Trac­ing the story of how Bei­jing be­came the cap­i­tal

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | CULTURE - ByWANG KAIHAO wangkai­hao@chi­

Many peo­ple take Bei­jing’s metropoli­tan sta­tus for granted.

An on­go­ing exhibition at the city’s Cap­i­tal Mu­seum ex­am­ines the process by which it be­came the na­tional cap­i­tal.

The Cap­i­tal Cities of the Yuan Dy­nasty, which runs through De­cem­ber, dis­plays 160 sets of relics from the Cap­i­tal Mu­seum and 14 other mu­se­ums and re­search in­sti­tu­tions across north­ernChina.

It marks the 740th an­niver­sary of con­struc­tion of Khan­baliq, the pre­de­ces­sor of to­day’s Bei­jing, which was also known as Dadu (mean­ing “the great cap­i­tal”). It was one of the cap­i­tals of theYuanDy­nasty (1271-1368), which was founded byMon­gol ruler Kublai Khan five years later.

Be­cause the em­pire was based upon the no­madic life­style of the grass­lands, Yuan rulers es­tab­lished two cap­i­tals. The other is Xanadu or Shangdu (the up­per cap­i­tal) in what is to­day the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s Xilin Gol League.

Ac­cord­ing to the exhibition’s cu­ra­tor, Tan Xiaol­ing, em­per­ors headed to Xanadu in­March or April for the sum­mer. They re­turned to Bei­jing in Au­gust or Septem­ber.

The dy­nasty planned to build a third cap­i­tal, Zhongdu (the mid­dle cap­i­tal), in to­day’s Zhang­bei county, He­bei prov­ince. But con­struc­tion was sus­pended.

Cul­tural relics re­veal­ing the vi­cis­si­tudes of all three cap­i­tals are jux­ta­posed at the exhibition.

“We want to show the dy­nasty’s his­tory and cus­toms from a com­pre­hen­sive per­spec­tive, from ur­ban con­struc­tio­nandthe rulers’ palace lives to var­i­ous as­pects of or­di­nary peo­ple’s daily lives,” says Tan.

“This is an un­prece­dented event to ex­am­ine the Yuan’s his­tory by bring­ing so many pre­cious items to­gether. It’d be bor­ing to sim­ply in­tro­duce the three cities’ his­tory. That’s why we fo­cus on hu­man sto­ries. No mat­ter how a city flour­ishes, its peo­ple are most im­por­tant.”

This is why the exhibition high­lights Liu Bingzhong, the of­fi­cial who led Khan­baliq’s con­struc­tion, and Zhang Hong­fan, a gen­eral once sta­tioned in the city.

Dis­plays in­clude porce­lain, tex­tiles, gold ar­ti­facts, con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als and fig­urines.

Many items have never been ex­hib­ited pub­licly. Oth­ers are fa­mil­iar to those with a ba­sic knowl­edge of China’s fine art his­tory.

Pieces in­clude a pot­tery fig­ure of a danc­ing man — the only of its kind from the pe­riod that has been dis­cov­ered. A ce­ramic pil­low with de­pic­tions of an opera stage, and a porce­lain bowl adorned with lo­tus and tor­toise pat­terns demon­strate the era’s best crafts­man­ship.

A “magic square” from Zhongdu pro­vides early ev­i­dence of Chi­nese use of Ara­bic nu­mer­als, says GaoHongqing, who se­lected the show’s relics.

It’s ar­ranged so thenum­bers in each of the six rows, six col­umns and sec­ondary di­ag­o­nals add up to the same sum.

A sec­tion of the show em­pha­sizes re­li­gious in­clu­sive­ness dur­ing the Yuan Dy­nasty.

“Bud­dhism, Tao­ism, Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity thrived,” says Gao.

A ce­ramic epi­taph in­scribed with Nesto­rian doc­trine and a cross-shaped bronze scepter proves Chris­tian­ity’s pop­u­lar­ity in China dur­ing the pe­riod.

Gao says some relics came from county-level mu­se­ums.

“Their col­lec­tions may be smaller but are unique,” he says.

Gold or­na­ments from In­ner Mon­go­lia’s Ao­han Ban­ner Mu­seum, for in­stance, re­veal pros­per­ity and the aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties ofMon­gol nobles.

“The Yuan Dy­nasty ex­isted for less than a cen­tury, so its relics are rel­a­tively few,” says the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor, Guo Xiaol­ing. “China spent more time split than united be­fore the dy­nasty. TheYuan­cre­ated a solid foun­da­tion for last­ing co­he­sion. So it’s im­por­tant to study.”

One im­por­tant as­pect of this was Bei­jing’s el­e­vated sta­tus, the his­to­rian ex­plains.

“Bei­jing was only a re­gional cen­ter be­fore.”

One way this can be seen out­side of the exhibition is that some names of Khan­baliq’s city gates like Anzhen­men and Jian­de­men are still used — for sub­way sta­tions, that is.

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