Beijing, capital of the People’s Republic of China, has a history spanning over three thousand years. It ranks among China’s “four great ancient capitals,” along with Nanjing, Xi’an, and Luoyang. The city currently has the most number of cultural heritage sites on the World Heritage List.
Lying on the upper North China Plain, Beijing is adjacent to the city of Tianjin and the province of Hebei. The city has a continental monsoon climate typical of the North Temperate Zone—hot and rainy summers, cold and dry winters, and fairly brief springs and autumns.
On December 2, 1929, archaeologist Pei Wenzhong (1904–1982) unearthed a complete fossil of human skull from a cave on Dragon Bone Hill at Zhoukoudian, southwest of Beijing. Discovery of additional skeletal fossils and stone tools soon followed. This skull proved the existence of human life in the vicinity of Beijing some half million years ago, and also that he could make tools and use fire. This primitive man, dubbed “Peking Man” by archeologists, marks the beginning of the history of Beijing.
Beijing’s history as a state capital began in the Jin dynasty (twelfth century). At that time, it was called Jin Zhongdu (Central Capital of Jin). It was in 1267 when Emperor Shizu of the Yuan, Khubilai Khaan (or Kublai Khan, 1215–1294), ordered the planning and construction of an imperial capital that Beijing first became the national capital. It remained so for the majority of the subsequent seven centuries.
The Yuan capital on which today’s Beijing is based was designed by Liu Bingzhong by order of Khubilai Khaan. Liu Bingzhong (1216–1274), based on the idealized conception of the imperial capital portrayed in the “Kaogong ji” (Record of the scrutiny of crafts) of the Ruist (Confucian) classic Zhou li (Rites of Zhou), planned a square imperial city, with the Taimiao (Imperial Ancestral Temple) to the east, the Shejitan (Altar of Soil and Grain) to the west, and the commercial area to the north. Marco Polo (1254–1324), the Italian who visited China in the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), wrote in his travelogue: “Words simply fail to describe the stunning beauty and exquisite layout of the city!”
After moving his capital from Nanjing to Beijing in the early fifteenth century, Emperor Chengzu (r. 1402–1424) of the Ming ordered a re-design of the city and the construction of the famous Forbidden City within. Beijing was neatly reconstructed with a 7.5 kilometers long central axis running from north to south.
During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), imperial gardens were built on a large scale in the area from Beijing’s northwestern suburbs to the Western Hills. The Jingyi yuan (Garden of Tranquility and Pleasure) on Fragrant Hill, the Jingming yuan (Garden of Tranquility and Brightness) on Jade Spring Hill, the Qingyi yuan (Garden of Clear Ripples) on Longevity Hill, the Changchun yuan (Garden of Uninhibited Spring), and the Yuanming yuan (Old Summer Palace) are collectively known as the “Three Hills and Five Gardens.” These gardens, nestled at the foot of the Western Hills and facing vast plains, are strikingly enchanting places with grand palaces, emerald lakes, and flourishing flowers and trees. Other picturesque imperial gardens include Beihai (North Sea), Zhonghai (Middle Sea), and Nanhai (South Sea), located to the west of the Forbidden City. All these imperial gardens have become popular tourist attractions.
The city of Beijing is centered on the square at Tian’anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace), the entrance to the Forbidden City. As an imperial plaza, Tian’anmen Square had not been open to the public until the founding of the Republic of China. It witnessed many historical events in modern China, such as the May Fourth Movement in 1919 and the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
The imperial architectural complex with red walls and glazed green tiles used to be surrounded by the grey walls and tiles of typical residential hutong (alleys) and siheyuan (courtyard houses). Numerous hutong used to crisscross one another with peddlers weaving through, hawking their wares. As urbanization has advanced, these traditional alleys and quadrangles have given way to modern buildings.
In addition to its historical, cultural, economic, and political importance, Beijing also excels other Chinese cities with its innovative capabilities. As the center of China’s hi-tech industries with more than eighty universities, colleges, and a multitude of scientific research institutions, Beijing is becoming increasingly open, modern, and international.