Běijīng’s long and colourful history goes back some 3000 years, but the city didn’t become the centre of Chinese rule until 1272 when Kublai Khan made it the capital of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. From that time on, with the exception of two brief interludes (1368–1421 and 1928–49), Běijīng has served as the seat of power for all of China.

From the Beginning

The Great Capital of the Mongols

The place we now call Běijīng first rose to true prominence when it was turned into a capital city by Kublai Khan (1215–94), the founder of the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty. The Mongols called the city Khanbalik, and it was from here that the descendants of Genghis Khan (Kublai Khan was his grandson) ruled over the largest land empire in world history. This is where Marco Polo, one of many thousands of foreigners drafted to help the Mongols govern China, came to serve as an official. Běijīng was really only the winter capital for Kublai Khan, who chose to spend the summer at Běijīng’s sister city, Xanadu, which lay to the north, 1800m up on the steppes. That city was called the ‘Upper Capital’, or ‘Shàngdū’ in Chinese, while Běijīng was ‘Dàdū’ or ‘Great Capital’.

Běijīng was a curious place to have been selected as capital of the Yuan empire, or indeed any empire. It lacks a river or access to the sea. It's on the very outer edge of the great northern plain, and very far indeed from the rich rice granaries in the south and the source of China’s lucrative exports of tea, silk and porcelain. Throughout history the Han Chinese considered this barbarian territory, home to a series of hostile predatory dynasties such as the Liao (916–1125) and the Jin (1115–1234), who also both made Běijīng their capital. To this day Chinese historians describe these peoples as primitive ‘tribes’ rather than nations, perhaps a prejudice from the ancient antipathy between nomadic pastoralist peoples and the sedentary farmers who are the Chinese.

Běijīng’s First City Walls

Běijīng had first become a walled settlement back in AD 938 when the Khitans, one of the nomadic ‘barbarian tribes’, established it as an auxiliary southern capital of their Liao dynasty. When they were overthrown by Jurchens from Manchuria, the progenitors of the Manchus, it became Zhōngdū or ‘Middle Capital’. Each of these three successive barbarian dynasties enlarged the walled city and built palaces and temples, especially Buddhist temples. They secured a supply of water by channelling streams from the otherwise dry limestone hills around Běijīng, and stored it in the lakes that still lie at the heart of the city.

The Lifeline of the Grand Canal

The Khitans relied on the Grand Canal to ship goods such as silk, porcelain, tea and grain from the Yangzi River delta. Each successive dynasty shortened the Grand Canal. It was originally 2500km long when it was built in the 5th century by the Chinese Sui dynasty to facilitate the military conquest of northeast China and Korea. From the 10th century it was used for a different purpose: to enable these northern peoples to extract the wealth of central China. Běijīng’s role was to be the terminus.

Remaining Traces

For 1000 years, half a million peasants spent six months a year hauling huge barges from Hángzhōu up the Grand Canal to Běijīng. You can still see the canal after it enters the city from Tōngzhōu, now a suburb of Běijīng, and then winds around the 2nd Ring Rd. The tax or tribute from central China was then stored in huge warehouses, a few of which remain. From Běijīng, the goods were carried out of the West Gate or Xīzhímén (where Xīzhímén subway station is today), and taken up the Tánqín Gorge to Bādálǐng, which once marked the limits of the Chinese world. Beyond this pass, the caravans took the road to Zhāngjiākǒu, 6000ft above sea level where the grasslands of inner Asia begin.

End of ‘Barbarian’ Rule

The ultimate aim of the Khitans, Jurchens, Mongols and Manchus was to control the lucrative international trade in Chinese-made luxuries. Chinese dynasties such as the Song faced the choice of paying them off or staging a bloody resistance. The Southern Song did attack and destroy Běijīng, but when it failed to defeat the Liao dynasty of the Khitans it resorted to a strategy of ‘using the barbarian to defeat the barbarian’. It made a pact with the Jurchens, and together they captured Běijīng in 1125. But instead of just helping to defeat the Khitans, the Jurchens carried on south and took the Song capital at Kāifēng. The Jurchens, however, chose not to try to govern China by themselves and instead opted to milk the Southern Song dynasty.

Ming Dynasty Běijīng

A True Chinese City

Běijīng can properly be said to have been a Chinese city only during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when Emperor Yongle used more than 200,000 prisoners of war to rebuild the city and imperial palace, construct its massive battlements, and establish the magnificent Ming Tombs. He forced tens of thousands of leading Chinese families to relocate from Nánjīng, the capital founded by his father, and unwillingly settle in what they considered an alien land at the extremity of the Chinese world. Throughout the Ming dynasty, Běijīng was constantly under attack by the Mongols, and on many occasions their horsemen reached the very gates of the city. Mongol bandits roamed the countryside or hid out in the marshes south of the city, threatening communications with the empire.

Beefing up the Great Wall

Everything needed for the gigantic enterprise of rebuilding the city – even tiles, bricks and timber – had to be shipped up the Grand Canal, but in time Běijīng grew into a city of nearly a million residents. Although farms and greenhouses sprang up around the city, it always depended on the Grand Canal as a lifeline. Most of the canal was required to ship the huge amounts of food needed to supply the garrison of more than a million men that Yongle press-ganged into building and manning the new Great Wall. The emperor was fearful of a resurgent Mongol threat. The Mongols had been pushed out of China as the Ming came to power in 1368, but they were still formidable, and by the dawn of the 15th century they were itching to reconquer the rich lands to the south of the Great Wall. This Wall, unlike earlier walls, was clad in brick and stone, not pounded earth, and the Ming emperors kept enlarging it for the next 250 years, adding loops, spurs and watchtowers. For long stretches, the fortifications ran in two parallel bands.

The Forbidden City

Běijīng grew from a forward defence military headquarters into an administrative centre staffed by an elite corps of mandarins. They had to pass gruelling examinations that tested candidates’ understanding of classical and Confucian literature. Then they were either assigned to the provinces or selected to work in the central government ministries, situated in what is now Tiān’ānmén Sq, south of the Meridian Gate and the entrance to the Forbidden City. Each day the mandarins and the generals entered the ‘Great Within’ and kowtowed before the emperor, who lived inside, like a male version of a queen bee, served by thousands of women and eunuchs. Ming emperors were the only males permitted to live in the palace. Yongle established rigid rules and dreary rituals, and many of his successors rebelled against the constrictions.

Power of the Eunuchs

Under later Ming emperors, the eunuchs came to be more trusted and more powerful than the mandarins. There were 100,000 by the end of the Ming dynasty, more than in any other civilisation in history. A few became so powerful they virtually ruled the empire, but many died poor and destitute. Some used their wealth to build grandiose residences and tombs, or to patronise temples and monasteries located in the hills outside the walls.

A Centre for Arts & Science

Over time Běijīng became the most important religious centre in Asia, graced by more than 2000 temples and shrines. Daoists and Buddhists vied for the favour of the emperor who, as a divine being, was automatically the patron of every approved religious institution in the empire. As the residence of the emperor, Běijīng was regarded by the Chinese as the centre of the universe. The best poets and painters also flocked to Běijīng to seek court patronage. The Forbidden City required the finest porcelain, furniture and silverware, and its workshops grew in skill and design. Literature, drama, music, medicine, map-making, astrology and astronomy flourished, too, so the imperial city became a centre for arts and sciences.

Although early visitors complained about the dust and the beggars, most were awed and inspired by the city’s size, magnificence and wealth. Ming culture was influential in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and in other neighbouring countries. By the close of the 15th century the Ming capital, which had started out as a remote and isolated military outpost, had become a wealthy and sophisticated Chinese city.

The Fall of the Ming

Despite the Great Wall, the threat from the north intensified. The Manchus (formerly the Jurchens) established a new and powerful state based in Shěnyáng (currently the capital of Liáoníng province) and watched as the Ming empire decayed. The Ming had one of the most elaborate tax codes in history, but corrupt eunuchs abused their growing power. Excessive taxation sparked a series of peasant revolts. Silver, the main form of exchange, was devalued by imported silver from the new world, leading to inflation.

One peasant rebel army, led by Li Zicheng (1606–45), actually captured Běijīng. The last Ming emperor, Chongzhen (1611–44), called on the Manchus for help and after crossing the Great Wall at Shānhǎiguān, in current-day Héběi province, they helped rout Li Zicheng’s army. The Manchus then marched on Běijīng, where Emperor Chongzhen hanged himself on a tree on Coal Hill, the hill in Jǐngshān Park, which overlooks the Forbidden City.

Qing Dynasty Běijīng

The Manchus Move In

The Manchus established the Qing dynasty in 1644, although it took several decades before they completed the conquest of the Ming empire. As a foreign dynasty, they took great pains to present themselves as legitimate successors to the Chinese Ming dynasty. For this reason they kept Běijīng as their capital and changed very little, effectively preserving Yongle’s city. The Manchu imperial family, the Aisin Gioro Clan, moved into the Forbidden City, and imperial princes took large courtyard palaces.

Summer Palaces

The Aisin Gioro family felt that living inside the confines of the Forbidden City was claustrophobic. The great Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) effectively moved the court to what is now called the Old Summer Palace, a vast parkland of lakes, canals and palaces linked to the city by the Jade Canal. The Manchus, like the Mongols, enjoyed hunting, riding, hawking, skating and archery. In summer, when Běijīng became hot and steamy, the court moved to Chéngdé, a week’s ride to the north. At Chéngdé, the court spent three months living in felt tents (or yurts) in a walled parkland.


The Manchu army was divided into regiments called banners, so the troops were called Bannermen (Qírén). Each banner had a separate colour by which it was known and its troops settled in a particular residential area in Běijīng. The Embroidered Yellow Bannermen, for example, lived near the Confucius Temple, and some of their descendants remain there today. Only a minority were actually ethnic Manchus – the rest were Mongols or Han Chinese.

Policing a Divided City

Běijīng at this stage was a Manchu city and foreigners called it the ‘Tartar City’ (‘Tartars’ being the label given to any nomadic race from inner Asia). The Han Chinese lived in the ‘Chinese city’ to the south of Tiān’ānmén Sq. This was the liveliest, most densely populated area, packed with markets, shops, theatres, brothels and hostels for provincial visitors. If Chinese people wanted to get to north Běijīng, they had to go all the way round the outside walls. The Bannermen posted at the gates prevented anyone from entering without permission. Up to 1900, the state provided all Bannermen families with clothing and free food that was shipped up the Grand Canal and stored in grain warehouses.

Fashioning Běijīng Culture

It was the Manchu Bannermen who really created a Běijīng culture. They promoted Peking opera, and the city at one time had more than 40 opera houses and many training schools. The sleeveless qípáo dress is essentially a Manchu dress. The Bannermen, who loved animals, raised songbirds and pigeons and bred exotic-looking goldfish and miniature dogs such as the Pekinese. After the downfall of the Qing empire, they kept up traditional arts such as painting and calligraphy.

Language, Politics & Religion

Through the centuries of Qing rule, the Manchus tried to keep themselves culturally separate from the Chinese, speaking a different language, wearing different clothes and following different customs. For instance, Manchu women did not bind their feet, wore raised platform patens (shoes), and coiled their hair in distinctive and elaborate styles. All court documents were composed in the Manchu script; Manchu, Chinese and Mongolian script were used to write name signs in such places as the Forbidden City.

At the same time, the Qing copied the Ming’s religious and bureaucratic institutions. The eight key ministries (Board of Works, Board of Revenue, Board of State Ceremonies, Board of War, Board of Rites, Board of Astronomy, Board of Medicines and Prefecture of Imperial Clan Affairs) continued to operate from the same buildings in what is now Tiān’ānmén Sq. The Qing dynasty worshipped their ancestors at rites held in a temple, which is now in the Workers Cultural Palace, a park immediately southeast of the Forbidden City. They also built a second ancestral temple devoted to the spirits of every Chinese emperor that ever ruled. For some time it was a girls’ school, but it has since reopened as the Temple of Ancient Monarchs and can be visited.

Buddhist Ties

The study of Confucius was encouraged in order to strengthen the loyalty of the mandarins employed by the state bureaucracy. The Manchus carried out the customary rituals at the great state temples. By inclination, however, many of the Manchu emperors were either Shamanists or followers of Tibetan Buddhism. The Shamanist shrines have disappeared, but Běijīng is full of temples and stupas connected with Tibetan Buddhism. Emperor Qianlong considered himself the incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri and cultivated strong links with various Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas. Many visited – a round trip usually lasted three years – and special palaces were built for them. The Manchus deliberately fostered the spread of Tibetan Buddhism among the warlike Mongols in the hope of pacifying them. Běijīng therefore developed into a holy city attracting pilgrims of all kinds.

The Jesuits

The arrival of the first Jesuits and other Christians made Běijīng an important centre of Christianity in China. Emperor Qianlong employed many Jesuits to build the baroque palaces that can still be seen in the ruins of the Old Summer Palace, which was burned down in 1860 during the Second Opium War, by a combined force of British and French troops.

Foreign Powers & the Fall of the Qing

Foreign Legation Quarter

After the military defeats of the Opium Wars, the Western nations forced the Qing emperors to allow them to open formal embassies or legations in the capital. Hitherto, the emperor had had no equal in the world – foreign powers could only send embassies to deliver tribute, and they were housed in tributary hostels.

Boxer Rebellion

The British legation was the first to open after 1860. It lay on the east side of Tiān’ānmén Sq and stayed there until the 1950s when its grounds were taken over by the Ministry of State Security. By 1900 there were a dozen legations in an odd foreign ghetto with an eclectic mixture of European architecture. The Foreign Legation Quarter never became a foreign concession like those in Shànghǎi or Tiānjīn, but it had banks, schools, shops, post offices, hospitals and military parade grounds. Much of it was reduced to rubble when the army of Boxers (a quasi-religious cult) besieged it in the summer of 1900. It was later rebuilt.

Empress Dowager Cixi

The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), a daughter of a Bordered Blue Bannermen, was a young concubine when the Old Summer Palace was burned down by foreign troops in 1860. Cixi allowed the palace to fall into decay, associating it with a humiliation, and instead built herself the new Summer Palace (Yíhé Yuán). She was left with a profound hatred and distrust of the Western barbarians and their ways.

Over the four decades in which Cixi ruled China ‘from behind the curtain’ through a series of proxy emperors, she resisted pressure to change and reform. After a naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1895, young Chinese officials put forward a modernisation program. She had some of them executed outside Běijīng’s walls, and imprisoned their patron and her nephew, Emperor Guangxu (1871–1908).

She encouraged the Boxers to attack Westerners, especially foreign missionaries in northern China, and when Boxers besieged the Foreign Legation Quarter in 1900, Cixi stood by. When the allied forces marched into Běijīng to end the siege, she fled in disguise, an ignominious retreat that marked the final humiliation that doomed the Qing dynasty. When Cixi returned in disgrace a year later, China’s modernisation had begun in earnest, but it was too late to save the Qing dynasty – it fell in 1911.

The Opium Wars

A shameful chapter in British history, the First Opium War (1839–42), which led to the death of tens of thousands of Chinese people, was fought so that the British Empire could continue its illegal trade in opium.

Britain was struggling to pay for the huge, and ever-increasing, demand for Chinese tea back home. The Chinese thought little of the Wedgwood pottery, scientific instruments and woollen goods, which the British offered in return, and would only accept payment in silver. But Britain had another idea. Its conquest of Indian Bengal gave it access to massive amounts of opium, which they soon started smuggling into China and distributing among the population. The Chinese were soon hooked, and opium dens opened across the land.

But British law-breaking had not gone unnoticed and in 1839 Emperor Daoguang declared a war on drugs. A series of raids were ordered on the Western traders, and by the end of the year, Chinese officials had seized 20,000 chests (more than 1000 tons) of opium.

British traders were livid, and lobbied the government to give them backing to retaliate. Such was the size of the opium industry that the British government agreed and in 1840 a British fleet of 16 warships and 27 transports carrying 4000 men arrived in the Pearl River delta. The technically advanced British military overwhelmed the Chinese and they trounced them in a series of battles all along the east coast, from Hong Kong up to Shànghǎi and beyond.

The bombardments lasted two years. Between 20,000 and 25,000 Chinese troops were killed. Britain lost just 69 men.

The war was eventually halted by the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the first of what the Chinese now refer to as the 'Unequal Treaties'. The treaty granted Britain 21 million dollars in compensation, the opening of five treaty ports, and the handing over of Hong Kong Island. But it still wasn't enough, and its failure to satisfy Britain's demands led to the Second Opium War (1856–60).

More bloody battles ensued as this time the French joined forces with the British to devastate Chinese troops all the way up to Běijīng. With the Chinese armies defeated, the Qing court fled the capital, and the Allied troops, while stopping short of occupying the city, ransacked the Summer Palace and the Old Summer Palace before sitting down with Prince Gong on 18 October 1860 to ratify the Treaty of Tiānjīn, another devastatingly unequal treaty which had been drafted two years earlier.

The British, French and Russians were all granted a permanent diplomatic presence in Běijīng. The opium trade was legalised and Christians were granted full civil rights, including the right to own property, and the right to evangelise. It was a humiliating climax to a war that had been a shocking blow to the once powerful Qing dynasty; in many ways it spelled the beginning of the end for the ancient civilisation that was imperial China.

Republican China

After 1900 the last tribute barges arrived in Běijīng and a railway line ran along the traditional invasion route through the Jūyōng Pass to Bādálǐng. You can see the handsome clock tower and sheds of Běijīng’s first railway station (Qiánmén Railway Station), now restored as the Běijīng Railway Museum, on the southeast corner of Tiān’ānmén Sq. Běijīng never became an industrial or commercial centre – that role went to nearby Tiānjīn on the coast. Yet it remained the political and intellectual centre of China until the late 1920s.

Hotbed of Student Activity

In the settlement imposed after the Boxer Rebellion, China had to pay the victors heavy indemnities. Some of this money was returned to China and used to build the first modern universities, including what are now the Oxford and Cambridge of China – Qīnghuá and Peking universities. Běijīng’s university quarter was established in the Hǎidiàn district, near the Old Summer Palace (some campuses are actually in the imperial parkland). Intellectuals from all over China continued to gravitate to Běijīng, including the young Mao Zedong, who arrived to work as a librarian in 1921.

1919 May Fourth Movement

Běijīng students and professors were at the forefront of the 1919 May Fourth Movement. This was at once a student protest against the Versailles Treaty, which had awarded Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, and an intellectual movement to jettison the Confucian feudal heritage and Westernise China. Mao himself declared that to modernise China it was first necessary to destroy it. China’s intellectuals looked around the world for models to copy. Some went to Japan, others to the USA, Britain, Germany or, like Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, France. Many went to study Marxism in Moscow.

Modernising the City

As the warlords marched armies in and out of Běijīng, the almost-medieval city began to change. Temples were closed down and turned into schools. The last emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924 with his eunuchs and concubines. As the Manchus adapted to the changes, they tried to assimilate and their presence faded. Western-style brick houses, shops and restaurants were built. City gates were widened and new ones added, including one at Jiànguóménwài to make way for the motorcar. Běijīng acquired nightclubs, cinemas, racecourses and a stock exchange; brothels and theatres flourished. Despite political and diplomatic crises, this was a period when people had fun and enjoyed a unique period of individual freedom.

Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek united most of the country under Chinese National Party (KMT, or Kuomintang in Chinese) rule and in 1928 he moved the capital to Nánjīng. Even so, Běijīng’s romantic air of decaying grandeur attracted Chinese and Western writers and painters trying to fuse Western and Chinese artistic traditions.

Japanese Occupation

It all came to end when Japan’s Kwantung Army moved down from Manchuria and occupied Běijīng in 1937. By then, most people who could had fled, some to Chóngqìng in Sìchuān province, which served as Chiang Kaishek’s wartime capital. Others joined Mao Zedong in his communist base at Yán’ān, in Shaanxi province. Many universities established campuses in exile in Yúnnán province.

The Japanese stayed in Běijīng for eight years and, before their WWII defeat in 1945, had drawn up plans to build a new administrative capital in an area to the west of the city walls near Gōngzhǔfén. It was a miserable time for Běijīng, but the architecture was left largely untouched by the war. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Běijīng was ‘liberated’ by US marines. The city once again became a merry place famous for its parties – the serious events took place elsewhere in China. When the civil war broke out in earnest between nationalists and communists in 1947, the worst fighting took place in the cities of Manchuria.

Communist Takeover

In 1948 the Communist Eighth Route Army moved south and encircled Běijīng. General Fu Zuoyi, commander-in-chief of the Nationalists' Northern China Bandit Suppression Headquarters, prepared the city for a prolonged siege. He razed private houses and built gun emplacements and dugouts along the Ming battlements. Nationalist planes dropped bags of rice and flour to relieve the shortages, some hitting skaters on frozen Běihǎi Lake. Both sides seemed reluctant to fight it out and destroy the ancient capital. The rich tried to flee on the few planes that took off from a runway constructed at Dongdan on Chang’an Dajie (Chang’an means ‘Avenue of Eternal Peace’). Another airstrip was opened at Temple of Heaven Park by cutting down 20,000 trees, including 400 ancient cypresses.

On 22 January 1949 General Fu signed a surrender agreement, and on 31 January his KMT troops marched out and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered. A truck drove up Morrison St (now Wangfujing Dajie) blasting a continuous refrain to the residents of Běijīng (or Pěipíng as it was known then): ‘Welcome to the Liberation Army on its arrival in Pěipíng! Congratulations to the people of Pěipíng on their liberation!’ Behind it marched 300 soldiers in battle gear. A grand victory parade took place on 3 February with 250 assorted military vehicles, virtually all US-made and captured from the KMT over the previous two years.

Mao’s Běijīng

The People Stand Up

On 1 October 1949 Mao ascended the Gate of Heavenly Peace and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China, saying the Chinese people had stood up. He spoke only a few words in one of the very few public speeches he ever made.

Mao then moved into Zhōngnánhǎi, part of the chain of lakes and gardens immediately west of the Forbidden City and dating back to Kublai Khan. Marshal Yuan Shikai (1859–1916) had lived there too during his short-lived attempt to establish his own dynasty after 1911. Nobody is quite sure why Mao chose Běijīng as his capital, or why he failed to carry out his intention to raze the Forbidden City.

After 1949 many of China’s new top leaders followed Mao’s cue and moved their homes and offices into the old princely palaces (wángfǔ), thus inadvertently preserving much of the old architecture.


Mao wished to turn Běijīng into a city of production. Speaking to China’s premier architectural historian, Liang Sicheng, as they stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace looking south, Peng Zhen, the first Party Secretary of Běijīng, said that Chairman Mao wanted to make Běijīng into a large, modern city with lots of heavy industry.

Factories Galore

Thousands of factories sprang up in Běijīng and quite a few were built in old temples. In time, Běijīng developed into a centre for steel, chemicals, machine tools, engines, electricity, vinegar, beer, concrete, textiles, weapons – in fact, everything that would make it an economically self-sufficient ‘production base’ in case of war. By the 1970s, Běijīng had become one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world.

The Great Leap Forward

The move to tear down the city’s walls, widen the roads and demolish the distinctive páilóu (ceremonial arches) started immediately after 1949, but was fiercely contested by some intellectuals, including Liang Sicheng, who ran the architecture department of Qīnghuá University. So in the midst of the demolition of many famous landmarks, the municipal authorities earmarked numerous buildings and even old trees for conservation. However, it was all to no avail – Mao’s brutal political purges silenced all opposition.

The Cultural Revolution

Those intellectuals who escaped persecution in the 1950s were savagely dealt with during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Qīnghuá University became the birthplace of the Red Guards (a mass movement of young radicals, mobilised by Mao). In the ‘bloody August’ of 1966, Běijīng’s middle-school students turned on their teachers, brutally murdering some of them. Some reports estimate almost 2000 people were killed in Běijīng at this time. The number excludes those beaten to death as they tried to escape Běijīng on trains – their registration as residents of Běijīng was suddenly cancelled.

Cultural Revolution Slogans

As a city constantly in the throes of reinvention, Běijīng seems to change its guise almost daily. But it’s all too easy to get carried away with the forward movement of Běijīng and ignore its equally relevant past. Unmarked by either a memorial or museum in Běijīng, the tragic Cultural Revolution (1966–76) is one period of history the authorities would rather just gloss over. Fortunately, faint echoes from that era still resonate in Běijīng’s surviving brood of political slogans (zhèngzhì kǒuhào).

Most slogans from the 1960s and 1970s have been either painted over or scrubbed clean, but some ghostly messages still haunt Běijīng. Other maxims have been exposed after layers of concrete have been stripped from walls, revealing hidden directives from the period of political fervour.

Daubed on the wall opposite 59 Nanluogu Xiang are the characters 工业学大庆、农业学大寨、全国学解放军, which mean ‘For industry study Dàqìng (China’s No 1 oilfield, whose workers were held up as exemplars of diligence), for agriculture study Dàzhài (China’s model commune), for the whole nation study the People’s Liberation Army’; left of this is a much earlier slogan from the 1950s, largely obscured with grey paint. The wall opposite the Guanyue Temple at 149 Gulou Xidajie is covered in faint, partially legible red slogans, including the characters 大立无产阶级 (‘establish the proletariat’) and the two characters 旧习 (‘old habits’).

The 798 Art District is heavily bedecked with slogans. One of the rarest and most enticing survives on the wall of the Cave Café: a personal dedication written by Lin Biao, Mao Zedong’s one-time chosen successor. The village of Chuāndǐxià outside Běijīng also has a generous crop of slogans.

End of the Mao Era

In Mao’s time the geomantic symmetry of Běijīng was radically changed. The north–south axis of the Ming city was ruined by widening Chang’an Dajie into a 10-lane, east–west highway. This was used for huge annual military parades or when visiting dignitaries arrived and the population was turned out to cheer them. In the 1950s, the centre was redesigned by Soviet architects and modelled on Moscow’s Red Sq. Three major gates and many other Ming buildings, including the former government ministries, were demolished, leaving the concrete expanse of Tiān’ānmén Sq you see today.

Mao used the square to receive the adulation of the millions of Red Guards who flocked to Běijīng from 1966 to 1969, but after 1969 Mao exiled the Red Guards, along with 20 million ‘educated youth’, to the countryside. From 1976, the square became the scene of massive antigovernment protests – when Premier Zhou Enlai died in 1976 the large and apparently spontaneous protest in the square was quelled by the police. Mao himself died in the same year.

Reform & Protest

Calls for Democracy

Deng Xiaoping (1904–97), backed by a group of veteran generals, seized power in a coup d’état and threw Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing (1914–91), and her ultraleftist cronies into the notorious Qínchéng prison outside the city, where Mao had incarcerated so many senior party veterans. The prison still exists not far from the Ming Tombs.

The Democracy Wall

At the third plenum of the 11th Party Congress, Deng consolidated his grip on power and launched economic reforms. At the same time thousands of people began putting up posters along a wall west of Zhōngnánhǎi, complaining of injustices under the ‘Gang of Four’ (Jiang Qing and her three associates) and demanding democracy. Deng initially appeared to back political reforms, but soon the activists were thrown into jail, some in the Běijīng No 1 Municipal Prison (demolished in the mid-1990s).

Rising Discontent

Many of the activists were former Red Guards or exiled educated youth. After 1976 they drifted back to the city, but could only find jobs in the new private sector running small market stalls, tailor shops or restaurants. After the universities opened, conditions remained poor and the intelligentsia continued to be treated with suspicion. Frustrations with the slow pace of reforms prompted fresh student protests in the winter of 1986. Peasants did well out of the first wave of reforms, but in the cities many people felt frustrated. Urban life revolved around ‘work units’ to which nearly everyone was assigned. The work unit distributed food, housing, bicycles, travel permits and almost everything else. Běijīng was still a rather drab, dispiriting place in the 1980s; there was much more to eat but everything else was in a lamentable state. For 30 years there had been little investment in housing or transport.

1989 Tiān’ānmén Square Protests

In January 1987 the party’s conservative gerontocrats ousted the proreform party chief Hu Yaobang and, when he suddenly died in the spring of 1989, Běijīng students began assembling on Tiān’ānmén Sq. Officially, they were mourning his passing but they began to raise slogans for political reform and against corruption. The protests snowballed as the Communist Party leadership split into rival factions, causing a rare paralysis. The police stood by as the protests spread across the country and workers, officials and ordinary citizens took to the streets. When the military tried to intervene, Beijingers surrounded the tanks. The students set up tents on Tiān’ānmén Sq and went on a hunger strike. When the premier Li Peng held a dialogue with the students that was aired live on TV, student leaders sarcastically upbraided him.

The students created the first independent student union since 1919 and celebrated the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement with a demonstration in which more than a million people took to the streets. For the first time since 1949, the press threw off the shackles of state censorship and became independent. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev entered on a state visit, and was enthusiastically welcomed as a symbol of political reform, it seemed as if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), too, would embrace political change. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang led the reformist faction, but the older-generation leaders, led by Deng Xiaoping, decided to arrest Zhao and retake the city with a military assault. On the night of 3 June, tens of thousands of troops backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers entered the city from four directions, bulldozing aside the hastily erected barricades.

Many people died – some say hundreds, some thousands – and by the early hours of 4 June the troops were in control of the square. In the crackdown that followed across the country, student leaders escaped abroad while the Communist Party arrested thousands of students and their supporters. In the purge of party members that followed, China's reforms seemed to be going into reverse.

Rapid Development

Economic Reform

Things began to change when Deng Xiaoping emerged from the shadows and set off in 1992 on a so-called ‘southern tour’, visiting his special economic zones in the south and calling for more and faster reform. Despite opposition in the party, he won the day. China began a wave of economic reforms, which transformed urban China and brought new wealth and opportunities to most urban residents, though the political system remained unchanged and some 40 million workers in state-owned factories lost their jobs. Deng’s reforms pulled in a tide of foreign investment, creating two economic booms, after 1992 and 1998. Stock markets reopened, state companies were privatised and private enterprise began to flourish, especially in the service sector, which created millions of new jobs. More than 100 million peasants left the countryside to work on construction sites or in export-processing factories. The factories were moved out of Běijīng and the city once again became a ‘centre of consumption’.

Losing the Heritage Protection Battle

The economy was given a huge impetus by decisions to rebuild all major cities virtually from scratch, privatise housing and sell 50- or 70-year land leases to developers. There was resistance by Party Secretary Chen Xitong to the destruction of Běijīng’s centre. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Chen approved redevelopment plans that aimed to preserve and restore Běijīng’s historic centre and characteristic architecture. Chen had earlier helped persuade many army and civilian work units to vacate historical sites they’d occupied during the 1970s. However, in 1995, he was ousted by Jiang Zemin, and imprisoned on corruption charges.

Rebuild & Relocate

Once the Party apparatus was under his direct control, President Jiang approved plans to completely rebuild Běijīng and relocate its inhabitants. This was part of the nationwide effort to rebuild the dilapidated and neglected infrastructure of all Chinese cities. The ‘trillion-dollar’ economic-stimulus package was carried out with remarkable speed. In Běijīng more than a million peasants, housed in dormitories on construction sites, worked round the clock, and still do. New shopping malls, office blocks, hotels and luxury housing developments were thrown up at astonishing speed. Only a dictatorship with the vast human and industrial resources of China at its command could ever have achieved this.

Jiang wanted to turn Běijīng into another Hong Kong, with a forest of glass-and-steel skyscrapers. The new municipal leadership threw out the old zoning laws, which limited the height of buildings within the 2nd Ring Rd. It revoked existing land deeds by declaring old buildings to be dilapidated slums. Such regulations enabled the state to force residents to abandon their homes and move to new housing in satellite cities. Under the plan, only a fraction of the 67 sq km Ming city was preserved.

Looking Forward Only

Some see the rebuilding as a collective punishment on Běijīng for its 1989 rebellion, but others see it as the continuing legacy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the late Qing dynasty reformers. Many of China’s recent leaders have been engineers and ex–Red Guards, including former President Hu Jintao, who graduated from Qīnghuá University during the Cultural Revolution. Běijīng’s state-of-the-art new architecture – the Bird's Nest, the CCTV Building, Soho Galaxy – seems designed to embody their aspiration to create a new, forward-looking, hi-tech society, and mark the realisation of the goal of a new modern China. Meanwhile the older parts of the city, such as its historic hútòng neighbourhoods, are hanging on by a thread.

China's Dynasties


Chinese name

Period of rule

2070–1600 BC


Chinese name

Period of rule

1600–1046 BC

Western Zhou

Chinese name

西周 (Xī Zhōu)

Period of rule

1046–771 BC

Eastern Zhou

Chinese name

东周 (Dōng Zhōu)

Period of rule

770–256 BC

Spring & Autumn

Chinese name

春秋 (Chūn Qiū)

Period of rule

771–476 BC

Warring States

Chinese name

战国 (Zhàn Guó)

Period of rule

476–221 BC


Chinese name

Period of rule

221–206 BC

Western Han

Chinese name

西汉 (Xī Hàn)

Period of rule

206 BC–AD 9 & AD 23–25


Chinese name

Period of rule

AD 9–23

Eastern Han

Chinese name

东汉 (Dōng Hàn)

Period of rule

AD 25–220

Three Kingdoms

Chinese name

三国 (Sān Guó)

Period of rule


Western Jin

Chinese name

西晋 (Xī Jìn)

Period of rule


Eastern Jin

Chinese name

东晋 (Dōng Jìn)

Period of rule


Southern & Northern

Chinese name

南北朝 (Nán Běi Cháo)

Period of rule



Chinese name

Period of rule



Chinese name

Period of rule


Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms

Chinese name

五代十国 (Wǔ Dài Shí Guó)

Period of rule


Kingdom of Dali

Chinese name

大理国 (Dà Lǐ Guó)

Period of rule


Northern Song

Chinese name

北宋 (Běi Sòng)

Period of rule


Southern Song

Chinese name

南宋 (Nán Sòng)

Period of rule



Chinese name


Period of rule



Chinese name

Period of rule


Western Xia

Chinese name

西夏 (Xī Xià)

Period of rule



Chinese name

Period of rule



Chinese name

Period of rule



Chinese name

Period of rule


History Books

  • The City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China (2008; Jasper Becker) An authoritative and heartbreaking rendering of Běijīng’s transformation from magnificent Ming capital to communist-capitalist hybrid.
  • The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power 1850–2008 (2008; Jonathan Fenby) Highly readable account of the paroxysms of modern Chinese history.
  • The Siege at Peking (1959; Peter Fleming) Celebrated account of the Boxer Rebellion and the historic siege of the Foreign Legation Quarter.
  • The Dragon Empress (1972; Marina Warner) Riveting biography of the scheming Empress Dowager and the fall of the Qing dynasty.