Chinese history

Palaces, pavilions and power

Chinese history

This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine
Geoff Crothall traces the origins of previous capitals which were located at the site of modern Beijing, and assesses their influence on the modern city.

The city we know today as Beijing has appeared in many guises during its two thousand year history. Not always located on its present site, it only became Beijing (Northern Capital) in 1403 when the Ming Dynasty capital was moved from southern China. It has been a focal point of dynastic struggle since the Warring States Period (476 - 222BC), suffering repeated invasion, destruction and rebuilding. A process of renewal, which although resulting in the destruction of many architectural treasures, produced some of the finest cities the world has seen. Designs incorporating traditional ideas with new innovations, all tailored to survival in a peculiarly inhospitable environment, produced classical cities with an unique character.

The most celebrated of all Beijing's predecessors was Dadu (Grand Capital), of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, praised by Marco Polo as 'standing truly unparalleled among the cities of the World' (see map). It is considered by many to be closest to the ideal of a traditional Chinese capital, but one which included many new innovations, especially in the landscaping of the inner, imperial city. Guidelines for the construction of an imperial Chinese capital can be traced back to the Zhou Dynasty 'Code of Rites', in which the city layout is designed to symbolise the hierarchical structure of imperial power.

Site of Beijing
The geographical setting for Dadu and later Beijing

Divining the axis of power

According to the code, an Emperor should build his capital on the Earth's central meridian which can be divined through chronological observation of the sun and stars. This north-south meridian should form the city's central axis. In order to demonstrate the absolute power of the Mongol Emperors, Dadu's meridian passed through the Throne Room of the Grand Interior (predecessor of the Forbidden City) and was mapped out by the ceremonial ramp leading up to the Throne Room over which the Emperor alone could travel. The symmetrical development of buildings in the Grand Interior and Outer City re-enforcing the Wei Wo Du Zun (Venerate only I alone) doctrine of the Chinese Emperors.

A capital should have two walls, an inner wall to protect the Emperor and an outer wall to protect the people. In the case of Dadu, the Emperor was doubly protected, by the walls of the Grand Interior and the Imperial (Inner) Wall, enclosing the royal parks and gardens. The code states that the outer City Wall should be a nine Ii (4.5 km) square with three gates on each side. However, due to building difficulties, the eastern wall had to be moved closer to the central meridian and the northern wall only had two gates.

As required, broad, perfectly straight boulevards were built from each gate. The blocks created by these avenues were further divided into a horizontal-vertical pattern of streets and lanes. The road widths were determined by their position in the city's hierarchy. In order to receive the optimal amount of sunshine and as protection against the cold winter winds, emphasis was placed on building roads running west to east, set very close together, with only a few lanes running north to south. This pattern can still be seen today in Dongcheng District.

Dadu's innovative buildings

Plan of Dadu

The code required that the Emperor dispose of public buildings with propriety. This meant the construction (relative to the Imperial throne) of government offices to the fore, markets to the rear, the Imperial Ancestral Temple to the left and the Altar to the God of the Land to the right. These instructions were carried out to the letter in Dadu, with the two temples equidistant from the central meridian. Finally, a central pavilion was built on the meridian's mid-point, representing the pivot of the city's four quarters.

In addition to conforming to nearly all the stipulations contained in the 'Code of Rights' chapter on construction, the city of Dadu introduced many new architectural ideas, most notably within the Imperial City. The city was built up around a small area of lakes and palaces some five kilometers to the north-east of the old Jin Dynasty capital of Zhongdu. These palaces, specifically Guanghandian (The Moon Palace) on Qionghua Island (today's White Dagoba Hill) were substantially renovated before construction of the wider city. The Grand Interior was built on the south-eastern shore of today's Beihai, with the smaller residential compounds of the Queen Mother and Crown Prince on the western shore. The compounds were linked across the lake by two wooden bridges emanating from a small island to the south of Qionghua (today's Circular City). To the north of the Grand Interior, a parkland sanctuary for rare birds was established. In all, a colourful, three dimensional landscape was created to complement the geometrical regularity of the outer city.

Although the relocation of the Jin Dynasty capital Zhongdu to the Yuan Dynasty's Dadu was over a relatively short distance, it was of great significance in dealing with the perennial problem of water supply. Zhongdu's water came from the small 'Lotus Flower Pool' and directly from the Yongding River to the southwest of the city. However, the Yongding's rate of flow was unpredictable and uncontrollable, despite a sophisticated series of dams. Eventually the canal linking Zhongdu to the Yongding silted up and became useless. With the move to the north-east, the city was able to utilise the newly opened head waters of the Gaoliang River at Wengshan Lake near the foot of the Western Hills. This constant supply was canalised into a large reservoir in the north of the city. From here it travelled down the outside of the East Imperial Wall, turning south-east along Boatdeck Lane (near today's railway station) before flowing along the Tonghui Canal and into the Lu River. Thus, grain ships travelling from central China along the Grand Canal could anchor right next to Dadu's market place.

Centuries later in 1751, the Emperor Qianlong ordered Wengshan Lake to be widened, but decreed that the Temple to the Dragon King, originally on the eastern shore be preserved on a small island. The island was linked to the shore by a seventeen arch bridge and the lake became known as Kunming Lake, on whose shores the Empress Dowager would eventually order the New Summer Palace to be built, seen by most visitors to Beijing. Until Liberation in 1949, the lake remained Beijing's only source of fresh water.

The design principles of Dadu remained intact throughout most of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In fact, the city's north-south axis was strengthened during the Ming by the rebuilding of the Forbidden City in the austerely symmetrical pattern familiar today. In addition, the Ming built an artificial hill (Jingshan) to the rear of the Forbidden City, it's central peak representing the city's new pivot, created by the reduction of the northern wall and the extension of the southern wall to a line through today's Qianmen. This pivot was directly above the site of Dadu's Yanchunge (Pavilion for the Prolonging of Spring), the intention being to symbolically bury the previous dynasty. The construction of a secondary outer wall got underway in 1553 but funds ran out in 1564 after the completion of the southern sector. This formation remained intact until Liberation.

Beijing and its predecessors

During the Warring States Period (476-222BCE) the city was known as Ji, the capital of Yan, one of the Seven Powers. Ji was located between the White Cloud Temple and Guanganmen in southwest present day Bijing.

Between the Qin and Tang dynasties (221BCE-907) the city was, in the main, known as Youzhou and acted as a provincial or district capital. These diagrams show different sites of the capital in relation to the dotted outline of Dadu and the Beijing of late Ming and Qing periods.

Nanjing, Capital of the Liao Dynasty 916-1115 Beiping, so named after capture by Ming General Xuda 1368-1403
Zhongdum capital of the Jin Dynasty 1115-1215 Beijing, Capital of early and middle Ming Dynasty 1403-1553
Dadu, Capital of the Yuan Dynasty 1267-1367 Beijing, Capital of China from the middle to the end of the Qing 1564-1911

After 1949, the principles and ideology of city planning underwent a radical change. Combined with the increasing population and new economic growth, this led to the most rapid and drastic transformation in Beijing's long history. The role of Beijing in the eyes of the Communist Party planners was very different from that of the traditional feudal capital. No longer was it to be a symbol of imperial oligarchy but rather a productive, socialist capital.

The main aim of the planners was to put an end to what they saw as Beijing's parasitic, consumer orientated economy. To this end, giant industrial plants were established in the suburbs along with their associated workers' villages. By 1955, industrial production had risen to nine times its 1949 level. The process continues today, with the establishment of Beijing's so-called Silicon Valley in the District of Haidian. Apart from the rapid physical expansion and renewal of the city, perhaps the most striking post-1949 structural change has been the demolition of the city walls. The walls were replaced by a ring-road, in an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion. Beijing is still congested, while the ring-roads remain hardly used. Several architects (most notably Liang Sicheng) who put forward alternative plans which would have preserved the city walls and 'pailous', were unfortunately ignored amidst the zeal of reconstruction.

Old City Walls
A corner of the old Beijing City Wall in the 1940s, a camel train arriving in snow (Hedda Horrison)

Despite these radical changes, the concept of city as symbol was not completely abandoned after 1949. The most visible example of political symbolism has been the redevelopment of the Gate of Heavenly Peace from a claustrophobic, Qing Dynasty vista into the world's largest public square, Tiananmen. Designed to represent a fresh wind blowing away the restrictions of the feudal past, it is now used as a symbol of national unity. Although the city's north-south meridian has been superseded by the vast west-east axis of the Avenue of Everlasting Peace, the meridian is still very evident, running through the Bell Tower and the centre of the Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, where Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall was built in 1977, indicating that the Code of Rites had not entirely lost its influence.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 : an extract from SACU's magazine China Now 121, Page 10, June 1987

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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