A Brief History of Beijing

In the beginning

Since the birth of Chinese civilization, different towns of varying size and import have stood at or near the site of today’s Beijing. For example, a popular local beer, Yanjing, is named for a city-kingdom based here 3,000 years ago. With this in mind, it's not unreasonable to describe Beijing's modern history as beginning with the Jin Dynasty, approximately 800 years ago. Led by nine generations of the Jurchen tribe, the Jin Dynasty eventually fell into a war against the Mongol hordes.

The Mongols

Few armies had been able to withstand the wild onslaught of the armed Mongol cavalry under the command of the legendary warrior Genghis Khan. The Jurchen tribe proved no exception, and the magnificent city of the Jin was almost completely destroyed. A few decades later, in 1260, when Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, returned to use the city as an operational base for his conquest of southern China, reconstruction was the order of the day. By 1271 Kublai Khan had achieved his goal, declaring himself emperor of China under the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), with Beijing (or Dadu, as it was then known) as its capital.

The new capital was built on a scale befitting the world’s then superpower. Its palaces were founded around Zhonghai and Beihai lakes. Beijing’s current layout still reflects the Mongolian design.

The Mings

About 100 years after the Mongolians settled Beijing they suffered a devastating attack by rebels from the south. The southern roots of the quickly unified Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) deprived Beijing of its capital status for half a century. But in 1405, the third Ming emperor, Yongle, began construction on a magnificent new palace in Beijing: an enormous maze of interlinking halls, gates, and courtyard homes, known as the Forbidden City.

The Ming also contributed mightily to China's grandest public works project: the Great Wall. The Ming Great Wall linked or reinforced several existing walls, especially near the capital, and traversed seemingly impassable mountains. The majority of the most spectacular stretches of the wall that can be visited near Beijing were built during the Ming Dynasty. But wall building drained Ming coffers and, in the end, failed to prevent Manchu horsemen from taking the capital and the rest of China in 1644.

And finally, the Qings

This foreign dynasty, the Qing, inherited the Ming palaces, built their own retreats (most notably, the "old" and "new" summer palaces), and perpetuated feudalism in China for another 267 years. In its decline, the Qing proved impotent to stop humiliating foreign encroachment. It lost the first Opium War to Great Britain in 1842 and was forced to cede Hong Kong "in perpetuity" as a result. In 1860 a combined British and French force stormed Beijing and razed the Old Summer Palace.

Mao takes the reins

After the Qing crumbled in 1911, its successor, Sun Yat-sen's Nationalist Party, struggled to consolidate power. Beijing became a cauldron of social activism. On May 4, 1919, students marched on Tiananmen Square to protest humiliations in Versailles, where Allied commanders negotiating an end to World War I gave Germany's extraterritorial holdings in China to Japan. Patriotism intensified, and in 1937 Japanese imperial armies stormed across Beijing's Marco Polo Bridge to launch a brutal eight-year occupation. Civil war followed close on the heels of Tokyo's 1945 surrender and raged until the Communist victory. Chairman Mao himself declared the founding of a new nation from the rostrum atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949.

Like Emperor Yongle, Mao built a capital that conformed to his own vision. Soviet-inspired structures rose up around Tiananmen Square. Beijing's historic city wall was demolished to make way for a ring road. Temples and churches were torn down, closed, or turned into factories during the brutal upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted until Mao’s death, in 1976.

Economic growth and the city

In more recent years the city has suffered most, ironically, from prosperity. Many ancient neighborhoods have been bulldozed to make room for glitzy commercial developments. A growing commitment to preservation has very slowly begun to take hold, but chai (to pull down) and qian (to move elsewhere) remain common threats across the capital.

Today Beijing's some 20 million residents—including 7 million migrant workers—enjoy a fascinating mix of old and new. Early morning tai chi enthusiasts, ballroom and disco dancers, old men with caged songbirds, and amateur Beijing opera crooners frequent the city's many parks. Cyclists clog the roadways, competing with cars on the city's thoroughfares. Beijing traffic has gone from nonexistent to nightmarish in less than a decade.

As the seat of China's immense national bureaucracy, Beijing carries a political charge. The Communist Party, whose self-described goal is "a dictatorship of the proletariat," has yet to relinquish its political monopoly.

Communism today

In 1989 student protesters in Tiananmen Square dared to challenge the party. The government's harsh response remains etched in global memory, although younger Chinese people are likely never to have heard of that seismic moment due to the taboo nature of the subject and the country’s strict censorship laws. More than 25 years later, secret police still mingle with tourists on the square. Mao-style propaganda persists. Slogans that preach unity among China's national minorities and patriotism still festoon the city on occasion. Yet as Beijing's robust economy—now the second largest in the world—is boosted even further by the government’s continuing embrace of "a socialist market economy" (read: state-sanctioned capitalism) and the massive influx of foreign investment, such campaigns appear increasingly out of touch with the iPhone-wielding generation. And so there is now a more modern side to the city to consider, one perhaps best encapsulated by the drastic changes continually being made to both skyline and streets. The result is an incongruous mixture of new prosperity and throwback politics: socialist slogans adorn shopping centers selling everything from Big Macs to Louis Vuitton. In modern Beijing the ancient and the sparkling new are constantly colliding.

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