that Beijing became the cradle of a new cultural campaign in China. As a result of the new democratic movement, which is regarded as a turning point in Chinese history, a new party was born-the Communist Party of China. Ancient Beijing became the birthplace of the revolution in modern China. In 1928, the Kuomintang Government moved the capital back to Nanjing and Beijing was renamed Beiping again.

The People’s Republic of China

On January 31st1949, the Peoples Liberation Army took Beijing without the use of force, and then Beijing was liberated peacefully. On October 1st1949, the people of Beijing hailed their liberation when Chairman Mao Zedong stood on Tiananmen Rostrum, solemnly proclaimed to the whole world the founding of the People's Republic of China. A new chapter of the city’s history has once opened up. The city of “Beiping” got the name “Beijing” back again until today.

© 2015 WikiBeijing. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.