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Běijīng – affectionately called Peking by diplomats, nostalgic journalists and wistful academics – seems to have presided over China since time immemorial. In fact, Běijīng (Northern Capital) – positioned outside the central heartland of Chinese civilisation – emerged as a cultural and political force that would shape the destiny of China only with the 13th-century Mongol occupation of China.

Located on a vast plain that extends south as far as the distant Yellow River (Huáng Hé), Běijīng benefits from neither proximity to a major river nor the sea. Without its strategic location on the edge of the North China Plain, it would hardly be an ideal place to locate a major city, let alone a national capital.

The area southwest of Běijīng was inhabited by early humans some 500, 000 years ago. Ancient Chinese chronicles refer to a state called Yōuzhōu (Secluded State) existing during the reign of the mythical Yellow Emperor, one of nine states that existed at the time, although the earliest recorded settlements in Chinese historical sources date from 1045 BC.

In later centuries, Běijīng was successively occupied by foreign forces, promoting its development as a major political centre. Before the Mongol invasion, the city was established as an auxiliary capital under the Khitan Liao and later as the capital under the Jurchen Jin, when it underwent significant transformation into a key political and military city. The city was enclosed within fortified walls for the first time, accessed by eight gates.

In AD 1215 the great Mongol warrior Genghis Khan and his formidable army razed Běijīng, an event that was paradoxically to mark Běijīng’s transformation into a powerful national capital; a status it enjoys to the present day, bar the first 53 years of the Ming dynasty and 21 years of Nationalist rule in the 20th century.

The city came to be called Dàdū (Great Capital), also assuming the Mongol name Khanbalik (the Khan’s town). By 1279 Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, had made himself ruler of the largest empire the world has ever known, with Dàdū its capital. Surrounded by a vast rectangular wall punctured by three gates on each of its sides, the city was centred on the Drum and Bell Towers (located near to their surviving Ming dynasty counterparts), its regular layout a paragon of urban design.

After seizing Běijīng, the first Ming emperor Hongwu (r 1368–98) renamed the city Běipíng (Northern Peace) and established his capital in Nánjīng in present-day Jiāngsū province to the south. It wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Yongle (r 1403–24) that the court moved back to Běijīng. Seeking to rid the city of all traces of ‘Yuán Qì’ (literally ‘breath of the Yuan dynasty’), the Ming levelled the fabulous palaces of the Mongols along with the Imperial City, while preserving much of the regular plan of the Mongol capital. The Ming was the only pure Chinese dynasty to rule from Běijīng (bar today’s government).

During Ming rule, the huge city walls were repaired and redesigned. Yongle is credited with being the true architect of the modern city, and much of Běijīng’s hallmark architecture, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, date from his reign. The countenance of Ming dynasty Běijīng was flat and low-lying – a feature that would remain until the 20th century – as law forbade the construction of any building higher than the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony. The basic grid of present-day Běijīng had been laid and the city had adopted a guise that would survive until today.

The Manchus, who invaded China in the 17th century and established the Qing dynasty, essentially preserved Běijīng’s form. In the last 120 years of the Qing dynasty, Běijīng, and subsequently China, was subjected to power struggles and invasions and the ensuing chaos. The list is long: the Anglo-French troops who in 1860 burnt the Old Summer Palace to the ground; the corrupt regime of Empress Dowager Cixi; the catastrophic Boxer Rebellion; General Yuan Shikai; the warlords; the Japanese occupation of 1937; and the Kuomintang. Each and every period left its undeniable mark, although the shape and symmetry of Běijīng was maintained.

Modern Běijīng came of age when, in January 1949, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered the city. On 1 October of that year Mao Zedong proclaimed a ‘People’s Republic’ to an audience of some 500, 000 citizens in Tiananmen Sq.

Like the emperors before them, the communists significantly altered the face of Běijīng to suit their own image. The páilou (decorative archways) were brought down, while whole city blocks were pulverised to widen major boulevards. From 1950 to 1952, the city’s magnificent outer walls were levelled in the interests of traffic circulation. Soviet experts and technicians poured in, leaving their own Stalinesque touches.

The past quarter of a century has transformed Běijīng into a modern city, with skyscrapers, slick shopping malls and heaving flyovers. The once flat skyline is now crenellated with vast apartment blocks and office buildings. Recent years have also seen a convincing beautification of Běijīng: from a toneless and unkempt city to a greener, cleaner and more pleasant place.

The mood in today’s Běijīng is far removed from the Tiananmen Sq demonstrations of spring 1989. With the lion’s share of China’s wealth in the hands of city dwellers, Běijīng has embraced modernity without evolving politically. There’s a conspicuous absence of protest in today’s Běijīng and you won’t see subversive graffiti or wall posters. With the Communist Party unwilling to share power, political reform creeps forward in glacial increments. An astonishing degree of public political apathy exists, at least partially explained by in-built inclinations to bow to authority and a suppression of democratic instincts among the middle classes, who are doing so well out of the CCP’s economic successes. Political dissent has been forced into the shadows or fizzes about fitfully in cyberspace, pursued by internet police ironing out any wrinkles that may impede construction of a ‘harmonious society’.

Some of Běijīng’s greatest problems could be environmental rather than political, although the two interweave. The need for speedy economic expansion, magnified by preparations for the 2008 Olympics, has put extra pressure on an already degraded environment. Water and land resources are rapidly depleting, the desert sands are crawling inexorably closer and the city’s air quality has become increasingly toxic.

As the burgeoning middle classes transform Běijīng into an increasingly pet-ridden city, that scourge of dog-owning societies – dog poo – is building up, so watch your step (although it’s nothing compared with Brussels quite yet).