As one of the eight ancient capitals in China, Beijing has a long and rich history that can be traced back to over 3,000 years. Generation upon generation, people here have accomplished both glorious material progress and cultural achievements. It seems that all the remarkable historical sites, landscape gardens and imperial palaces are whispering an old symphony of history…
First page of Beijing culture
Some about 200,000 to 700,000 years ago, human ancestry "Peking men" lived in the southwestern area of Beijing. They were hominids with both features of human and ape. When it came to 20,000 years ago, they evolved into "Upper Cave Men", who were late Homo sapiens with almost the same physical characters with human beings. It was then, when the human civilization started.
Over 10,000 years later or in the early Neolithic Period, settlers in Beijing left the caves and stopped hunting. They were thriving on basic farming and animal husbandry. Men of them polished stones into tools or weapons while women made delicate ornaments.
Legends from remote antiquity
In the late Neolithic Period (4000 or 5000 years ago), China entered the legendary age of "Three August Ones and Five Emperors". Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), one of the emperors and the leader of a major tribe, once ruled the prehistoric Beijing area. After three big wars, he defeated Yan Di Tribe, another major at that time, and allied the two tribes. From then on, Chinese people were also called "descendents of Yan and Huang". Story has it that Yellow Emperor’s successor--Emperor Yao established a legendary capital named Youdu (City of Quietude) in today’s Beijing area.
Origin of Beijing
In Shang Dynasty (16th -11th century BC), in the area of Beijing, there developed two small states named Ji and Yan.
Beijing was first chronicled of Zhou Dynasty’s conquest of Shang Dynasty in 1045 BC. King of Zhou conferred titles of nobility to local lords, including rulers of the city states Ji and Yan. Thereupon, 1045 BC was the officially recognized year of Beijing’s establishment. Later, Ji was annexed by neighboring Yan, which made the City of Ji its capital. As the state of Yan rose, the city of Ji became a national renowned city for its wealth.
From a military city to an assistant capital
In the early 3rd century BC, Qin Shi Huang (First Emperor of Qin) unified China, setting up the first feudal empire in Chinese history. From that time till the late years of Tang Dynasty (618-907), the city of Ji remained a trading and military center and the object of frequent power struggles because of its crucial location.
In the first half of the 10th century, the Khitans from the north moved south and seized Ji, confronting with Song Dynasty (690-1279) in the south. They renamed Ji Nanjing (Southern Capital) or Yanjing and made it assistant capital of the Kingdom of Liao (916-1125).
In the early 12th century, the Jurchen tribe established the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). They sacked Yanjing and drove Liao to central China, occupying the northern regions. In 1153, emperor of Jin, Wan Yanliang moved his capital to Yanjing and changed its name to Zhongdu (Central Capital). In the rebuilding of this capital, it was expanded to the east, west and south where northern regional features were merged with essence of central plains’ architectures.
Zhongdu served as a turning-point where the city of Beijing shifted from an important city to a national-wide political and cultural center. It was also the Jin Dynasty that laid the foundation of the vicissitude of Beijing as an imperial city.
Growing course of the Great Wall
Mentioning Qin Dynasty, it is not easy to avoid the Great Wall, one of the greatest contributions Qin Shi Huang has made to China. Getting back to Warring States Period (403-221BC), China was ruled by relatively small kingdoms. Some strong and wealthy ones of them put up huge walls to defend their borders. These walls were separate, but were embryos of the Great Wall. After Qin Shi Huang united China, to fend off barbarian intrusion, he connected the separate walls, making the earliest Great Wall with a length of 5,000 kilometers. Obviously, the cost of the Great Wall was immeasurable; 1/20 of the population or millions of people were forced into the project, and many of them never came back home.
In the following two millenniums, many dynasties restored or rebuilt it to consolidate their rules. To sum up, our predecessors have built walls as long as 50,000 kilometers. However, because of the long history, much of them have been damaged. The Great Wall today is mostly the better preserved Ming Great Wall (Great Wall that was built in Ming Dynasty), traversing 9 provinces in China from east to west and covering 6700 kilometers.
Khanbaliq—Dadu of Yuan
In the early 13th century, the Mongolia armies flooded the south. They subverted Jin in the north and Song in the south and founded the multiethnic Great Yuan Empire (1271-1368). In 1272, Kublai khan, the top leader, renamed Zhongdu as Dadu (Great Capital) and proclaimed it as the capital. For the first time in history, Beijing replaced the ancient cities such as Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), Luoyang and Kaifeng to be political center in the whole of China.
The construction of Dadu cost 26 years and was featured with orderly streets, making the city look like a chessboard. Today, the streets and alleys still keep traces of the patterns of Yuan Dadu. Alleys in Beijing are nicknamed "Hutong" in China, which inherits the saying of road in Yuan Dynasty. To design and build Dadu was a gigantic project. The dignified palaces, the elegant gardens and the neat streets were weaved into one whole, which was decorated with sculptures and paintings from accomplished artists.
The splendid and magnificent Dadu enjoyed great fame in the 13th century world. The great Italian traveler Marco Polo once expressed his admiration to the city. He described it as a big and prosperous ancient city, so beautiful and so smartly mapped out that couldn’t be articulated in words.
Capital of Ming and Qing dynasties
In 1368, the Ming’s army swept Dadu and changed its name into Beiping (Northern Peace). Initially, Nanjing was made to be the capital of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) while Beiping was given provincial status. During the reign of Emperor Chengzu, Beiping was renamed Beijing (Northern Capital) and latter was designated as the capital of Ming Empire. During this dynasty, another 15 years were spent on extensive construction of this imperial capital.
In 1644, Manchus sacked Beijing and founded the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)—the last feudal dynasty in Chinese history. Beijing still served as the capital and maintained the city proper of the last dynasty except for some remedy in the palaces and the city walls. The Qing emperors, on the other hand, devoted in building imperial gardens in the western suburban areas. The most famous Yuanmingyuan (Winter Palace) and Summer Palace, which attained the pinnacle of magnificence and grace, were born at that time.
Emperor Chengzu moving capital to Beijing
To move capital is anything but a piece of cake, so why did Emperor Chengzu of Ming have to move his capital to Beijing? There’s such a story.
Emperor Chengzu, Zhu Di, was son of the Emperor Taizu or Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty. To his disappointment, his father didn’t pass on the throne to him but to his nephew Zhu Yunwen, Emperor of Jianwen. In the fourth year under the reign of Jianwen, Zhu Di usurped the throne and claimed to be Emperor in Nanjing. Yet records say he couldn’t sleep well ever since, having nightmares every night. Actually, although he had killed or suppressed the officials who didn’t support him, he couldn’t find his nephew anywhere, who seemed to evaporate from the earth. One more day Emperor Jianwen was not found, he had one more night tortured by bad dreams that he might be driven off the throne. Sadly, year after year, there was still no trail of Emperor Jianwen, but Zhu Di couldn’t withstand the annoying dreams any more. So, he decided to change a sleeping place and planned to move capital to Beijing, his home in his father’s time.
However, it was not easy. He didn’t have a good official reason for the big move; being afraid of his nephew coming back was absolutely not a public one. At that moment, his neighbors in the north voluntarily helped him out. Since Zhu Di settled in Nanjing with his army, the Mongolia nomads continuously harassed the northern cities, robbing and sabotaging, compelled by inclement climate and lack of food in their own lands. On the other side, the Mongolia cavalry were hard to cope with as they didn’t live in fixed homes. To defend them, there was no other better way but to build a fortification city with strong walls.
Thus, Zhu Di, in the name of safeguarding territorial integrity of the nation, announced to move capital to Beijing.
In the construction of Beijing, Emperor Chengzu built a grandeur palace for himself to live, which is today’s Forbidden City. In the over 500 years after its completion, altogether it has experienced two dynasties and 24 emperors. Since the first moment it saw the light of day, it had been regarded as synonym of the highest ruling cores.
Capital of People’s Republic of China
In the first half of the 20th century, through the most grievous and bitter fights, Chinese people overthrew the feudal systems and extruded the Japanese invaders, ending the long miserable history of being trampled upon. The foundation of PRC leaded Chinese people to the great route of national revival. Meanwhile, Beijing again was made the capital of China, which started a new era of the old city.
Today, Beijing has developed into a busy metropolis, combining ancient appeal with modern charm. Erecting in the orient of the earth, it is welcoming friends from all over the world.