Anyone who has admired old black-and-white photographs of Beijing’s magnificent city walls, wandered through its disappearing hutongs, or read the stirring memoirs of those who lived in this great city a century ago, would share the sentiments of Edmund N. Bacon, the renowned American City planner, when he wrote that, very possibly, ‘the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth of Peking’. Bacon was especially influenced by the imposing city walls and Forbidden City, which he said ‘taught me that city planning is about movement through space, an architectural sequence of sensors and stimuli, up and down, light and dark, colour and rhythm’. It is against this enduring and magnificent backdrop that Beijing, with its strikingly modern skyline today, continues to leave an indelible impression on visitors.
The Chinese capital is a magnet for fortune-seekers. One quarter of its 16 million citizens are classed as expats “temporary residents,” drawn from all over the nation to jobs created by Beijing’s booming economy. At least 100,000 foreigners also call Beijing home.
New ideas, styles, food, music and art pour into the city, where traditional lifestyles compete with this cosmopolitan dynamism.
Beijing was traditionally characterized by these narrow alleys known as hutong. Most have made way for wider streets and new buildings; those that remain are increasingly prized by both residents and tourists.
Beijing’s traditional courtyards (siheyuan) still house many of the city’s residents within the Second Ring Road. Many of the siheyuan consist of four rooms around a central yard.
Much of old Beijing has been lost in the city’s rush for growth and development. But pockets of traditional streets, buildings and lifestyles can still be found, especially around the Shichahai area north of Beihai.
The Beijing of old
Numerous settlements have existed on or near the site of present-day Beijing for the past 3,000 years. The early settlers were not Han Chinese but tribes from the north. The Khitan, the Jurchen, and the Mongols all had their capitals here, each ruler building on the foundations of the previous one.
The Ming Emperor Yongle expanded the city beyond the boundaries of the grand Mongol capital. He constructed the magnificent Forbidden City and the Temple of heaven, the best remaining example of religious architecture in China. The Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty subsequently added to the grandeur of the Forbidden City and greatly contributed to the city’s architectural heritage – many of the historical buildings we see today date back to that golden period.
The city went into a period of decline following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1991, as it came under the rule of a string of marauding warlord governments and then the Japanese during the Second World War. The Japanese withdrew from China in 1945 after surrendering to Allied Forces, opening the way for the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government to resume a bitter civil war with the Communists. The KMT was defeated and the victorious Red Army marched into Beijing. The city become the capital of New China on October 1, 1949, when the leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Chairman Mao Zedong, was declared the rostrum of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, ‘The Chinese people have stood up!’ Over the next few decades, the city underwent wrenching changes. Ancient structures made way for bland, box-like Soviet-style architecture and the city walls were torn down to make way for a new ring road, a subway, and a massive underground bomb shelter. The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was the most destructive period of all; rampaging Red Guards damaged temples and historical sites beyond repair. A sea of change came when the passing of Chairman Mao in 1976.
Deng Xiaoping, an early member of the Communist Party and a veteran of the epic Long March, emerged as the new song man. Under his leadership, economic development took precedence and vast measures were implemented to effect a new growth era.