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Forbidden City, Beijing | © Colin Capelle/Flickr
Forbidden City, Beijing | © Colin Capelle/Flickr
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7 Moments in History That Shaped Today's Beijing

Picture of Fran Lu
Updated: 24 October 2017
What’s your impression of Beijing? China’s political center, the Forbidden City, or the robust Gulou and Sanlitun, you might answer. But Beijing was not built in one day. Without the various big and small historical moments, it wouldn’t be the city we see today.

The founding of the Great Capital of Yuan

It was when Kublai Khan decided in 1264 to move his capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Khanbaliq, today’s Beijing, that the city officially became the political center of China. In 1271, Kublai proclaimed the beginning of the Great Yuan dynasty, and named Khanbaliq the “Great Capital”. The hutong area that represents Beijing’s folk culture today was built based on the city planning in Yuan dynasty. It was also under Kublai’s order that the Grand Canal was extended from southern China to Beijing.

The enthronement of the Yongle Emperor

When the Ming dynasty succeeded the Yuan dynasty, the capital of the new ruling dynasty of China was in Nanjing. It was after Zhu Di staged the revolt against his nephew Zhu Yunwen, the second emperor of Ming Dynasty, and rose to power as the Yongle Emperor, that the capital was moved back to his former princedom of Yan, which the emperor renamed Beijing. It was the Yongle Emperor’s idea to construct the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs. The classic 凸-shaped structure of the old Beijing city was also formed in the Ming dynasty.

The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City | © pixelflake / Flickr

The Second Opium War

If you are familiar with Beijing, you must know the Old Summer Palace, the one-time palace of the Qing dynasty emperors that was regretfully destroyed by the Anglo-French expedition force during the Second Opium War in 1860. While there are only ruins left now on what was once the Garden of Gardens, Beijing’s urban scenery is also left with Dong Jiao Min Xiang, a lane of western architecture mostly built in the last half of the 1800s, because of the Convention of Beijing signed in 1860 that compelled the Qing government to allow western embassies to be built on the lane.

The Dashuifa Site of the Old Summer Palace
The Dashuifa Site of the Old Summer Palace | © Caitriana Nicholson / Flickr

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949

It’s the story highlighted for all Chinese during their history classes – in 1949, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed by their Chairman Mao Zedong from atop Tian’anmen in front of crowds of supporters. That also marked the beginning of the Tian’anmen as the new China’s political center. Under a series of demolition and expansion works in the 1950s and after Mao’s death, the Tian’anmen Square was eventually transformed from a small imperial court to one of the world’s largest squares. The square has witnessed every significant political moment of China after 1949.

Mao Zedong proclaiming the establishment of the PRC in 1949 | © Hou Bo / WikiCommons

The Chinese 11th CPC Central Committee Third Plenary Session in 1978

Before you are scared away by the lengthy name of the Chinese political meeting, let me explain the one reason why you should read this paragraph: it is thanks to this session that it’s possible for hundreds of thousands of expats to live in China today. The session raises the curtain on a series of economic reforms in China, and ends an era when China shut itself off from external capitals. The fancy Guomao CBD, Sanlitun bar streets and jazz bars in Gulou and Houhai would just be a dream, without this session.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics

The Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube side by side are now two landmarks in central Beijing, and that’s because of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the event for which these two official stadiums – the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center – were built. They are now used for major sports events, music concerts and international meetings like the APEC summit.

Bird’s Nest & Water Cube | © Alberto Alerigi / WikiCommons

Beijing Overall Urban Planning (2004 – 2020)

The city of Beijing we see today is based on the structures established in Ming dynasty. Pitifully, the original Ming city walls and gate towers are only in our imaginations as most parts were demolished in the residential expansion in the 1950s, despite the disagreement of some scholars including the great Chinese architect Liang Sicheng.

In fact, the Second Ring Road was constructed exactly on the site of the bulldozed Ming city walls. The Beijing government eventually realized the importance of preserving the city’s history, with official terms written in the Overall Urban Planning (2004- 2020) that emphasize the protection of historical architecture and residential hutong areas.