Beijing Feature


Beijing Then and Now

Since the birth of Chinese civilization, different towns of varying size and import have stood at or near the site where Beijing is now. For example, the popular local beer, Yanjing, refers to 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 in a war against the Mongol hordes.

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.

Just as today, a limiting factor on Beijing's growth seven centuries ago was its remoteness from water. To ensure an adequate water supply, the famous hydraulic engineer Guo Shoujing (1231-1316) designed a canal that brought water from the mountains in the west. Then, to improve communications and increase trade, he designed another canal that extended to eastern China's Grand Canal.

About 100 years after the Mongolians settled Beijing they suffered a devastating attack by rebels from the south. Originally nomadic, the Mongolians had softened with the ease of city life and were easily overwhelmed by the rebel coalition, which drove out the emperor and wrecked Beijing, thus ending the Yuan Dynasty. The southern roots of the quickly unified Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) deprived Beijing of its capital status for a half century. But in 1405, the third Ming emperor, Yongle, began construction on a magnificent new palace in Beijing; 16 years later, he relocated his court there. In the interim, the emperor had mobilized 200,000 corvée laborers to build his new palace, 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. Most 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 China—in 1644.

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.

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 city wall was demolished to make way for a ring road. Temples and churches were torn down, closed, or turned into factories during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

In more recent years the city has suffered most, ironically, from prosperity. Many ancient neighborhoods have been bulldozed to make room for a new city of glitzy commercial developments. Preservationism has slowly begun to take hold, but chai (to pull down) and qian (to move elsewhere) remain common threats to historic neighborhoods.

Today Beijing's some 20-million official residents—including 3-million migrant workers—enjoy a fascinating mix of old and new. Early morning taiji (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. In 1989 student protesters in Tiananmen Square dared to challenge the party. The government's brutal response remains etched in global memory, although younger Chinese people are likely never to have heard about it. Twenty 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 is boosted even further by the massive influx of foreign investment, such campaigns appear increasingly out of touch with the cell-phone-primed generation. The result is an incongruous mixture of new prosperity and throwback politics: socialist slogans adorn shopping centers selling Gucci and Big Macs. Beijing is truly a land of opposites where the ancient and the sparkling new collide.

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