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Fifteenth-century Beijing as depicted in a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History
  • Other Names: 燕京 (Yànjīng / Yenching), 大都 (Dàdū), 北平 (Běipíng)
  • Chinese: 北京 (Běijīng / Peking)

Beijing (lit. "northern capital") is the capital of the People's Republic of China, and served as the Imperial capital of the Ming Dynasty since 1421, and throughout the Qing Dynasty which followed. In the 18th to 19th centuries, Beijing rivaled Edo as largest city in the world, with a population around one million.[1]


By the time of the Qing Dynasty, the city was divided largely into three sections. The Imperial City (皇城), containing the Imperial palace compound, also known as the Forbidden City, was surrounded by the Inner City (内城), where the houses of the Eight Banners, and other Manchu nobles and court officials were located. This meant the most loyal warrior houses were located in a prime position to defend the Palace from either invasion or rebellion, as was also the case in Edo and other warrior cities. To the south of this was the Outer City (外城), where Han Chinese nobles and commoners were relocated.[2] Though this forcible relocation caused some initial consternation and economic hardship for the Han Chinese residents of the city, they soon built the Outer City into a bustling center of urban life and commercial activity.

The Imperial City and Inner City were organized along the cardinal directions, with notable gates built into the city walls on all sides. The Palace, for the most part, was arranged along a north-south axis, such that the emperor sat in the north and faced south. The Hall of Supreme Harmony (the chief audience hall) faced south directly through a number of other buildings and gates to the Wumen (午門), the main southern gate of the Palace compound. It was at the plaza just inside this gate that a variety of major state ceremonies were performed, including the declaration of Imperial edicts, sending-off events for armies being sent to war, and victory celebrations at the end of a military campaign. Near the Wumen, the Court also kept a number of elephants, given as gifts from Annam. The elephants were well cared for and maintained for much of the Qing period, with new elephants of course being given from time to time. They regularly attracted considerable numbers of interested onlookers, and when the elephants were led each summer to play and bathe in the moats by the Xuānwǔmén (宣武門), some tens of thousands of onlookers came to watch. On New Year's, the elephants were decorated with various ornaments and incense burners, and were led around the Imperial city, adding to the spectacle of the celebrations.[3]

Beyond the Wumen stood the Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace), at the center of the southern wall connecting the Forbidden City to the Inner City, and directly south of that, the Zhèngyángmén (正陽門, also known as Qiánmén 前門), the central gate connecting the Inner City to the Outer City. A bustling "downtown" area lay just north of this gate (in the Inner City); within that neighborhood was a notable bridge called the Jade River Bridge (Yùhéqiáo, 玉河橋), and a shared lodging for visiting envoys from foreign courts, called the Huitong-guan.[4]

A temple to Confucius was located just inside the Andingmen in the northeastern section of the Inner City; within its grounds stood the National Academy (Guózǐjiàn), the most elite center of Confucian learning in the empire.[2] A Russian Orthodox Church stood in this area as well, and after the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, a mission of several hundred Russian merchants came to Beijing once a year to trade.[3]

Two sites of key importance to Imperial rituals - the Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán), and the Temple of Agriculture (Xiānnóngtán) - were originally established on the southern outskirts of the Outer City, but are now located in the southeastern part of central Beijing, as a result of the city's extensive growth in the modern period. The Temple of Heaven was originally built in 1530.

Beyond the city walls, expanses of farmland once belonged chiefly to Ming elites. These lands were confiscated following the Manchu invasion, and were redistributed, roughly six acres apiece, to some 40,000 Manchu bannermen.


Some notable settlement existed in the area since at least the Sui Dynasty, when the first version of the Grand Canal connected this area to the capital region of Luoyang and Chang'an to the west. The city gained greater significance in 1264 or 1271 when it was named capital of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, called at that time Khanbaliq or Dadu (大都, "great metropolis"). The Mongol city fell to the rebel Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368, who then established the Ming Dynasty, naming Nanjing his capital.

Renovations or expansion of the Grand Canal, completed in 1415, connected Beijing more fully and effectively with Hangzhou and other major cities of the south; this marked the beginning of a significant shift in Ming trade patterns and attitudes, with the country turning inwards to a considerable extent; domestic trade networks connecting with the canal thrived while overseas ventures declined.

In the aftermath of the Yongle Emperor's seizure of the throne and burning of the palace at Nanjing in 1402, Yongle officially Beijing the imperial capital. However, the Court was not actually relocated to Beijing until 1421, after the completion of an extensive program of reconstruction in the city. This rebuilding of Beijing to serve as the new imperial capital involved 100,000 artisans and one million laborers. Though the city was of some notable size and significance before, as Dadu and then as the northern terminus of the Grand Canal, this reconstruction effort beginning in 1420 marks the beginning of Beijing as the Ming capital, and of the period of its greatness.

The city lay within three sets of walled enclosures; the imperial city lay within the outer walls, and beyond that, within an inner set of walls, was the Forbidden City. The palace itself contained some 9000 rooms, and front courts measuring 400 yards on a side, furnished with impressive marble terraces and curved railings.[5]

The city fell first to a rebellion, led by Li Zicheng, and then to Manchu invaders, in 1644. After Li Zicheng seized the city and named himself Emperor, Wu Sangui, commander of Ming forces in the north, forged an alliance with Manchu forces to help him retake the city. Li Zicheng was driven out of the city a day later, but the Manchus simply placed themselves on the throne, declaring China part of the Manchu Empire under the Qing Dynasty, and though Ming loyalists held out or resurged well into the 1680s, the Ming Dynasty never did regain control of Beijing, or of the country as a whole.[6]

The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722) began to incorporate the style and culture of the Chinese gardens of Suzhou and Hangzhou into the Imperial gardens at Beijing in the late 17th or early 18th century. This process was continued by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796), who expanded the Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace), and built a whole new set of retirement gardens for himself within the Forbidden City.[7]

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the city came to be occupied by British and French forces, who ravaged the city, including many Imperial and historical sites.

The last members of the Imperial family to reside within the palace vacated in 1924, at which time the Forbidden City came more fully under the control of the State.

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  1. Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 377, gives the figure of 2 million residents as early as the 15th century, but this seems difficult to believe, given that other sources indicate that Beijing and Edo were roughly tied for largest city in the world at roughly 1 to 1.5 million people in the mid-18th to early 19th centuries, hundreds of years later. See also:
    Yokohari, Makoto. "Agro-activities in the Fringe of Asian Mega-Cities." Institute of Policy and Planning Sciences, University of Tsukuba (2003), 1-2.
    Nicholas Fiévé and Paul Waley, Japanese capitals in historical perspective: place, power and memory in Kyoto, Edo and Tokyo, Psychology Press (2003), 100.
    Other sources, speaking of the early Ming, give the city's population as reaching 1 million at that time. Lillian M. Li, Alison Dray-Novey, and Haili Kong, Beijing: From Imperial Capital to Olympic City, Macmillan (2008), 27.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験, Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 64.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Maehira, 65.
  4. Maehira, 62-63.
  5. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 431.
  6. Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 33.
  7. Chi Xiao, Chinese Garden as Lyric Enclave, Center for Chinese Studies, Univ. of Michigan (2001), 75-100.