Whenever you plan to appreciate ancient Beijing, the Yongding Gate is the best starting point. Setting off from the gate at the south end of Beijing’s traditional Central Axis, you will see many landmarks along it, such as the Qianmen Gate (Zhengyang Gate) and Tian’anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) before reaching the Drum and Bell towers at the north end of the Central Axis.
Wanyan Liang (1122–1161), titled King Hailing after his death, ruled the Jin Dynasty as emperor from 1149 to 1161. In March 1153, he ordered to move the capital to Nanjing of the Liao Dynasty (AD 916–1125), and renamed Nanjing Zhongdu (“central capital,” today’s Beijing). This was a milestone event in Chinese history, marking the beginning of Beijing’s history as a capital.
Dadu observed principles advocated in the ‘‘records of examination of craftsman’’ in the Rites of Zhou. The Qionghua Island was treated as the centre of the capital, and a central axis contacted the island to determine the capital’s layout. The planning, design and construction for Dadu was so elaborate that the capital emerged on the flat ground in a suburban area, unrestrained by former structures or artificial factors. In this way, Dadu had a distinct urban shape and structure, which can still be noticed today.
Beijing also served as the capital of the Ming Dynasty. As the Forbidden City was built, the Central Axis of the Ming Dynasty differed from that of the Yuan Dynasty. Since Ming, Beijing has been characterised by a 7.8-kilometre long Central Axis, on which stand many landmarks such as the Yongding Gate, Qianmen Gate, Tian’anmen, Duanmen Gate, Meridian Gate, Hall of Supreme Harmony, Jingshan Hill, Di’anmen (Gate of Earthly Peace), and the Drum and Bell towers.
The Forbidden City, on the middle part of the Central Axis, features three halls in its outer court—the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony, and Hall of Preserving Harmony, and three halls in its the inner court— the Palace of Heavenly Purity, Hall of Union and Peace, and Palace of Earthly Tranquility, all on the south–north Central Axis. Other structures stand symmetrically on both sides of the Central Axis. With courtyards as its main architectural style, the 720,000-square-metre Forbidden City is a large architectural complex with a rigid layout and architectural hierarchy.
During the Ming Dynasty, the outer court of the imperial palace had three main halls—the Fengtian, Huagai and Jinshen halls, known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, Hall of Central Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony during the Qing Dynasty. These structures were all magnificent, showing supreme imperial authority. The south Chengtian Gate (known as Tian’anmen during the Qing Dynasty) coordinated with the north Xuanwu Gate (renamed Shenwu Gate during the Qing Dynasty), outside which was the Wansui Hill (today’s Jingshan Hill), also on the Central Axis.
Chinese architect Liang Sicheng (1901– 1972) once said, “The distinct beauty of Beijing’s magnificent order derives from this Central Axis.” With the holding of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the Central Axis was extended.
Now, it has already extended to the Olympic Forest Park, where the Yangshan Hill and Aohai Lake both stand on the north extension of the Central Axis. The National Stadium (“Bird’s Nest”) and National Aquatics Center (“Water Cube”), on both sides of the said extension, reflect the Chinese thought— “Heaven is circular while earth is square.’’
Throughout history, Beijing was closely linked with other parts of the country, giving rise to countless places of cultural and historical significance.
Ancient Paths West of Beijing
Hills to the west of old Beijing generally called the Western Hills, had plenty of coal. From the Yuan and Ming dynasties, households in the capital relied on coal for heat. Glazed products made here were made famous around the capital.
Trains of horses and camels carrying coal and other commodities travelled along paths through the Western Hills. Gradually, paths for travelling merchants were shaped, connecting Beijing with the western mountains, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi. These paths were known as Jingxi Gudao (ancient paths west of Beijing).
Of these paths, many were mountain paths trodden and taken by local villagers for many generations. However, main paths were financed and built by the government or merchants. Generally measuring about two metres wide, they were paved with stones obtained from hills, and mainly taken by trains of horses, camels, donkeys and mules.
People in the capital depended on coal produced in the Western Hills for heat in winter. The Fucheng Gate, a west gate of Beijing’s inner city, was commonly known as the “Coal Gate,” because horses and carriages carrying coal all entered the inner city there.
On the gate was an inlaid white marble carved with plum blossoms to signify the function of the gate (in Chinese, “plum” sounds the same with “coal”). The Qing Dynasty saw a continuous increase in the capital’s demand for coal. The Fucheng Gate alone couldn’t satisfy coal transport. During the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1662–1722), the Xizhi Gate, called the “Water Gate,” also allowed entry of large quantities of coal into the capital.
The ancient Lutan Path might be the most notable. People mainly took this path to pay incense as homage to the Buddha in temples. Qing Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736– 1795) once took this path to the Jietai and Tanzhe temples to worship Buddha. This path was thus called an imperial path by locals.
The 1,797-kilometre-long Grand Canal is the world’s longest canal. Dating from the Qin (221–206 BC) and Han (206 BC–AD 220) dynasties, the Grand Canal was dug and dredged in later dynasties such as Sui (AD 581–618), Tang, Yuan, Ming and Qing, and finally became a transport artery linking northern and southern China.
The Grand Canal has seven sections. The northernmost section, connecting Beijing with Tianjin, is known as the North Canal. Its route changed many times throughout history. During the Yuan Dynasty, a third large-scale project for renovating and dredging the North Canal was completed, determining the route of today’s North Canal.
A canal linking urban Beijing and Tongzhou (today’s Tongzhou District) was opened. It was named the Tonghui River by Kublai Khan. To control the depth for shipping and current speed on the canal, Guo had 24 sluice gates built to enable ships carrying grains to ride against the current, realising the fact of “shipping while saving water.”
This technology has been in service to the present. With the Huitong and Tonghui rivers completed, the Grand Canal was opened thoroughly, connecting five water systems— the Haihe, Yellow, Huaihe, Yangtze and Qiantang rivers. Within the next more than 500 years, the Grand Canal acted as a vital water transport artery.
The North Canal, which served water transport of grains to the capital, was hailed as a “golden waterway” linking Beijing and Tianjin. The South Canal (linking Tianjin with
Shandong Province) also played an important role in history—materials such as grains and silk were transported through it from southern areas to Tianjin.
Meanwhile, special products of northern China were collected and distributed here, and then transported southwards to Suzhou (capital city of today’s Jiangsu Province) and Hangzhou (capital city of today’s Zhejiang Province). Cargo ships from south parts of the country reached Dadu along the North Canal, offering a bustling scene from Tongzhou to the downtown area until the early Ming Dynasty.
“The clear Gaoliang River takes the shape of a ring. One half of it winds through the city, and the other surrounds mountains. Willows dance in the wind, while curtains of taverns move like undulating waves. Onshore is an endless sea of flowers, evoking people’s imagination.” This poem describes beautiful scenery along today’s Changhe River, one of Beijing’s most important water systems. Its history can be traced back to more than 700 years during the Jin Dynasty.
During the reign of Emperor Guangxu, Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) must pass the Changhe River when she departed from the Forbidden City for the Summer Palace. Perhaps for this reason, onshore areas became more prosperous. In 1888, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, Cixi embezzled naval expenditures to rebuild the Summer Palace.
For her convenience, this waterway was dredged. About 30 percent of the Summer Palace was occupied by a hill, about 70 percent by water, and the rest by farmland. The ancient Changhe River has become a “golden waterway” winding and connecting bodies of water around the capital. Its sightseeing section stretches for nine kilometres from the Houhu Wharf behind Beijing Exhibition Centre to a wharf at the Summer Palace.
Chinese legends about dragons can be traced back to at least 5,000 years ago. In the 1980s, when an aerial remote sensor flew over Beijing, people found two “dragons” lying in the core area of old Beijing— one was a “golden dragon,” and the other, a silvery “water dragon.”
The “water dragon” comprises six lakes— Beihai, Zhonghai and Nanhai lakes (known as “three front lakes”) all once appreciated by the imperial family, and the Qianhai, Houhai and Xihai lakes (“three back lakes”) in the Shichahai area. Gradually, this area took on breathtaking beauty peculiar to Beijing City.
Historical and cultural resources have been developed and promoted in Beijing since ancient times. The Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian dating back to about 700,000 years ago, the site where the State of Yan (1122–222 BC) established its capital more than 3,000 years ago, historical sites of
Jin Zhongdu and Yuan Dadu, and cultural resources dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties all serve as testimonies. Beijing’s brilliant history and culture is an indispensable part of splendid Chinese civilisation.
In 1744, Emperor Qianlong ordered officials directly serving the imperial court to check materials housed by the imperial court, choose reliable texts, and place them in the Hall of Manifesting Benevolence for him to read at his convenience. He wrote four characters “Tian Lu Lin Lang” for a plaque for the hall, and completed a couplet.
“Tianlu” derived from the Tianlu Pavilion where books were kept during the Han Dynasty. “Linlang” meant “beautiful jade” to signify an array of good books housed by the imperial court. Thereafter, the hall became Qing’s imperial library, with Tianlu Linlang symbolising books kept by the imperial family.
In 1775, ten people, including official Yu Minzhong (1714–1780), were ordered to arrange books housed in the hall. They specified information about these books, including their ages, printing, circulation, housing or abandonment, and reasons why connoisseurs selected them, and compiled Tianlu linlang shumu (a booklist).
The book list has ten volumes, and details the collection of books in the hall in four parts: Confucian classics, historical records, works by philosophers prior to the Qin Dynasty, and collected works. Every part follows a timeline of editions and copies of the Song, Jin, Yuan and Ming dynasties.
In 1797, during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing, the hall kept more books, Peng Yuanrui (1731–1803, an official and scholar)
compiled Tianlu linlang shumuxubian (a continuation of the book list).
Huangshicheng (Imperial Archive) is to the east of the south entrance of the Nanchizi Avenue east of Tian’anmen. Once housing imperial archives of the Ming and Qing dynasties, it is the only one of its kind still preserved in China.
In 1536, the Imperial Archive was completed and put into service. As it was planned to enshrine portraits of emperors, it was first named the Shenyu Pavilion (“immortal imperial pavilion”). After it was completed, Emperor Jiajing changed his mind, and decided to place records of and teachings by emperors in it and build another structure named the Jingshen Hall to house these portraits.
According to Chunming mengyu lu (a record of Beijing during the Ming Dynasty) by Sun Chengze (1593–1676, a politician and collector), Jiajing agreed to rename the Shenyu Pavilion “Huangshicheng,” with cheng meaning a room for collecting books in ancient times.
During the Ming Dynasty, 20 golden cabinets were used for archives, compared to 31 during the reign of Qing Emperor Yongzheng, 141 of Emperor Tongzhi and 153 of Emperor Guangxu. During Ming, the Imperial Archive seemed a private archive of emperors, while during Qing, it was a State organ.
During Qing, when official compilers needed to consult documents kept in the Imperial Archive to compile certain history books, they could submit an application to the emperor. With permission, they could do so.
Confucian Temple and Imperial College
The Guozijian Street, stretching east–west from the Yonghegong Avenue to Andingmennei Avenue, is famous for the Confucian Temple and the Imperial College nestled here. With a history of more than 700 years, the street maintains its original appearance.
In 1306, Guozijian (Imperial College) was officially set up west of the temple, reflecting a traditional Chinese rule: the Confucian Temple on the left while an institution of higher learning on the right. The Imperial College was the toplevel institution of higher learning and educational administration during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
The Imperial College faces south, with a glazed memorial archway on its central axis. The archway is Beijing’s only glazed memorial archway that doesn’t belong to a temple. Hailed as one of “Beijing’s six major palaces” by Liang Sicheng, the Biyong Hall is the core structure of the Imperial College. Emperors once promoted Confucian canons in the Imperial College. This was known as Linyong Shixue.
Emperor Qianlong first gave a lecture in the Yilun Hall, which dissatisfied him. He suggested building the Biyong Hall to optimise etiquette. In 1783, the hall was completed.
The Golden Water Bridge and the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City
The Tongzhou Section of the Grand Canal
Beijing‘s “water dragon”
Biyong Hall, one of main buildings in Guozijian (Imperial College)