Exploring Beijing’s Historical Wonders

By staff reporter ZHANG LI


IN 1982, the concept of National Historical and Cultural Cities was formally put forward by the Chinese government. Its purpose was to protect political, economic, and cultural cities, and cultural relics. By October 2015, 127 cities were listed as national historical and cultural cities. Beijing, capital of China, was included in the first batch nominated in 1982.


Beijing is site of six world cultural heritage sites – the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs, the “Peking Man” site at Zhoukoudian, and the Summer Palace – rendering the city with the largest number of world cultural heritage sites.


Old Beijing city consisted of the Forbidden City, the Imperial City, the inner city, and the outer city. The Forbidden City was the residence of the royal families of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and is known as the “Palace Museum” today. The Imperial City sat in-between the Forbidden City and inner city. It was an extension of the Forbidden City, providing various services to the imperial family in the Forbidden City, including security. It extended to Nanheyan Street to the east, Fuyou Street to the west, Tian’anmen to the south and Di’anmen to the north. Tian’anmen was also the front entrance to the Forbidden City. During large-scale city reconstruction the city walls of the Imperial City were almost all torn down. Today’s Imperial City Wall Relics Park is an outdoor museum built on the ruins of the eastern walls of the Imperial City. 


The inner city is also called Jingcheng (capital city). Though the city wall no longer exists, the names of the nine city gates are retained in the station names of today’s Line 2 of the Beijing Subway that traces the inner city wall – those with a suffix men (gate). The inner city is divided into four, namely east, west, south, and north parts, so the inner city is also called “Sijiucheng (four-nine city). The area south of the inner city is called the outer city. When Manchurians established the Qing Dynasty and made Beijing the capital, they moved their family members, who previously lived in Northeast China, to Beijing. The Qing government ordered residents of the inner city to vacate their homes, so that Manchurians might live there, and move to the outer city, which had no complete city wall. It was home to ordinary people with a lust for life, who often frequented taverns and teahouses.


Beijing became characterized by the different populations that lived in its four quarters: the rich in the east, the upper class in west, the lower class in the south, and the poor in the north. These distinctions were gradually formed during the Ming and Qing dynasties, showing the economic development in different parts of Beijing at that time. In old Beijing, a rich person wore hats made by Ma Ju Yuan, shoes cobbled by Nei Lian Sheng, and silk clothes sewn by Rui Fu Xiang – all time-honored brands of good reputation. His purse would be full of notes from the four big private banks located along Dongsi Street, the financial street in old Beijing during the Qing Dynasty.


The upper class in old Beijing were members of the imperial family. During the Qing Dynasty, many princes and Manchu nobles gathered in the Shichahai area, which consists of three lakes, namely Qianhai, Xihai, and Houhai. Around the lakes are several former royal mansions and gardens. Qianhai is composed of Beihai (north lake), Zhonghai (middle lake), and Nanhai (south lake), and sits on the western edge of the Forbidden City. The area around Qianhai was a large elegant imperial garden called Xiyuan (west garden). Beihai has been transformed into a park, and Nanhai and Zhonghai are connected and known as Zhongnanhai today. The area serves as the administrative center for the State Council of China and the Central Military Commission, and it is also a symbol of power. During the period from 1977 to 1985, part of Zhongnanhai was opened to the public. In 2014, when American President Obama visited China, President Xi Jinping took him on an evening tour of Zhongnanhai, and they held in-depth talks at Yingtai.


People who lived in the south of the city were mostly lower class, such as sidewalk artists or street vendors. People in the north were mostly laborers. Conditions in the south and north of the city were hardly comparable to life in its east and west.


Today, Beijing has fundamentally transformed. The east is the business district with Guomao at its center. The west houses many central government departments and institutions. The north has many universities and colleges, while the south mainly sees the development of new cultural industries such as promotion of folklore, entertainment, and media.


The ancient city walls are the cultural relics of Beijing. Walls of courtyard houses, too, bear the marks of time and represent local history and culture.


The red wall is a symbol of the imperial family. The Forbidden City is a building complex featuring red walls and yellow glazed tiles. The tall red walls are beautiful and imposing. After the Tang Dynasty (618-907), yellow was the color exclusively for the use of the imperial family. Ordinary people, even high officials and nobles, were not allowed to include yellow in their buildings. The color red is a traditional Chinese element, symbolizing auspiciousness, richness, and honor, as well as a happy life.


The existing Ming City Wall Relics in Beijing have a history of over 580 years, but only 1.5 km of the wall is still standing today. The Southeast Corner Tower, as the largest of its kind preserved in China, is a major state-protected historical site.


The Echo Wall that surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven at the Temple of Heaven has a height of 3.7 meters and a perimeter of 205 meters. The wall is hermetically laid with fine bricks and topped with blue glazed tiles. It was built according to the principle of refraction of sound waves. If a person faces the wall and speaks, the sound resonates 100 to 200 meters away. Standing on the Triple Sound Stone at the center of the circled wall and clapping your hands will produce three loud echoes.


Screen walls are typically found on the inner side of the entrance gate in Chinese courtyards and function as shelters that constitute the view at the gate. Most screen walls feature beautiful decorations, such as carvings. The most famous screen wall in Beijing is the Nine-dragon Wall in Beihai Park.


There are three large nine-dragon walls in China, that in Beihai Park was built with colorful glazed bricks and features curling dragons carved into the north and south sides of the wall, nine dragons on each. They strike different poses and have vivid expressions. If you study the wall, you will find a total 635 dragons woven into the design. The Nine-dragon Wall in the Forbidden City sits in front of the Hall of Imperial Supremacy, a major building of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity complex. The Hall of Imperial Supremacy is where Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) lived after he abdicated. It is said that Emperor Qianlong liked the Nine-dragon Wall in the Beihai Park so much that he built a similar one in front of the Gate of Imperial Supremacy for his personal viewing pleasure.


As the ancient capital of six dynasties, Beijing boasts many scenic spots and historical sites scattered around the city. Walk along any alley, and you will likely come across an old mansion that will pique your interest in the history and story behind it. If you are visiting Beijing for the first time, the well-known imperial building complexes such as the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and the Ming Tombs are must-sees. If you would like to explore the culture and history of the city further, many other historical sites are recommended.