The brash modernity of Beijing (北京, běijīng; the name means “Northern Capital”) comes as a surprise to many visitors. Crisscrossed by freeways, spiked with high-rises, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic. For a thousand years, the drama of China’s imperial history was played out here, with the emperor sitting enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe, and though today the city is a very different one, it remains spiritually and politically the heart of the country. Between the swathes of concrete and glass, you’ll find some of the lushest temples, and certainly the grandest remnants of the Imperial Age. Unexpectedly, some of the country’s most pleasant scenic spots lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, one of the world’s most famous sights, the long and lonely Great Wall, winds between hilltops.
First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 22 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. It’s a notion that’s reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its stunning wealth of treasures, the concrete desert of Tian’anmen Square and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong, the Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city’s oppressive orderliness and rampant reconstruction. In the suburbs beyond, the two summer palaces and the Western Hills have been favoured retreats since imperial times.
Beijing is an invaders’ city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties – the Manchu and the Mongols – and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology – the Communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today has an international flavour reflecting its position as the capital of a major commercial power. As the front line of China’s grapple with modernity, it is being ripped up and rebuilt at a furious pace – attested by the cranes that skewer the skyline and the white character chai (“demolish”) painted on old buildings. Students in the latest fashions while away their time in internet cafés, hip-hop has overtaken the clubs, businessmen are never without their laptops and schoolkids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes. Rising incomes have led not just to a brash consumer-capitalist society Westerners will feel very familiar with, but also to a revival of older Chinese culture – witness the re-emergence of the teahouse as a genteel meeting place and the interest in imperial cuisine. In the evening, you’ll see large groups of the older generation performing the yangkou (loyalty dance), Chairman Mao’s favourite dance universally learned a few decades ago, and in the hutongs, the city’s twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their pet birds and pipes as they always have done.
Beijing is a city that almost everyone enjoys. For new arrivals, it provides a gentle introduction to the country, and for travellers who’ve been roughing it round rural China, the creature comforts on offer are a delight. But it’s essentially a private city, whose surface is difficult to penetrate; sometimes, it seems to have the superficiality of a theme park. Certainly, there is something mundane about the way tourist groups are efficiently shunted around, from hotel to sight and back to hotel, with little contact with everyday reality. To get deeper into the city, wander what’s left of the labyrinthine hutongs, “fine and numerous as the hairs of a cow” (as one Chinese guidebook puts it), and check out the little antique markets, the residential shopping districts, the smaller, quirkier sights, and the parks, some of the best in China, where you’ll see Beijingers performing tai ji and hear birdsong – just – over the hum of traffic. Take advantage, too, of the city’s burgeoning nightlife and see just how far the Chinese have gone down the road of what used to be called spiritual pollution.
Getting to Beijing is no problem: it’s the centre of China’s transport network so you’ll probably wind up here sooner or later, whether you want to or not, and to avoid the capital seems wilfully perverse. On a purely practical level, it’s a good place to stock up on visas for the rest of Asia, and to arrange transport out of the country – most romantically, on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian trains. To take in its superb sights requires a week, by which time you may well be ready to move on to China proper; Beijing is a fun place, but make no mistake, it in no way typifies the rest of the nation.
It was in Tian’anmen, on October 1, 1949, that Chairman Mao Zedong hoisted the red flag to proclaim officially the foundation of the People’s Republic. He told the crowds that the Chinese had at last stood up, and defined liberation as the final culmination of a 150-year fight against foreign exploitation.
The claim, perhaps, was modest. Beijing’s recorded history goes back a little over three millennia, to beginnings as a trading centre for Mongols, Koreans and local Chinese tribes. Its predominance, however, dates to the mid-thirteenth century, and the formation of Mongol China under Genghis and later Kublai Khan. It was Kublai who took control of the city in 1264, and who properly established it as a capital, replacing the earlier power centres of Luoyang and Xi’an. Marco Polo visited him here, working for a while in the city, and was clearly impressed with the level of sophistication; he observed in The Travels:
So great a number of houses and of people, no man could tell the number I believe there is no place in the world to which so many merchants come, and dearer things, and of greater value and more strange, come into this town from all sides than to any city in the world.
The wealth came from the city’s position at the start of the Silk Road, and Polo described “over a thousand carts loaded with silk” arriving “almost each day”, ready for the journey west out of China. And it set a precedent in terms of style and grandeur for the Khans, later known as emperors, with Kublai building himself a palace of astonishing proportions, walled on all sides and approached by great marble stairways.
With the accession of the Ming dynasty, who defeated the Mongols in 1368, the capital temporarily shifted to present-day Nanjing, but Yongle, the second Ming emperor, returned, building around him prototypes of the city’s two greatest monuments – the Imperial Palace and Temple of Heaven. It was in Yongle’s reign, too, that the basic city plan took shape, rigidly symmetrical, extending in squares and rectangles from the palace and inner-city grid to the suburbs, much as it is today.
Subsequent, post-Ming history is dominated by the rise and eventual collapse of the Manchus – the Qing dynasty, northerners who ruled China from Beijing from 1644 to the beginning of the twentieth century. The capital was at its most prosperous in the first half of the eighteenth century, the period in which the Qing constructed the legendary Summer Palace – the world’s most extraordinary royal garden, with two hundred pavilions, temples and palaces, and immense artificial lakes and hills – to the north of the city. With the central Imperial Palace, this was the focus of endowment and the symbol of Chinese wealth and power. However, in 1860, the Opium Wars brought British and French troops to the walls of the capital, and the Summer Palace was first looted and then razed to the ground by the British.
While the imperial court lived apart, within what was essentially a separate walled city, conditions for the civilian population, in the capital’s suburbs, were starkly different. Kang Youwei, a Cantonese visiting in 1895, described this dual world:
No matter where you look, the place is covered with beggars. The homeless and the old, the crippled and the sick with no one to care for them, fall dead on the roads. This happens every day. And the coaches of the great officials rumble past them continuously.
The indifference, rooted according to Kang in officials throughout the city, spread from the top down. From 1884, using funds meant for the modernization of the nation’s navy, the Empress Dowager Cixi had begun building a new Summer Palace of her own. The empress’s project was really the last grand gesture of imperial architecture and patronage – and like its model was also badly burned by foreign troops, in another outbreak of the Opium War in 1900. By this time, with successive waves of occupation by foreign troops, the empire and the imperial capital were near collapse. The Manchus abdicated in 1911, leaving the Northern Capital to be ruled by warlords. In 1928, it came under the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang, being seized by the Japanese in 1939, and at the end of World War II, the city was controlled by an alliance of Guomindang troops and American marines.
The Communists took Beijing in January 1949, nine months before Chiang Kai-shek’s flight to Taiwan assured final victory. The rebuilding of the capital, and the erasing of symbols of the previous regimes, was an early priority. The city that Mao Zedong inherited for the Chinese people was in most ways primitive. Imperial laws had banned the building of houses higher than the official buildings and palaces, so virtually nothing was more than one storey high. The roads, although straight and uniform, were narrow and congested, and there was scarcely any industry. The new plans aimed to reverse all but the city’s sense of ordered planning, with Tian’anmen Square at its heart – and initially, through the early 1950s, their inspiration was Soviet, with an emphasis on heavy industry and a series of poor-quality high-rise housing programmes.
In the zest to be free from the past and create a modern, people’s capital, much of Old Beijing was destroyed, or co-opted: the Temple of Cultivated Wisdom became a wire factory and the Temple of the God of Fire produced electric lightbulbs. In the 1940s, there were eight thousand temples and monuments in the city; by the 1960s, there were only around a hundred and fifty. Even the city walls and gates, relics mostly of the Ming era, were pulled down and their place taken by ring roads and avenues.
More destruction was to follow during the Cultural Revolution. Under Mao’s guidance, Beijing’s students organized themselves into a political militia – the Red Guards, who were sent out to destroy the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. They attacked anything redolent of capitalism, the West or the Soviet Union; few of the capital’s remaining ancient buildings escaped destruction. Things improved with the death of Mao and the accession of pragmatic Deng Xiaoping and his fellow moderates, who embraced capitalism, though not, as shown by the massacre at Tian’anmen Square and the surrounding events of 1989, freedom (see Dissent in Tian’anmen Square).
In 2008 Beijing succeeded in putting on a spectacular, if politicized, Olympic Games. This was the city’s grand coming out party, and no expense was spared to show that it, and the country as a whole, could hold its own on the world stage. To prepare for its big moment, the city’s infrastructure was vastly upgraded, and the process continues today. In the past few years, six new subway lines have opened, along with a new airport terminal and a light-rail system. Some US$12 billion has been spent on green projects, including a 125-kilometre tree belt around the city to curb the winter sandstorms that rage in from the Gobi desert, the adoption of strict European vehicle-emission standards, and the relocation of polluting factories to the suburbs. Parks and verges have been prettified, fetid canals cleaned, and public facilities are better than anywhere else in China – the public toilets just west of Tian’anmen Square are the most expensive in the country, costing more than a million yuan. Historic sites have been opened, renovated, or, it sometimes appears, invented. With lots of money washing around for prestige projects, and no geographical constraints or old city to preserve, Beijing has become an architect’s playground: Paul Andreu’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (nicknamed the “Egg”) and Rem Koolhaas’s double-z shaped CCTV tower (‘the Twisted Donut’) have joined Herzog and DeMeuron’s “Bird’s nest” Olympic Stadium as the latest in weird-looking, statement architecture.
The city gleams like never before, but what little character Beijing had is fast disappearing as old city blocks and hutongs are demolished. Now, the city’s main problems are the pressures of migration, pollution and traffic – car ownership has rocketed, and the streets are nearing gridlock.