By turns brash, gaudy, elegant, charming, filthy and historic, the Chinese capital of Beijing leaves an indelible impression on each and every traveller who passes through – this city is never, ever, ever dull. It has been this way for centuries: for a full millennium, the drama of China’s imperial history was played out here, with the emperor enthroned at the centre of the Chinese universe in the Forbidden City, now one of Asia’s most famous draws. Beijing was, according to some accounts, the first city in the world to hit a population of one million; as such, despite the setbacks which plagued the first decades of communist control, it should come as little surprise to see the remote control of urbanity stuck on permanent fast-forward here. Crisscrossed by freeways, spiked with high-rises and soaked in neon, this vivid metropolis is China at its most dynamic.

First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population of 21 million are housed, and the eight-lane freeways that slice it up. It’s a notion that’s reinforced on closer acquaintance, from the magnificent Forbidden City, with its stunning wealth of treasures, the concrete desert of Tian’anmen Square and the gargantuan buildings of the modern executive around it, to the rank after rank of office complexes that line its mammoth roads. Outside the centre, the scale becomes more manageable, with parks, narrow alleyways and ancient sites such as the Yonghe Gong, the Observatory and, most magnificent of all, the Temple of Heaven, offering respite from the city’s oppressive orderliness and rampant reconstruction. In the suburbs beyond, the two summer palaces and the Western Hills have been favoured retreats since imperial times. Unexpectedly, some of the country’s most pleasant scenic spots also lie within the scope of a day-trip, and, just to the north of the city, another of the world’s most famous sights, the long and lonely Great Wall, winds between mountaintops.

Beijing is an invaders’ city, the capital of oppressive foreign dynasties – the Manchu and the Mongols – and of a dynasty with a foreign ideology – the Communists. As such, it has assimilated a lot of outside influence, and today has an international flavour reflecting its position as the capital of a major commercial power. As the front line of China’s grapple with modernity, it is being ripped up and rebuilt at a furious pace – attested by the cranes that skewer the skyline and the character “demolish” (拆, chāi) painted on old buildings. Students in the latest fashions while away their time in internet cafés, hip-hop has overtaken the clubs, businessmen are never without their laptops and schoolkids carry mobile phones in their lunchboxes. Rising incomes have led not just to a brash consumer-capitalist society that Westerners will feel very familiar with, but also to a revival of older Chinese culture – witness the re-emergence of the teahouse as a genteel meeting place and the interest in imperial cuisine. In the evening, you’ll see large groups of the older generation performing the yangkou (loyalty dance), Chairman Mao’s favourite dance once universally learned, and in the hutongs, the city’s twisted grey stone alleyways, men sit with their pet birds and pipes as they always have done.

Brief history

It was in Tian’anmen, on October 1, 1949, that Chairman Mao Zedong hoisted the red flag to proclaim officially the foundation of the People’s Republic. He told the crowds that the Chinese had at last stood up, and defined liberation as the final culmination of a 150-year fight against foreign exploitation. The claim, perhaps, was modest. Beijing’s recorded history goes back a little over three millennia, to beginnings as a trading centre for Mongols, Koreans and local Chinese tribes. Its predominance, however, dates to the mid-thirteenth century, and the formation of Mongol China under Genghis and later Kublai Khan.

The Khans

It was Kublai who took control of the city in 1264, and who properly established it as a capital – then named Khanbalik – replacing the earlier power centres of Luoyang and Xi’an. Marco Polo visited him here, working for a while in the city, and was clearly impressed with the level of sophistication; he observed in The Travels:

So great a number of houses and of people, no man could tell the number. I believe there is no place in the world to which so many merchants come, and dearer things, and of greater value and more strange, come into this town from all sides than to any city in the world.

The wealth came from the city’s position on the Silk Road, and Polo described “over a thousand carts loaded with silk” arriving “almost each day”, ready for the journey west out of China. And it set a precedent in terms of style and grandeur for the Khans, later known as emperors, with Kublai building himself a palace of astonishing proportions, walled on all sides and approached by great marble stairways.

The Ming dynasty

With the accession of the Ming dynasty, who defeated the Mongols in 1368, the capital temporarily shifted to present-day Nanjing, but Yongle, the second Ming emperor, returned, building around him prototypes of the city’s two greatest monuments – the Imperial Palace and Temple of Heaven. It was in Yongle’s reign, too, that the basic city plan took shape, rigidly symmetrical, extending in squares and rectangles from the palace and inner-city grid to the suburbs, much as it is today.

The Qing dynasty

Subsequent, post-Ming history is dominated by the rise and eventual collapse of the Manchus, northerners who ruled China as the Qing dynasty from 1644 to the beginning of the twentieth century. Beijing, as the Manchu capital, was at its most prosperous in the first half of the eighteenth century, the period in which the Qing constructed the legendary Summer Palace – the world’s most extraordinary royal garden, with two hundred pavilions, temples and palaces, and immense artificial lakes and hills – to the north of the city. With the central Imperial Palace, this was the focus of endowment and the symbol of Chinese wealth and power. However, in 1860, the Opium Wars brought British and French troops to the walls of the capital, and the Summer Palace was first looted and then razed to the ground by the British.

Foreign empires arrive

While the imperial court lived apart, within what was essentially a separate walled city, conditions for the civilian population, in the capital’s suburbs, were starkly different. Kang Youwei, a Cantonese political reformer visiting in 1895, described this dual world:

No matter where you look, the place is covered with beggars. The homeless and the old, the crippled and the sick with no one to care for them, fall dead on the roads. This happens every day. And the coaches of the great officials rumble past them continuously.

The indifference, rooted according to Kang in officials throughout the city, spread from the top down. From 1884, using funds meant for the modernization of the nation’s navy, the Empress Dowager Cixi had begun building a new Summer Palace of her own. The empress’s project was really the last grand gesture of imperial architecture and patronage – and like its model was also badly burned by foreign troops in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. By this time, with successive waves of occupation by foreign troops, the empire and the imperial capital were near collapse. The Manchus abdicated in 1911, leaving the Northern Capital to be ruled by warlords. In 1928, it came under the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang, who moved the national capital south to Nanjing. Renamed Beiping, Beijing fell into temporary decline, even losing its status as provincial capital to Tianjin. It became capital once more after being seized by the Japanese in 1939, and at the end of World War II, the city was controlled by an alliance of Guomindang troops and American marines.

The communist era

The Communists took Beijing in January 1949, nine months before Chiang Kai-shek’s flight to Taiwan assured final victory. The rebuilding of the capital was an early priority, since the city that Mao Zedong inherited for the Chinese people was in most ways primitive. Imperial laws had banned the building of houses higher than the official buildings and palaces, so virtually nothing was more than one storey high. The new plans aimed to reverse this but retain the city’s sense of ordered planning, with Tian’anmen Square at its heart – unsurprisingly, the communists’ initial inspiration was Soviet, with an emphasis on heavy industry and poor-quality high-rise housing programmes.

In the zest to be free from the past, much of Old Beijing was destroyed, or co-opted: the Temple of Cultivated Wisdom became a wire factory and the Temple of the God of Fire produced electric lightbulbs. In the 1940s, there were 8000 temples and monuments in the city; by the 1960s, there were only around 150. Even the city walls and gates, relics mostly of the Ming era, were pulled down and their place taken by ring roads and avenues.

More destruction was to follow during the Cultural Revolution. Under Mao’s guidance, Beijing’s students organized themselves into a political militia – the Red Guards – who were set loose to erase symbols of previous regimes, capitalism and the Soviet Union; few of the capital’s remaining ancient buildings escaped desecration. Things improved with the death of Mao and the accession of pragmatic Deng Xiaoping and his fellow moderates, who embraced capitalism – though not, as shown by the massacre at Tian’anmen Square and the surrounding events of 1989, freedom.

Recent history

In 2008 Beijing succeeded in putting on a spectacular, if politicized, Olympic Games. This was the city’s grand coming out party, and no expense was spared to show that the capital – and China – could hold its own on the world stage. The city’s infrastructure was vastly upgraded, a process which continues today: in the past few years, six new subway lines have opened, along with a new airport terminal and a light-rail system. Some US$12bn has been spent on greening projects, including a 125km tree belt around the city to curb the winter sandstorms that rage in from the Gobi desert. Parks and verges have been prettified, fetid canals cleaned, and public facilities are better than anywhere else in China. Historic sites have also been renovated – or, it sometimes appears, invented.

The city gleams like never before, but what little antique character Beijing had is fast disappearing as old city blocks and hutongs are demolished. Now, the city’s main problems are the pressures of migration, pollution and traffic – car ownership has rocketed, and the streets are nearing gridlock.

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