History of Peking

Some half a million years ago, Peking man lived in Zhoukoudian, in the southwestern suburbs of Beijing. The climate of that time was warmer and more humid than it is today. Forests and lakes in the area supported large numbers of living creatures. The fossil remains of Peking man, his stone tools and evidence of use of fire, as well as later tools of 18,000 years ago, bone needles and article of adornment from the age of Upper Cave Man are the earliest cultural relics on record in China today, including the Great Wall.

Story has it that the legendary Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) battled against the tribal leader Chiyou in the “wilderness of the prefecture of Zhuo”.Zhuolu, a town west of present-day Beijing, is perhaps the site of the first metropolis in the area. Yellow Emperor’s successor, Emperor Yao, was said to have established a legendary capital Youdu (City of Quietude) that was where the city of Ji was actually built.

During the Warring States Period (475–221BC), the Marquis of Yan annexed the territory of the Marquis of Ji, making the city of Ji his new capital. The approximate location was north of Guang’ anmen Gate in present–day Beijing near the White Cloud Temple (Baiyunguan) and near to where the Wuzhou Hotel stands today.

Early in the third century BC, the first Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang) set about conquering six states and unifying China. The city of Ji was named administrative center of Guangyang Commandery, one of 36 prefectures in China’s first feudal empire. For 10 centuries, through to the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Ji remained a strategic trading and military center and the object of frequent power struggles. This continued into the new century as evidenced by Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Two emperors during that period — Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty — left their mark on the city. Emperor Yang amassed troops and supplies at Ji for expeditions against Korea. Emperor Taizong also used the city for military training. He built the Temple for Compassion for the Loyal (Minzhongsi), which is dedicated to troops who died in battle. This temple was the precursor of the Temple of the Origin of the Dharma (Fayuansi) located outside the old walls of the city.

At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, Ji was little different from any other large feudal cities. Several centuries later, however, when the Tang was nearing a state of collapse, the Qidans (Khitans) came from the upper reaches of the Liaohe River and moved south to occupy Ji and make it their second capital. They called the city Nanjing (Southern Capital) or Yanjing. Emperor Taizong of the Liao Dynasty (916-1125) carried out reconstruction projects and built palaces, which were used as strongholds from which the Qidans set out to conquer the central plains of China.

In the early 12th century, the Nuzhen (Jurchen) conquered the Liao and established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). In 1153, Wan Yanliang moved the Jin capital from Huiningfu in present– day Liaoning Province to Yanjing and renamed it Zhongdu (Central Capital) as a challenge to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), which had its capital at Lin’an (present–day Hangzhou). Before the ascension of Wan Yanliang to the throne, the city of Yanjing had changed little from the Liao period.

The rebuilding of the new city began in 1151 with expansion to the east, west and south. Palaces were constructed on a scale similar to the Northern Song (960-1127) capital at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), and many of the actual building materials were transported from Bianliang. The new expanded city, with its splendid buildings in the center measured roughly five kilometers in circumference. The registered population of the Imperial Palace in the center measured roughly five kilometers in circumference. The registered population of Zhongdu amounted to 225,592 households, or approximately one million people.

Mongol armies occupied Zhongdu in 1215. At this time, the city of Kaiping (in present–day Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) served as the principal Mongol capital (Shangdu), while Yanjing was given provincial status. It was not until 1271 that Kublai Khan formally adopted the new dynasty’s name — Yuan — and made Yanjing the capital. Kublai Khan rebuilt the city and gave it the Chinese (Han) name of Dadu (Ta-tu) or Great Capital, though in Mongol it was known as Khanbalig (Marco Polo’s Cambaluc), the City of the Great Khan. When the Mongols finally eliminated the Southern Song and unified China, Dadu became the political center of the country for the first time in history.

The construction of Dadu began in 1267 and ended in 1293, extending throughout the entire period of Kublai Khan’s rule. The magnificent palaces of the Jin capital Zhongdu were destroyed by fire during the dynastic turnover from the Jin to the Yuan. When the capital was rebuilt, the original site of Zhongdu was replaced by a larger rectangular area centered in a beautiful lake region in the northeastern suburbs.

The construction of Dadu consisted of three main projects — the imperial palaces, the city walls and moats, and the canal. The first stage was construction of the palace buildings, most of which were completed in 1274. The next stage was construction of the mansions for the imperial princes, the government offices, the Taimiao (Imperial Ancestral Temple) and Shejitan (Altar of Land and Grain) to the east and west of the palace, and a system of streets for ordinary residences. In 1293, the strategic Tonghui Canal, connecting the capital to the Grand Canal, was completed.

As the capital city of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Dadu enjoyed great fame in the 13th century world. The envoys and traders from Europe, Asia and Africa who paid visits to China were astounded by the splendor and magnificence of Dadu.

The new Dadu was a rectangular city more than 30 kilometers in circumference. In the later years of Kublai Khan’s rule, the city population consisted of 100,000 households or roughly 500,000 people. The layout was the result of uniform planning, the broader streets all 24 paces wide, the narrow lanes half this width. The regular chessboard pattern created an impression of relaxed orderliness.

Achievements in stone and plaster sculpture and painting at this time reached great heights. The names of two contemporary artisans have come down to us: the sculptors Yang Qiong and Liu Yuan. The latter was known for the plaster statues he created for temples. Liulansu Lane at the northern end of Fuyou Street in present-day Beijing was named after Liu Yuan. The Millennium Monument is another example.

On August 2, 1368, Ming troops seized Dadu and renamed it Beiping (Northern Peace). Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), however, made Nanjing his first capital. Beginning in 1406, Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty spent 15 years constructing walls 12 meters high and 10 meters thick at their base around the city of Beiping. The construction of palace buildings and gardens began in 1417 and was completed in 1420. The following year, Emperor Yongle formally transferred the capital from Nanjing to Beiping and, for the first time, named the city Beijing (Northern Capital).

Extensive reconstruction work was carried out in Beijing during the first years of the Ming Dynasty. The northern city walls were shifted 2.5 kilometers to the south. Evidence of great advances in city planning is the district known as the Inner (Tartar) City. The Outer or Chinese City to the south was built during the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1522-1566), adding to the rectangular city a slightly wider “base” in the south.

When the Manchus founded the Qing Dynasty in 1644, they began to build suburban gardens, the most famous of which was Yuanmingyuan. Construction over the course of an entire century, the imposing columned palaces and open-air pavilions blended with the serenity of well–planned gardens to create a masterpiece of garden architecture unrivaled in the history of China.

A city plan was first laid out in the Yuan Dynasty. Yet only after extensive reconstruction during the Ming and Qing (1644-1911), did the city emerge as an architectural masterpiece fit to serve as the capital of the Chinese empire. A north-south axis bisects the city with the Imperial Palace was knows as Danei (The Great Within). In the Ming, it was renamed the Forbidden City (Zijincheng), and more recently it has come to be called the Palace Museum (Gugong Bowuyuan). Designed with thousands of halls and gates arranged symmetrically around a north–south axis, its dimensions and luxuriance are a fitting symbol of the power and greatness of traditional China.

The Qing dynasty collapsed in the revolution of 1911 and the Nationalist party ostensibly seized control. In reality, true power remained in the hands of the warlords, who carved up China into their own fiefdoms.

In 1937, after decades of struggle between the Nationalists and the warlords, the Japanese invaded Beijing and soon overran eastern China. The Nationalist Party retreated west to the city of Chongqing, which became China’s temporary capital during WWII. They returned to Beijing after Japan’s defeat in 1945, but by this time the Chinese civil war was in full swing and their days were numbered.

With Mao Zedong’s proclamation of a ‘People’s Republic’ in Tiananmen Square in 1949, the Communists stripped the face of Beijing. The huge city walls were pulled down and the commemorative arches followed. (The Circle Line of the subway follows the outline of the now vanished walls of the Tartar city, a number of whose stops are named after the gates that stood there.) Hundreds of temples and monuments were destroyed. Blocks of buildings were reduced to rubble to widen the boulevards and Tiananmen Square. Soviet technicians poured in and left their mark in the form of Stalinesque architecture. This devastation of traditional Chinese culture was extended in 1966 when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. China was to remain in the grip of chaos for the next decade. It wasn’t until around 1979 that Deng Xiaoping – a former protege of Mao who had emerged as a pragmatic leader – launched a ‘modernisation’ drive. The country opened up and Westerners were finally given a chance to see what the Communists had been up to for the past 30 years.

In 1989 a massive pro-democracy student protest in Tiananmen Square was brutally crushed by Deng Xiaoping’s government forces. That such an event could happen while capitalist-style reforms flooded the city with shopping malls and foreign money typifies Beijing.

In 1995 Beijing played host to the United Nations’ Conference on Women. Having lobbied the UN hard to get the conference, the Chinese then denied visas to at least several hundred people who wanted to attend because they were regarded as politically incorrect. Beijing continued to frighten the horses when it fired missiles into the waters just off Taiwan in early 1996 in an unsuccessful effort to affect the outcome of the Taiwanese presidential election. They tried a similar stunt in Taiwan’s 2000 presidential elections.

The Chinese takeover of Hong Kong soon after Deng Xiaoping’s death in July 1997 was something of an orgy of nationalism. The hand-over of Macau in December 1999 was a much tamer event.

Beijing’s undertaken an image makeover in recent times, which has included the abolition of the last of the city’s official off-limit areas, established in the 1950s to quarantine the Cultural Revolution from foreign influences, and the successful pursuit of the 2008 Olympic Games; with the latter, however, propaganda benefits rather than sport may be foremost in the minds of Chinese officials, considering one proposal to stage beach volleyball games and part of the triathlon in Tiananmen Square.

The mood in today’s Beijing seems very different from that of 1989. China has decided to embrace modernity without evolving politically. There’s a conspicuous absence of protest – it’s been consigned to some deep subterranean level. For all the face-saving intellectual contortions, everyone knows it’s Adam Smith and not Karl Marx at the rudder of this communist economy. Some of Beijing’s problems are enviromnmental rather than political, however – the Gobi desert is coming to town and the city is one of the most polluted in the world. The need for speedy economic expansion, magnified by preparations for the 2008 Olympics, will put extra pressure on an already degraded environment.