Under Mongolian Rule

Modern Beijing stands on the site of the capital founded in 1271 by the Mongols, when the territory of modern-day China was merely a part of a far larger Mongol empire. Known to the Mongols as Khanbalik and to their Chinese subjects as Da Du or "Great Capital," it lay on a plain with limited and bitter water supplies, handy for the steppe from which the Mongols had emerged, but well away from the heartlands of the Han, as the main ethnic Chinese group still call themselves. When, in 1368, the Mongol Yuan dynasty was expelled, the foreigner-founded capital was abandoned for Nanjing, the "Southern Capital." The third Ming emperor, who had formerly been in charge of resisting fresh Mongol advances from the north, returned the city to capital status in 1420, renaming it Beijing, or "Northern Capital."

Although retaining much of the plan and grid of the Mongol founders, the emperor remodeled the city extensively, creating a secondary, broader walled extension to the south of the Mongol original. Many of the capital's major monuments date from this period, and its most extensive, the Forbidden City, right at the city's heart, is the one around which the remainder of the capital is still more or less arranged. The key ceremonial halls lie on a nearly north-south axis (actually aligned on the Pole Star), which bisects the city. Most north-south streets parallel this, and main east-west routes cross them at right angles. Very few major streets run diagonally. The grid created was originally filled in with a maze of lanes peculiar to Beijing and to a handful of other northern cities, called hutong (both singular and plural), derived from a Mongol word. But most of these narrow streets have now been destroyed.

In 1644 the Ming dynasty was overthrown by a peasant rebellion, and the peasants were driven out shortly afterward by invading Manchu forces from beyond the Great Wall to the northeast. China was absorbed into the Qing empire, and foreigners ruled from Beijing until the Qing abdication of 1912. Including occupation by foreign forces in 1860 and from 1900 to 1901, and Japanese occupation during World War II, Beijing has been under foreign control for more than half of its existence.

Beijing was once a series of walls within walls. The Qing took over the walled Forbidden City and the walled Imperial City within which it sat, and their followers took over the remainder of the northern section of the walled city. This area was known to other foreigners as the Tartar City, while the broader but separate walled section to the south of the Qian Men (Front Gate) became the Chinese City -- the Chinese quarter of Beijing.


The enemy was now within the gates, and the outer city walls were neglected, but the Qing built many temples and palaces, leaving the city's basic grid largely unchanged while building extensive gardens to the northwest.

Clash with the West

With the exception of a limited number of Russians and small groups of missionaries, some of whom were allowed to erect churches, Beijing remained free of Western influence or a Western presence until 1860, when emissaries sent to complete ratification of a treaty forced on the Qing at the end of the Second Opium War by the British and French were put to death or imprisoned. British troops, led by Lord Elgin, torched the vast area of palaces and gardens to the northwest of the city, of which now only fragments remain at the Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace. French troops opposed razing such magnificent buildings, and were content simply to loot them.

For the first time, Western powers were allowed to station ministers in Beijing, and accommodation was allocated to them just inside the Tartar City, east of the Qian Men and what is now Tian'an Men Square. At the end of the 19th century, resentment at the expansion of foreign influence in China led to attacks on Chinese who had converted to Christianity, destruction of railway lines and foreign property, and eventually to a siege of the Legation Quarter during which the attackers razed much of the surrounding housing, a fabulous library of ancient learning, and part of the Qian Men. The siege was only lifted 2 months and many deaths later by the forces of eight allied powers that marched from the coast. Imperial troops, Boxers, Beijing residents, and foreign troops indulged in an orgy of looting and destruction, which supplemented the burning of shops selling foreign goods and the destruction of churches already accomplished by the Boxers. The Legation Quarter subsequently became a further walled enclave, with many foreign banks, offices, and legation (embassy) buildings. In the early 20th century it was still the only area with paved roads and proper drainage and sewerage in an otherwise notably malodorous city.


The churches were rebuilt (and still stand), but the temples that had been collateral damage were mostly left in ruins. The Qing were in decline, and after their fall in 1912, much else went into decline, too, ancient buildings being the victims of neglect or casual destruction. This process continued during the 1911-12 to 1949 Republic and accelerated following the Communist Party victory and the creation of the People's Republic of China.

Transformations by the People's Republic of China

Signs at the Old Summer Palace and elsewhere harp on foreign destruction in 1860 and 1900, but since 1949 the Chinese themselves have almost completely demolished their city. Temples have been turned into housing, warehouses, industrial units, offices, and police stations. The slender, walled space south of the Tian'an Men was smashed open to create the vast expanse of the modern square, lined by hideous Soviet-influenced halls of rapidly down-at-heel grandeur. The city walls and most gate towers were pulled down to allow the construction of the Second Ring Road and the first metro line. Areas of traditional courtyard houses were pulverized for the construction of shabby six-story concrete dormitory blocks. Political campaigns against all traditional culture led to the defacing, damage, or destruction of many ancient buildings and their contents, particularly during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution.

The hutong, once "numberless as the hairs on an ox," will soon be no harder to count than your fingers and toes, because China's increasing wealth has seen the government trying to turn the capital from a sleepy backwater into a city of international standing. The broad boulevards apparently required by Marxist theory have become ever more numerous, and the last few years have seen several new routes blasted across the city. An assortment of often hideous towers representing no particular style or culture but sometimes with cheesy Chinese toppings have sprung up within the vanished city walls, dwarfing the Forbidden City and the few older buildings which remain.


The awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing delivered the coup de grâce. Whole blocks of housing disappeared every few weeks as developers, hand-in-glove with the government, expelled residents. Even today, developers race to destroy the remaining halls of ancient and largely forgotten temples before those charged with preserving them can catch up, although a few are given ham-fisted restoration and reopened to the public for a fee. A third, fourth, fifth, and now a sixth ring road have dropped like nooses around the neck of the old city center, inevitably leading to road-widening schemes through the heart of the remaining hutong. Demolition of the ancient Da Zhalan district is well advanced, and the latest scheme is to widen De Sheng Men Nei Dajie into a 50m-wide (164-ft.) road, which will plunge right through the heart of the Back Lakes area. All but the basic grid of the Yuan and Ming plan have been swept away for shiny towers and gridlock. The most noticeable buildings are those most alien to China -- a three-venue National Grand Theatre resembling a flying saucer which has landed in a lake, occupying space in the heart of the city just west of Tian'an Men Square and designed by Frenchman Paul Andreu and the interlocking Z-like buildings of the new CCTV Broadcast Centre. Culturally, several venues built for the Beijing Olympics hit closer to home: a bird's nest (the National Stadium), a folding Chinese fan (the National Indoor Stadium), and a fiery red and gold dragon (Beijing Capital Airport T3).

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