Capital of China
“To this city everything that is most rare and valuable in all parts of the world finds its way...”
With relatively harsh winters and seasonal sandstorms, Beijing is similar to several other north-eastern Chinese cities. Much about this metropolis is unique, however – it is China’s centre of political power, intellectual activity, international trade, and foreign relations. In order to better understand the mindset of its citizens, it is important to know some historical, societal and cultural context.
TOPA little history
Beijing, literally "northern capital” in mandarin, became in 1271 the capital of the most vast land empire which never existed in the world at that time, under the aegis of the Mongolian conqueror Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, who declared himself emperor of China under the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368). He used the city as an operational base for his conquest of southern China, reconstructed it and so the quiet trade town of Yanjing was transformed into a famous city receiving interest from the whole world.
About 100 years later, a devastating attack knocked down the Mongolian power and stood out the succession of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who destitute Beijing of its capital status for a half century. But in 1405, the third Ming emperor, Yongle, began the construction of a magnificent new palace in Beijing; 16 years later he relocated his court there. He destroyed the palaces of the Mongols and rebuild Beijing so that the city reflects the new greatness of his dynasty. It is during its reign that the Forbidden City took its current shape. At that time, the city of Beijing, as it was named since then, was divided by external walls into two different cities, in the North, the Forbidden City and in the South, the imperial city.
The Ming also participated in the construction of the Great Wall connecting or strengthens pieces of existing walls. Some of the most stunning extends of the wall that can be visited near Beijing were built during the Ming Dynasty.
When the Manchu’s invaded China and established the dynasty of Qing (1644-1910), they did not modify the architecture of Beijing: they intended to join the continuity of the previous dynasty, to the point that they personify the most representative traditional values of the dynasty of the Ming. The most remarkable addition which they made in Beijing is the Summer palace in the North of the city.
The Municipality of Beijing has a total area of 16,807.8 square kilometres (c.6, 500 square miles) a little less than the area of the principality of Wales in the United Kingdom.
The total population now stands at some 20 million official residents –including 3 million migrant workers- and enjoy a fascinating mix of old and new.
Beijing today at first looks similar to many other modern cities. The skyline is filled with tall blocks of apartments and offices. Multi-lane roads carry a wide range of vehicles, many of them manufactured by joint-venture companies in China. Familiar international brand-names line the streets: MacDonald, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and many others have come to Beijing. Much of old Beijing has gone forever, but much remains.
There are the major attractions (the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, ...) and numerous temples, monuments, museums and others. Some neighbours are still preserved much as they were decades ago, for example, the area around the Hou Hai, north-west of the Forbidden City. Despite the arrival of modern international fast food, famous old Beijing restaurants serving the local specialities, such as Peking Duck, still flourish. Beijing is a vibrant, fast-developing, modern city, but it still has its own individual character.
The cranes that skewer the skyline and the Chinese disposition chai (demolish), painted in white on old buildings, attest to the speed of change, affecting not just the city's architecture: as China embraces capitalism, social structures are also being revolutionized.
The government believes what’s important is social stability, collective profits as well as central authority and is as determined as ever to repress dissent. But outside the political area pretty much anything goes these days. Students in the latest street fashions while away their time in Internet cafés: dropouts dye their hair and goes in punk clubs. Even red-light districts and gay bars have appeared.
Thus far as Beijing’s robust economy is boosted, the new prosperity is evident everywhere –see the Mercedes-driving businessmen and the many school kids with mobile phones- but not everyone has took advantage: migrant day-labourers wait for work, and homeless beggars, a rare sight years ago, are now as common as in Western cities.
First impressions of Beijing, for both foreigners and visiting Chinese, are often of a confusing hugeness, expressed by the spread out of uniform apartment buildings in which most of the city’s population are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up.
It’s an impression reinforced on closer acquaintance by the concrete desert of Tiananmen Square, and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it. The modern tourist sites – the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall – also impress with their scale, while more manageable grandeur is on offer at the city’s attractive temples, including the Tibetan-style Yonghe Gong (Lama Temple), the Taoist Baiyun Guan, the Confusisus temple and the astonishing Temple of Heaven, once a centre for imperial rites.
With its sights, history and, by no means least, delicious food (all of China’s diverse cuisines can be enjoyed relatively cheaply at the city’s numerous restaurants and street stalls), Beijing is a place almost everyone enjoys. But it’s essentially a private city, one whose surface, though attractive, is difficult to penetrate.
The city’s history and unique character are in the details. To find and experience these, check out the little traditional markets, the local shopping districts; the smaller, quirkier sights; the hutongs, the city’s twisted grey stone alleyways that are –as one Chinese guidebook puts it –“fine and numerous as the hairs of a cow”; and the parks, where you’ll see Beijingers performing tai ji and old men sitting with their caged songbirds. Take advantage, too, of the city’s burgeoning nightlife and see just how far the Chinese have gone down the road of what used to be called spiritual pollution.
Keep your eyes open, and you’ll soon notice that westernisation and the rise of a brash consumer society is not the only trend here. Just as marked is the revival of older Chinese culture, much of it prohibited during the more austere years of communist rule. Observe, for example, the sudden comeback of the tea house as a courteous meeting place, and the renewed interest in imperial cuisine- dishes once enjoyed by the emperors. Read more
Welcome to Beijing!