Traditional Architecture

Yes, a lot of Beijing's traditional architecture was lost or razed in the rush to modernize. But the ultimate symbols of this city are indelibly Chinese structures that date back hundreds or thousands of years -- the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, to name a few. In these temples and palaces, the emphasis is on symmetry; the main structure is the axis, and secondary structures are positioned as mirrored wings on either side to form an open courtyard. And thus you have your basic siheyuan: an empty space surrounded on all four sides by buildings connected to one another either directly or through covered archways or verandas. The Forbidden City is essentially one gigantic siheyuan, consisting of a series of self-contained courtyards.

Gabled roofs are another marker of traditional Chinese architecture. In the past, common dwellings often had roofs with one straightforward incline, while the wealthier classes enjoyed roofs with multiple sections of incline. Sweeping, curved roofs that rise at the corners were, and are, typically reserved for temples and palaces. Royal palaces and temples usually have decorations along the ridges, typical of imperial construction.

Certain architectural designs were in fact reserved for the use of imperial buildings. Only gates used by the emperor were permitted to have five arches, the center one being reserved for the emperor himself. Yellow is the royal color, so yellow tile roofs are found only on imperial structures. And although it was not an exclusively imperial color, traditional palaces and temples tend to use a lot of red.

Modern Architecture

For many architects, Beijing is the place to be. The Beijing government still seems to have money to commission new projects throughout the city, and it is keen to explore unconventional designs. At times it feels like architects are given free reign to explore the zaniest ideas they can draw up on paper, the crazier the better. The result is a continually evolving city skyline that is undeniably modern, but lacks a cohesive look. For example, if you walk west of Tian'an Men Square on Chang'an Jie, you'll pass the majestic sweeping roofs of the Forbidden City, the boxy Communist architecture of the Great Hall of the People, and the spaceship-like architecture of the newly built National Grand Theatre -- all in the span of 3 blocks.


When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, its leaders made sweeping changes to the city architecture, installing many chunky, Communist-style buildings of vast proportions. The Shi Da Jianzhu, or the Ten Great Buildings, of 1959 drastically changed the look of Beijing, most notably its main artery, Chang'an Jie. The 10 public buildings were built in 10 months to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. The most famous among them are the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, the Beijing Railway Station, the Military Museum, and the Worker's Stadium. It was also during this time that Mao's orders to expand Tian'an Men Square were finally carried out. In October 1949, when Mao declared the creation of the People's Republic of China from Tian'an Men, he was frustrated at the small crowd of 70,000 for the momentous event. He wanted a square large enough to hold all of China, but would have to settle for the current size, which reportedly holds 600,000. The Ten Great Buildings were part of the wave of changes decreed by the Great Leap Forward. In keeping with Zhou Enlai's principle of adopting "all things, both ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign," the design of these buildings was supposed to be open. For the most part, however, the styles of the Shi Da Jianzhu lean heavily on Stalinist architecture. There are also hints of Chinese style, such as in the pitched roof of the National Agricultural Exhibition Center.

The last few years have seen an explosion of new buildings that, again, are changing the look of central Beijing. Most of the new architecture in Beijing is also completely foreign. The most famous new structures have all been designed and in some cases built by foreign architects and their firms: The aforementioned National Grand Theatre by Paul Andreu, the geometric interlocking buildings of the CCTV (China Central Television) Headquarters by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, the Beijing National Stadium (aka the Bird's Nest) by Herzog & de Meuron, the dragon-inspired Beijing Capital Airport (Terminal 3) by Norman Foster, and the list goes on. Even the hippest shopping district in Beijing, the Village at Sanlitun, was designed by a team of international architects spearheaded by Japanese wonder Kengo Kuma. And while the impressive glass-and-steel skyscrapers and gravity-defying buildings are undeniably world-class designs, it does leave us feeling like this city, in a quest to prove itself as an ultramodern, ultrachic destination, has forgotten to build itself a sense of identity along with all those shiny new buildings.

Lucky Numbers

The layout of imperial Beijing is based on an ancient system of numerology that still resonates today. Odd numbers are seen as yang (male, positive, light) and are more auspicious than even numbers, which are viewed as yin (female, negative, dark). Three is a positive number, as seen in the three-tiered platforms that are reserved for Beijing's most sacred structures -- Taihe Dian in the Forbidden City; Tai Miao, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Tian Tan; and Chang Ling at the Ming Tombs. It's also the number chosen for China's latest political theory, the Three Represents, which explains how a Communist party can be staffed by capitalists. Four (sì), as a yin number, signifies submission. When the emperor carried out sacrifices at the Temple of Heaven, he would face north and bow four times. It is also pronounced the same as death (sì), and is the most inauspicious number. Many Chinese apartment buildings lack a fourth floor. Five is revered as the center of the Luo Diagram (which allows single-digit numbers arranged in noughts-and-crosses formation to add up to 15). It also signifies the "five processes" (wu xing) -- metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, which also correspond to the five points of the Chinese compass and to the five colors. Significant imperial buildings are five rooms (jian) deep; five openings welcome you into Tian'an Men; and until Zhonghua Men was razed to make way for Mao's corpse, the Imperial Way had five gates. Though an even number, eight has gained popularity because it is homophonous with "get rich" in Cantonese: The Olympic Games opened on August 8, 2008. Nine, situated at the top of the Luo Diagram and the largest single-digit odd number, was reserved for the imperial house, with grand buildings measuring nine rooms across.


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