Beijing (pronounced bay-JING) is a new city with old roots and the political and administrative heart of China. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, and propelled by the city’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing has taken its place as one of the twenty-first century’s great capitals.

Beijing has long been considered one of the great cities of the world. It is the capital city of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the political, cultural, and educational center of the county. Beijing, with an estimated 2008 population of 17.5 million, is the second largest city in China, just behind Shanghai, whose 2008 population was estimated to be near 19 million. Before 1949, Beijing was known as Peking to the Western world. The city has been known by a number of names and has seen many changes throughout its long history.

Beijing in Ancient Times

Ji City is the first recorded name for Beijing. In 1075 BCE King Wu of the Ji Kingdom declared the city his capital. Even by then there had been a settlement on the site for a thousand years.

The kingdom of Ji was replaced by the state of Yan as the local political power sometime during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). Ji City remained the name of the capital. The city continued to be an important strategic and administrative site for northern China’s rulers during the Qin (221–206 BCE) Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties.

During the Sui dynasty (589–618 CE), the city was known as Zhou and had a population of 130,000. Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) officials called the city You. During the Sui and Tang dynasties, the city developed as a major trade center while retaining its military significance in the north of China. Rulers called for the construction of palaces, military training facilities, and temples, including the forerunner of the existing Temple of the Origin of the Dharma, a Buddhist temple in modern-day Xuanwu district.

In 938 CE the city became the southern capital of the Liao dynasty (916–1125 CE), founded by the Qidan people of Inner Mongolia. The city was renamed Nanjing, or Yanjing (Southern Place).

In the early twelfth century, the Nuzhen, or Jurchen, people of Manchuria conquered the Liao and established the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1125–1234). In 1153 Emperor Wan Yanliang moved his capital from present-day Liaoning province to Nanjing and renamed it Zhongdu (Central Capital.) Under the Nuzhen the city became an important political capital for the first time. During this period the world-famous Lugou Qiao (Marco Polo Bridge) was built. The 235-meter (771-foot) stone-arch bridge still spans the Yongding River. The bridge is known for its 485 carved stone lions (no two alike) and as the site of the start of China’s war with Japan in 1937.

The city’s name was changed again in 1271. Khubilai Khan, founder of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), gave the city the Han name Dadu, or Ta-tu, (Grand Capital). The Mongols also called it Khanbaliq (City of the Great Khan). When the Mongols defeated the Southern Song in 1279, Dadu became the true political center of a unified China for the first time.

Massive reconstruction of the city began in 1267 and continued until 1293 as the Mongols reaffirmed their domination across China. The original site of Zhongdu was replaced by a larger rectangular area to the northeast in a beautiful lake region.

Construction of Dadu was accomplished in three major phases. The first phase was the raising of the imperial palaces, which was completed by 1274. The next phase included the building of mansions for the imperial princes, government offices, major temples, city walls and moats, and a system of streets for ordinary residences. The final phase was the digging of the Tonghui Canal, which connected the capital to the Grand Canal, a major transpiration and flood-control project.

The new city, with a population of about 500,000 people, was famous throughout the world for the splendor of its imperial buildings and its sophisticated temple art. This was a time when China was open to the world and welcomed traders and envoys from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Marco Polo visited the city and wrote admiringly of the magnificence of its palaces.

But Dadu was also a utilitarian city. It was rectangular, more than 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) in circumference, and laid out in a checkerboard pattern. Before this time, only the imperial family and high officials lived inside the city walls. After the reconstruction, ordinary people took up residence in neighborhoods organized by the hutong, the narrow streets or alleyways leading to the traditional courtyard homes so well known in later-day Beijing.

The city acquired another new name and new look during the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In 1368 Ming troops seized the city and renamed it Beiping (Northern Peace). Beginning in 1406 Emperor Yongle (1360–1424) directed reconstruction and expansion of the city. Over the next fifteen years, new walls, palaces, gardens, streets, and residential areas were built. It was during this construction phase that two of the city’s most famous landmarks were built: the Tiananmen Gate and Gugong (the Forbidden City).

In 1421 Yongle transferred his capital from Nanjing to Beiping, renamed the city Beijing (Northern Capital), and moved into the newly built Forbidden City imperial palace. He was the first of fourteen Ming emperors followed by ten Qing emperors to live in the palace. The surviving complex consists of 980 buildings with 8,707 rooms and covers 74 hectares (about 183 acres). Since 1924—when the last emperor, Pu Yi (1906–1967) was driven from the palace—the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum. It houses an extensive collection of artwork and artifacts from the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties and is one of the most popular tourists sites in the world. UNESCO listed it as World Heritage Cultural Site in 1987.

Almost immediately after the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1912) took power in China and seized the city, the name was changed to Shuntian Prefectural Capital. It was also called Jingshi. It remained China’s capital throughout the Qing period. Qing builders and landscape architects added open-air pavilions, huge imperial parks, and palaces, including the well-known Summer Palace, to the cityscape. During the Qing era the population of the city grew to more than 1 million people.

Beijing’s history as the imperial capital ended with the fall of the Qing and the rise of Republican China on 10 October 1911.

Twentieth Century

After the collapse of the Qing dynasty, Beijing suffered along with the rest of China as various warlords struggled for power. In 1928 Nanjing was officially made the capital of China, and Beijing was designated as the Beiping Special Municipality to emphasize that the warlord government in Beijing was not legitimate. In 1930 the municipality was renamed Beiping City (Northern Peace, or North Pacified).

The city was occupied by the Japanese throughout World War II, from 1937 to 1945. During the occupation the city reverted to its former name, Beijing. Following the war Beijing’s name was again changed to Beiping. In 1949, during the civil war between Nationalists and Communists, Communist forces peacefully entered Beijing. There, in Tiananmen Square, on 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital city.

Beijing became the heart of China in the twentieth century. Beijing was not only the seat of government but also a hotbed of political activity. It was the center of Red Guard activity during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Beijing Spring and Democracy Wall movements of the 1970s, and the Tiananmen Square protests of the 1980s. President Richard Nixon visited the city in 1972, followed by other heads of state, sports teams from the around the world, and foreign businesses and investors. For good or bad, Beijing became China’s face to the world.

By the end of the twentieth century, Beijing had been transformed, as had most of China. The economic reforms begun in the 1980s spurred rapid economic growth in Beijing. Farmland surrounding the city was incorporated and developed into housing and commercial areas, new expressways and roads crisscrossed the city, and new commercial high-rises transformed the skyline. Most parts of the old city were by then gone.

Twenty-First Century

Many new construction and infrastructure projects were triggered by the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Visitors to Beijing saw a modern, thriving metropolis as the city opened to the world.

At the end of 2008, Beijing’s population was estimated at 17.5 people, with 12.1 million registered as official residents and 5.5 million designated as floating population. More than 96 percent of Beijing’s citizens are Han people. The majority of people speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin. Mandarin cuisine is the most popular cooking style in the city.

Beijing is in northern China, at 39°54? N (roughly along the same latitude as Atlantic City, New Jersey) and 116°23? E. The standard time zone for Beijing is Greenwich Mean Time +8.

Beijing occupies an area of 16,801 square kilometers (about 6,490 square miles), about the size of the entire state of Hawaii. (The land area of Los Angeles, by comparison, is about 489 square miles.) Beijing stretches 160 kilometers (about 99 miles) from east to west and more than 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) from north to south, about the distance between New York City and Philadelphia.

The city of Beijing is an independently administered municipal district, one of four in China. (The other three are Chongqing, Tianjin, and Shanghai.) Municipal districts are equivalent to provinces in the administrative divisions of the PRC. The greater Beijing area encompasses eighteen districts and counties, with Dongcheng, Xicheng, Xuanwu, Chongwen, Chaoyang, Haidian, Fengtai, and Shijingsha in the inner suburbs; and Fangsha, Mentougou, Changping, Tongxian, Shunyi, Daxing, Huairou, Miyun, Pinggu, and Yisanqing in the outer suburbs.

According to many travel companies, the top ten tourist attractions in and around Beijing are the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs, the hutong tour, the Lama Temple, Beihai Park, and the Capital Museum. The National Stadium (the bird nest), built for the 2008 Olympics, is one of the city’s newest attractions.

But like all big cities in the early twenty-first century, Beijing faces many challenges. Affordable housing and a polluted environment are two major problems the city must solve in the coming years. The wave of commercial and industrial construction has meant the demolition of many of the traditional hutong neighborhoods, forcing people to find housing. The ongoing construction; a huge increase in the number of private cars; the common use of coal-fired boilers and furnaces; the growth of industry, especially small factories that generally do not monitor waste emissions; and the emissions from numerous heavy trucks transporting goods in, out, and around the city have all contributed to Beijing’s polluted air.

City and state officials’ plans for the city’s future include cleaning up the environment, controlling development, and restricting population growth and density. The city’s unique history and status make its future a high priority for the Chinese.

Further Reading

Belsky, R. (2005). Localities at the center: Native place, space and power in late imperial Beijing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

China Internet Information Center. (n.d.). Beijing: A guide to China’s capital city. Retrieved December 30, 2008, from

China International Travel Service. (2004). Beijing highlights. Retrieved December 30, 2008, from

Dong, Madeleine Yue. (2003). Republican Beijing: The city and its histories. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kirk, M. (Ed.). (2009). China by numbers 2009. Hong Kong: China Economic Review Publishing.

Li, Lillian M., Dray-Vovey, A. J., & Kong, Haili. (2007). Beijing from imperial city to Olympic city. New York: Palgrave MacMillian.

Li Zhang. (2001). Strangers in the city: Reconfigurations of space, power, and social networks within China’s floating population. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wu Hung. (2005). Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the creation of political space. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Xu Cheng Bei. (2001). Old Beijing: In the shadow of the imperial throne. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Source: The Editors. (2009). Beijing. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 164–169. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A Beijing street scene, 2001. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Bicyclists traverse a street in Beijing. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Ice skating at Beihai Park, Beijing. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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