Beijing: An Exploration

Since the days of Kublai Kahn and the Mongol Yuan dynasty, Beijing (meaning ‘northern capital’, once called Peking) has been the capital of China. Best known for its historic sites such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden city and Summer Palace, Beijing is also a modern centre of scholarly achievement, a bastion of contemporary art, with a vibrant hub to boot. Though Beijing lies within Heibei province, it forms its own autonomous administrative municipality. The climate of Beijing is extreme, experiencing intensely humid and hot summers and cold, dry winters. Home to a growing population of over 19 million, Beijing embodies aspects of both old and new China.

The area we know today to be Beijing and the surrounding province of Heibei were , according to archaeological records, home to some of the oldest ancestors of humans. Just outside Beijing archaeologists found the remnants of over 40 bodies dating back to around 700,000 years old in 1927. One of the bodies was given the name ‘Peking Man’. The remains are among some of the oldest fossil hominids to ever be unearthed, the 39 other bipedal skeletons found are ancient ancestors of modern day Chinese people.

Still in the centre of the massive, energetic capital sits the Forbidden city. Built during the Ming dynasty in the 15th century, this grand palace was home to various emperors of China until the Qing dynasty, the final dynasty in Chinas history. Halls, courts, offices and residences make up the bulk of the Forbidden City, making it the largest network of ancient buildings within China. In ancient times, commoners were not allowed inside the gates of the Forbidden city; only the emperor and his entourage including eunuchs, concubines, consorts and other appointees – lived inside the walls of the palace, giving it the name ‘forbidden’.Known for its symmetry and placement of buildings along a north-south axis, the Forbidden City is a prime example of the principles of feng shui.

Entrance to Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square

Lying just outside the walls of this historic fortress are where the remnants of the old neighbourhoods can be found. These neighbourhoods, called hutong in Chinese, consist of a series of tiny crowded alleyways that surround courtyard houses once occupied by officials to the court. Today, there are around 4,000 hutong in Beijing, but they are quickly diminishing, as the city has already seen the destruction of 2,000 hutong within the past 50 years. It is within these traditional hutong where one can truly glimpse what life for a Beijing resident might have been like 200-300 years ago.

View in a Beijing hutong

The most famous of all the Beijing hutong sits in the area north of the Forbidden city and Bei Hai Park. This park, with its large white Tibetan style pagoda, overlooks the tranquil Bei Hai Lake. Originally an imperial garden, Bei Hai Park is filled with paddleboats during the summer months when families come out to enjoy the sunshine and the warm weather.

The 2001 film Beijing Bicycle takes palace within one of the many Beijing hutong. It depicts the life of a young boy living in Beijing during the time of transition and turmoil. In addition to the portrayal of life inside a Beijing hutong, Beijing bicycle comments on the significance of the bicycle, not merely as a mode of transport for most Beijingers, but as a symbol for China itself. First introduced to China by American tourists in 1891, it is estimated that the bicycle is ridden today by 370 million Chinese and by 7 million Beijing residents alone. China is the worlds leading bicycle manufacturer, producing nearly 41 million bicycles each year.

Trying to park your bike in Beijing can be somewhat tricky...

During the summer months when the Beijing heat was too stifling for the royal court, the Summer palace served as an airy getaway. Set among 3 lakes, shaded hills and several walkways, the Summer palace exists largely due to the Empress Dowager Cixi, who built the palace in 1888 to commemorate her 60th birthday. In 1900, the Summer Palace was destroyed during the Boxer uprising but was quickly rebuilt 3 years later. Covering over 800 acres of land, the ‘Garden of Good Health and Harmony’ is an example of excellent feng shui, the Chinese system of geomancy which, when used correctly, is said to offer wealth, health and harmony to places, and accordingly, the people who use them.

Beijing Summer Palace

On the outskirts of Beijing are the tombs of the 13 Ming emperors, stretching out over 15 square miles. The Ming Tombs are considered the finest example of imperial tomb architecture and of feng shui burial alignment. Upon approaching the tombs, the 4 mile causeways is lined with various statues of animals, soldiers and officials. During its long constructions, each Ming emperor had a say in the location and aesthetic features of his tomb. The first emperor to be buried at the auspicious site was Yong Le, along with his wide and 16 of his concubines. Excavations have uncovered numerous artifacts and treasures from the Ming era.

Just Beyond the Ming tombs, the easternmost reaches of the Great Wall of China can be seen sprawling along the mountainous landscape just outside the capital. A large proportion of the wall that sits outside Beijing, originally built during the Ming dynasty, has since been restored for the benefit of tourist and historic purposes. Not a priority to every dynasty in China, the construction of the Great Wall began, with the earliest dynastic rule in Chin, the Qin, and was completed during the second to last dynasty – the Ming. In each section of the wall, local materials were used in its construction. During the early building of the wall, in the Qin dynasty, a rammed earth technique was used. Later, the Ming used a combination of brick and stone. The wall is made up of a series of towers, signal beacons, ramparts and treacherous walkways, all designed with the specific purpose of discouraging enemies from penetrating into China. Built at least tow arrow shots between each other, the towers served as living quarters for the watchmen who guarded them. The walkways between each tower each contain irregular steps, designed to make the climbing of the wall more difficult for intruders to overtake the tower guards. The portions of the Great Wall that lie just outside Beijing are the best preserved portions of the wall, although other sections can be found in Qinghai, Gansu and Shanxi provinces.

The Great Wall of China

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing has reopened many of its historic sites. As the centre of a China that Mao envisaged, Beijing was the first to feel the dramatic changes that the introduction of Communism to China, including such historical events as the Cultural Revolution brought about. As the seat of Chairman Mao’s Republic, Beijing was where thousands of Red Guards congregated and held meetings. Tiananmen square has traditionally been the centre of such large scale meetings and demonstrations, from Mao’s declaration on October 1, 1949 of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, to his frequent speeches to the Red Guard in the early days of the Cultural revolution, to the catastrophic 1989 student protests. Surrounding this giant square sit numerous tourist and government buildings, including the Great Hall of the People, Mao’s Mausoleum, China National Museum and the Qian Men Tower. Beijing’s buildings, streets and squares tell the story of the great changes that this capital has witnessed over the years.

Military parade in Tiananmen square 1984

Today, continuing on from the construction efforts for the Beijing Olympics, the city continues its inexorable plan of modernization. Massive cranes and construction projects fill Beijing’s skyline. Confronted with debilitating traffic and dangerous air pollution caused by increasing number of cars within the city limits, the Chinese government placed a ban on outward expansion of its capital in 2005. Still growing within its city limits, however, the look and feel of Beijing continues to be transformed by the day.


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