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Ruins in the Old Summer Palace | © sporst / Flickr
Ruins in the Old Summer Palace | © sporst / Flickr
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15 Moments in History That Shaped Beijing

Picture of Julianna Tetreault
Updated: 11 December 2017
Beijing is a city rich in history that dates back roughly 3,000 years. The formation of the capital as we now know it has been a long, and typically arduous road, and can be broken down into 15 moments of history – continue reading for more on the events that shaped Beijing.

1045 BC: City of Ji

The City of Ji was the beginning of it all. Located in what is believed to have been the southwestern part of modern-day Beijing, the city was the first of its kind – walled and continuously inhabited. The City of Ji was a tremendous foot forward in the direction of what Beijing has become, and from 1045 BC on, held monumental importance to the city’s development.

473-221 BC: State of Yan

The State of Yan holds a special place in the history of Beijing. The state was, for most of its existence, a warring state under the capital of Ji. During 473 BC to 221 BC, the State of Yan was a part of the Zhou dynasty, and then part of the Qin Empire, until finally collapsing and becoming absorbed by Han. Today, modern Beijing is otherwise known as Yangjing, or the Yan capital, and was given these nicknames for the state that once was – artifacts from the State of Yan have been uncovered, and can be seen at the National Museum of China in Beijing, where they rest.

State of Yan artifact | © S M Lee / WikiCommons

1153-12:14: City of Zhongdu

Formally known as Yangjing, the City of Zhongdu was established in 1153 by the Jin emperor, Wanyan Liang, marking the first time ever that Beijing was a political capital to a major dynasty. During its more than 60 years as the capital, Zhongdu’s city walls were expanded, creating a total of 13 gates, and its population steadily increased. During this time, the city also introduced a new currency – the first paper money was issued. These advancements to the city were a huge boon to the creation of the Beijing we know now.

1214-1260: Genghis Khan invades and takes over

All of the efforts of the Jin dynasty were demolished when in 1214, Genghis Khan invaded the capital city. Mongol forces, led by Genghis Khan, invaded Zhongdu as an act of revenge, looting and burning the city to the ground during the siege. Genghis Khan renamed what was left of the pillaged city, Yangjing.

1279-1368: Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan

After Genghis Khan’s passing, his grandson, Kublai Khan visited Yangjing, the city that lies mostly in ruins. Upon seeing the destruction that Yangjing had gone through, Kublai Khan grew eager to reinvent the city, and make it his own. In 1264, the construction of Kublai Khan’s empire began, finalizing in 1285. During the construction, in 1271, Kublai Khan declared the beginning of the Yuan dynasty, and renamed the capital city Dadu. Eight years later, Beijing, known as Dadu at the time, became recognized for the first time in history as the capital of China. It was then that the city really began to be built out, and many of the structures created then – lakes, temples, drum towers, residential areas – became the foundation for the Beijing that exists now.

Gulou / Drum Tower | © Roman Boed / Flickr

1421-1644: Rise of the Ming Dynasty

In 1368, the Ming dynasty was founded by Zhu Yuanzhang. It was then that Zhu Yuanzhang and his general, Xu Da, captured the capital city of Dadu, renaming it Beiping. Years later, after the capital city was bestowed upon Zhu Yuanzhang’s son, Zhu Di, Beiping’s throne was passed down to Zhu Yunwen, Zhu Di’s nephew. Zhu Yunwen tried as he might to restrict his uncle’s power in the empire, but after a four-year civil war, led by the power-struggle, Zhu Di took over Beiping – it was then that Zhu Di declared himself as the Yongle Emperor. In 1403, Emperor Zhu Di, renamed the Yongle-ruled city, Beijing – the city has been called this since. From 1403 forward, Beijing experienced major reconstruction. Many of the landmarks that the modern Beijing knows today – the Temples of Heaven, Earth, Sun, and Moon, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, and walls – were constructed during this era.

1644-1912: Qing Dynasty

In 1644, the Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty, and seized the capital city of Beijing, marking the beginning of the Qing dynasty’s reign. During its ruling, the Qing dynasty left much of the city’s structure untouched, and instead invested in building beautiful architecture that still stands today – both the old and new Summer Palaces, the first academic library, Peking University. Also occurring under the Qing’s reign, was the official indoctrination of Beijing’s dialect, otherwise known as Beijing Mandarin, as the national language of China.

Ruins in the Old Summer Palace | © sporst / Flickr

1889-1901: The Boxer Rebellion shapes the Qing Dynasty

Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, an uprising sparked by militant ‘boxers,’ began to shake the Qing’s empire and everything it encompassed. The determined militant group succeeded in weakening the Qing dynasty, and in their efforts, became more receptive to Western influence – this chain of events tremendously reformed Beijing into the city it is now. Following the Boxer Rebellion, came the first modern bank of China, railways, an education system influenced by Western curriculum, the Beijing Police Academy, and many other institutions that are still pervasive in today’s society.

1912-1928: The Republic of China is born

The Republic of China was founded in 1912 by previously exiled Sun Yat-sen, which ultimately led to the fall of the Qing dynasty. Sun Yat-sen was elected as provisional president, but later passed the leadership onto Yuan Shikai, in exchange for help to abdicate the Qing’s reign. After all was said and done, Yuan Shikai remained president, and Sun-Yat-sen left Beijing. Upon returning to the capital city, Sun Yat-sen formed the Chinese Nationalist Party, and the first national assembly elections were held in response – the Nationalist Party won the majority. As the National Assembly worked towards ratifying the constitution, Yuan Shikai found that he could not cope with the mandatory sharing of power. This led to an eventual exiling of Sun Yat-sen, and the dissolving of the National Assembly.

1919: The May Fourth Movement

On May 4, 1919, some 3,000 students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to protest the betrayal of China by Western powers and the Anfu government that followed World War I. The students, infuriated, marched to the home of Cao Rulin, who at the time was the deputy foreign minister, and destroyed his residence. After, destroying the foreign minister’s home, the protest continued, and the students then brutally beat Zhang Zongxiang, who was a pro-Japanese diplomat. The May Fourth Movement sparked an uproar through 200 hundred Chinese cities and towns, and ultimately began student activism in Beijing.

1926: The March 18 Massacre

Just seven years after the May Fourth Movement, on March 18, 1926, another protest broke out, this one also beginning at the city’s center, Tiananmen. The March 18 Massacre was provoked by the signage of unequal treaties between China and foreign powers. Protestors on March 18 marched to the Beiyang Government, and it was there that commander Duan Qirui of the Beiyang Government, ordered the military to disband the angry citizens – this led to an outbreak of violence. The March 18 Massacre left 47 protestors dead, and over 200 injured.

三一八烈士墓 – Tomb of the March 18 Massacre victims -2013.03 | © rheins / WikiCommons

1949-present: The People’s Republic of China is born

On October 1, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was born – Mao Zedong stood in Tiananmen Square in front of thousands of residents, and declared the founding, marking a cultural turn in Beijing’s history. From that first day of October forward, Beijing has witnessed rapid urbanization, and political events that have molded China, as a whole, into the country it is today.

1960s: The Cultural Revolution

During the 1960s, China, with Beijing at the heart of it all, faced a Cultural Revolution sparked by Chairman Mao. The purpose of the campaign was to change China’s cultural and societal structure, but the efforts never truly got past the outraged residents of Beijing. With the introduction of the Cultural Revolution, came the introduction of the Red Guard, a group of middle school students who sought to protect Chairman Mao during the drawbacks his campaign faced – the Red Guard’s initiative spread, and many of China’s youth got involved. Ultimately, the Red Guard went from protectors of Mao to enemies of society, and were eventually forced out of Beijing into rural China for reeducation purposes on Chairman Mao’s behalf. It wasn’t long after that the Cultural Revolution came to an end, shaping China’s history forever.

1989: Tiananmen protests shake the world

Just 70 years after its initial student-led protest, Beijing witnessed another gathering of infuriated students in its square, now referred to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The post-Mao, anxiety-riddled tension between China’s Communist Party and its civilians sparked the one-and-a-half-month uproar – students from over 400 cities nationwide gathered and marched for democracy, and government stability. It was during this occupation of Tiananmen Square, on June 3, that the government took action to break the protestors up—students were said to have confronted soldiers, causing the deathly riot to begin. On June 4, the army was said to have controlled the square, and a death toll, consisting of soldiers and civilians, was reported to have reached the high hundreds – thousands of others in the area were wounded, while thousands more were detained. The Tiananmen Massacre proves to have been a pivotal moment in the long history of Beijing, and still effects the city today.

2008: Beijing hosts the Summer Olympics

The largest international event held in Beijing to date, the 2008 Summer Olympics was a massive boon to China’s capital city. The event drew leaders from 80 different countries to the city, as well as prompted over a million residents to volunteer, creating a closeness in Beijing. The preparations for the 2008 Summer Olympics also brought beautiful architecture to the ever-expanding capital, and promoted tourism to China. All-in-all, hosting the event proved to be a very positive step forward for the development of Beijing.

Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing | © Edward and Caroline / Flickr