The Central Axis of Beijing should blaze a trail of urban renovation to reflect an avant-garde vision of fresh symbolic value to both China and the world as a whole.
Chinese and foreigners playing games at the Bell Tower and Drum Tower Square in Beijing on August 23, 2017.
“While cities change over the course of history, local habits resist the forces that tend to transform them,” French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed. Every city is a complex ecosystem; a superposition of different strata amid constant readjustment. Urban axes may be seen as symbolic representations of history’s perpetual motion – as a reflection of memory’s constant transformation. But memory may be partially preserved, totally erased, or slowly recreated, often for political purposes, as materialized in the construction of symbolic axes. Beijing is a case in point.
The History of the Central Axis of Beijing
Beijing’s urban planning is based on Kao Gong Ji, or Record of Trades, an encyclopedia of science and technology compiled during the Zhou Dynasty (1045-256 B.C.) and later included in The Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), one of the Confucian classics. This ancient work elaborates on the principles of ideal planning for capital cities, embodied in an orthogonal nine-square plan in an urban layout, featuring a main north-south axis bisected by an east-west axis. The inner square thus formed contains administrative buildings. In Beijing’s case, it was the Forbidden City, the imperial palace complex, located at the center of the city’s north-south axis. Known as the Central Axis of Beijing, it extends north of the Forbidden City – the emperor’s earthly abode – to the Temple of the Earth, and south of that central node to the Temple of Heaven. Here, the Middle Kingdom’s supreme ruler, in his capacity as Son of Heaven, performed the country’s most crucial rituals. The Central Axis of Beijing thus connected the emperor’s earthly and celestial domains, and were thus imbued with immense cosmological significance.
Buildings and sites of high historical value line the axis. From north to south can be seen the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, Jingshan Park, the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square, Qianmen’s Dashilan Street, and Yongding Gate.
Throughout its history, the Central Axis has witnessed several rounds of urban development. First built in 1417, Tian’anmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace), originally named Chengtianmen (Gate of Accepting Heavenly Mandate), was destroyed several times. During its reconstruction in 1651, it was renamed Tian’anmen. As researcher Wang Jun explains in his book Evolutionary Record of Beijing (Chengji), by 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, Tian’anmen Square had quadrupled in size.
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games that were held in Beijing, new buildings constructed along this axis included the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), colloquially known as the Giant Egg. The axis was also extended northwards to where the Olympic Village now stands.
In addition to being the site of historical buildings of invaluable heritage, the Central Axis of Beijing also reflects the Chinese capital’s identity and its evolution.
Although impressive by virtue of its historical and architectural significance, the Central Axis is not to be pigeonholed merely as a museum. Public areas must be designed with its residents in mind. “A monument aims to bring to life a past swallowed up in time,” French architectural and urban historian and theorist Françoise Choay once said.
I often take long walks at dawn along Beijing’s Central Axis. I imagine the historical thunder emanating from the Drum Tower in earlier times, and from the summit of Jingshan Park. I glory in the magnificent vista of the Forbidden City as the capital awakes to the bustle of a new day.
I still remember from my first year in Beijing how I would see senior citizens with their caged birds in Jingshan Park. It was satisfying to observe that everyday people had successfully reclaimed emblematic sites that were once preserved for the emperor and his imperial court.
During my walks by the Drum Tower, I would invariably see children playing in the main square, hear the clamor of hutong residents playing cards, and admire the grace of scarf-dancing women. Locals and tourists, young and old, intermingled in a warm ambience of amity and conviviality against the historical backdrop of Beijing’s Central Axis.
Such vignettes have become synonymous with the city – a kind of intangible heritage. When asked about this historical axis, and Beijing in general, these anecdotes reflecting the city’s identity naturally come to mind.
Identity is often linked to memory. How, then, can memories of the Central Axis be preserved, or even reinvented, if it is unable to respond to the most pressing issues of our times? The Central Axis of Beijing should blaze a trail of urban renovation to reflect an avant-garde vision of fresh symbolic value to both China and the world as a whole.
The Central Axis Meets the 21st Century
When in Beijing or Paris, I often wonder if these world-famous cities will retain their present appeal in years to come, or if they will become, like others, simply reflections of their past glory.
When looking at the historical axis of Paris linking the Louvre to La Défense, what greets my eyes is a road crammed with cars – also a common sight in Beijing. The car is a symbol of the 20th century, yet is already on the road to obsolescence. We all know about the problems relating to pollution, safety, and public space that motor vehicles create in the city.
If we are to reduce, or better still, eradicate them, the Central Axis of Beijing, along with the Axis of Paris, must advance to the forefront of climatic and social challenges in the 21st century. We both have a duty to set an example. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Paris City Hall temporarily transformed the Rue de Rivoli into a cycling lane to enable transportation other than by car or on the metro. That initiative has since become permanent; the Rue de Rivoli is now one of the city’s main cycling axes – an advance that other world cities could emulate.
As I stroll along the Central Axis of Beijing, I see there are already improvements. However, I can’t help but imagine other areas that could be transformed into parks as verdant as Jingshan Park, where birds sing and children play while visitors take happy snaps. I also imagine hearing people remark, “Do you remember when this avenue was noisy, crowded, and fenced off? It’s so much better now!” Meanwhile others elsewhere in the world might think: “Why not do what Beijing has done?”
GEORGIES SROUR is a French urban planner. He studied architecture in Beijing, and sinology and international relations in Paris.