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Beijing History — Strategic Location, Historic Capital, Major City

The Forbidden City is just one of many architectural wonders left behind by the Ming Dynasty in Beijing.

Beijing has a history of about 3,000 years, and has almost continually been the capital for the last 700 years. It was the capital of six ancient dynasties, including the empires of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing that were the largest and most powerful.

Beijing's location was strategic: in the northeast corner of China's ancient heartland, surrounded by the mountain passes that separated the empire from Manchu and Mongol territories to the north, and connected to the rich Yangtze basin by the Grand Canal.

Beijing has grown in importance over its history. Now, as well as being the capital, Beijing is China's second biggest city and the country's main educational and high-tech development region, known as "China's Silicon Valley".

The Five Major Eras of Beijing History

The history of Beijing can be broadly divided into five eras:

  • Pre-Qin — kingdom/state capital
  • Qin–Sui Dynasty — important city of three big empires
  • Sui–Yuan Dynasty — post-Grand Canal growth, Mongol conquest
  • Yuan–Qing Dynasty — capital of three huge empires
  • Modern Beijing — Republican, Japanese-occupied, then Communist China capital

Pre-Qin Empire Beijing (~2500–222 BC)

The Shang Dynasty is famous for the sophistication of their bronze artwork.

If the oldest historical records are correct and not mythological, then Beijing is in the original domain of the Yellow Emperor, and his victorious Huaxia tribe founded the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC) that led to China's first historic civilization called the Shang (1600–1046 BC) in the Beijing region.

On the comparatively dry Central Plain where devastating droughts and famine where common, Beijing is well watered by several rivers that flow down to the Beijing area from the mountain chain to the north. These rivers enabled farmers to support cities in the area thousands of years ago.

According to Sima Qian (c.145–86 BC), a Han Dynasty era historian, the Yellow Emperor's domain that is thought to have included present-day Beijing was the site of the Battle of Banquan. This battle may have been in Yanqing, the northwest of Beijing Municipality. By winning this war, the Yellow Emperor became the ruler of the Central Plains, the original heartland of the Xia around 2500 BC.

According to Sima Qian, the Yellow Emperor then won a second war against a coastal tribe that inhibited the territory to the east in the Tianjin region. They fought at a place called Zhoulu that is thought to be on the western border of modern Beijing. He established his capital in Zhoulu.

By winning this war, the Huaxia tribe gained control of the eastern plain and seaports that were about 220 kilometers (140 miles) away from Yanqing and Zhoulu and controlled all the lower reaches of the Yellow River. From this strategic location, with access to the Yellow River and the seacoast, the Xia Kingdom and then the Shang civilization spread to cover northern and central China over the next 1,500 years.

Whether or not the records of Sima Qian are accurate or myth, the Beijing area has always been considered to be both religiously and strategically important. It is thought that the Yellow Emperor's descendants lived in a small state called Ji State during the Shang era. Their capital was called City of Ji in southwestern Beijing.

Zhou Dynasty Era: Ji and Yan State Capital

Sima Qian wrote that when the first king of the Zhou Empire conquered the Shang in 1045 BC, he declared that the City of Ji would belong to the descendants of the Yellow Emperor.

Almost 3,000 years ago, they built a fortified city called City of Ji (蓟城/薊城 Jìchéng). But the state was conquered by the Yan state in the 7th century. Yan made Ji its capital and called it Yanjing.

The expanding Qin Empire conquered Yanjing in 222 BC. This was just one year before the first Qin emperor officially declared his dynastic reign.

Qin to Sui Dynasty (222 BC–589 AD)

Qin Empire MapQin Empire map

The first Emperor of the Qin, Qin Shihuang, divided his empire into 36 prefectures, and he designated the City of Ji to be the administrative center of a prefecture called Guangyang Commandery. It was a strategic trade and military center.

In 215 BC, the First Emperor visited Ji. The Qin fortified Juyong Pass to the northwest of Ji (Beijing), as part of the first Great Wall to protect Ji from invasion. This strategic mountain pass was considered to be key to invading the Qin Empire.

The Qin Empire, though it was big, proved to be short lived. In 206, internal rebellion destroyed it, and Liu Bang emerged to be the leader of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 24 AD). Unlike the Qin, he allowed the Yan Kingdom to have some local autonomy.

During the Eastern Han era (25–220), the population of the city grew significantly, and the city grew in importance. Beijing was then called "Fanyang."

But during the fall of the Eastern Han Empire, control of the city changed often, as state after state, and empire after empire, fought over the area. Many states and kingdoms rose and fell, and Ji wasn't the capital of any for 500 years, except for briefly in the late 300s when it was the capital of the Northern Wei Kingdom.

Sui to Yuan Dynasty (589–1271)

Grand CanalThe wide Grand Canal linked southern China with Beijing.

The big Sui Empire (589–618) emerged in 589. In order to ferry troops and supplies to fight a war in the northeast, they changed Beijing forever by building the Grand Canal to link Ji to central China and the Yangtze basin. The economical and relatively quick transportation made the area prosper.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) conquered the Sui in 618. During the beginning of the Tang era, the canal aided the population of the Ji region to increase from 102,079 in 618 AD to 371,312 residents in 742.

However, several centuries later when the Tang Empire was collapsing, the Qidans (Khitans) came south from around Liaoning and occupied Ji. They made it one of their four secondary capitals. They called the city "Nanjing" (Southern Capital).

Emperor Taizong of the Liao Dynasty (916–1125) carried out construction projects and built palaces. It became their stronghold from which they conquered the central plains of China.

Then the Jurchens swept in over the mountains from the northwest and invaded the Liao Empire. The formed the Jin Empire (1115–1234). They quickly adopted Han customs and developed a sophisticated large empire. They choose Yanjing to be their main capital city, and for the first time, Beijing became the capital of a large regional empire. They called their capital Zhongdu.

During their short reign, Zhongdu quickly grew in size and population. The Jin Dynasty built a walled palace in the center of their city, and the population grew from 82,000 in 1125 to 400,000 in 1207.

Yuan Imperial Capital (1271–1368)

the Ming Dynasty Great WallThe Ming Great Wall was a great construction project

In the early 1200s, the Mongols conquered large empires and tribal domains in central Asia and northeastern Asia. One of the last of the empires that they conquered was the Manchu Jin Empire. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols captured Zhongdu in 1215 and looted and burned it. They first called it "Yanjing."

Under the Mongols, the population of the city initially dropped to 91,000 in 1216. The population of the Yanjing region dropped to 265,000 from about 1.6 million of the height of the Jin Empire.

When Kublai Khan became leader of the Yuan Empire (1271–1368), he was unable to retain control of the western half of the Mongol Empire. He decided to move the capital of the Yuan Empire from Karakorum in Mongolia to Beijing 1264.

For the Mongol dynastic clan, the new capital that they called "Dadu" was at an ideal central location for controlling their vast Yuan Empire. It was at the northern extreme of the vast ancient North China Plain and Yellow River basin heartland and astride the mountain passes that connected the south to their vast territory in the north. They also had access to the sea at their ports in Tianjin for trade and to attack other countries.

In 1271, Kublai Khan officially declared Dadu (大都 'Grand Capital') to be the capital of his empire, even though he had not yet defeated the Song Empire in the south. The Yuan clan finished their new palace complex in 1274 and the rest of the city by 1285. They constructed many canals, artificial lakes, and waterways, and Marco Polo wrote about these wonders of engineering and Dadu's astounding size and prosperity.

The most important Yuan construction project was expanding and extending the Grand Canal so that it stretched all the way from Dadu to Hangzhou in the Yangtze River basin. They could then import sufficient quantities of food so that Dadu grew to be twice the size of the former Jin capital of Zhongdu. By 1327, the city had 952,000 residents with another 2.08 million dwelling in the surrounding region. At this time, it was one of the biggest cities in the world and second only to Hangzhou in population in the Yuan Empire.

The Yuan Empire fell through natural disasters, civil war between Mongol leaders, and large-scale rebellions in several regions. Zhu Yuanzhang captured Nanjing in 1358 and made it his capital. Then his army attacked the Yuan empire capital of Dadu in 1368 and burned down their palaces. The Yuan dynasty was driven north over the mountains.

Ming Imperial Capital (1368–1644)

For the first decades under Ming rule, "Beiping," as the Ming called the city, became impoverished, and the population dropped dramatically. By 1369, the city's population had been reduced to 95,000, and only 113,000 people lived in the region surrounding it. So the population dropped 90% in just a few decades and mirrored its size in 1125 and at the beginning of Yuan rule in 1216.

Emperor Yongle who reigned 1402–1433 was appointed ruler of Beiping and the Beiping region when he was young, and it became his base of power. After conquering Nanjing in 1402, from 1403 to 1420, Yongle prepared Beiping to be his new capital and conducted a massive reconstruction program. He renamed the city "Beijing."

From 1409 onwards, Emperor Yongle settled in Beijing to escape the opposition to his rule. He feared the people and aristocrats in Nanjing and the rest of the south who viewed him as a usurper. Even though Beijing was largely destroyed, essential infrastructure such as the canals were still in place. They only required renovation.

The Yuan had shown that the Beijing region could support a very large population and could be made very prosperous and that the location was strategic in a number of ways militarily and for trading purposes. Yongle's key building projects were the huge fortified palace called the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and rebuilding the Grand Canal.

Yongle's Beijing Construction Megaprojects (1406–1420)

The Forbidden CityThe Forbidden City is the largest and most complete complex of ancient wooden structures in the world.

To protect himself, he directly supervised the building of the Forbidden City that was a huge palace fortress. He hoped to make it impregnable.

They started constructing the Forbidden City in 1406 and used 100,000 skilled artisans and up to a million workers and slaves. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the "largest palace in the world." 

The Temple of Heaven was another of the big projects. They built it from 1406 to 1420 together with the Forbidden City.

Their Grand Canal improvements were carried out from 1411 to 1415. The canal was an essential part of the emperor's grand plan for Beijing and his fortress because it enabled them to quickly and economically transport building materials, supplies and personnel. A total of 165,000 laborers dredged the canal bed in Shandong and built new canal locks. Once it was finished, they accelerated the construction on the new capital.

Beijing's Early Growth

In 1421, Yongle formally inaugurated Beijing as the imperial capital. The new canal enabled deliveries of grain to exceed 200,000 tons annually to feed the growing population. Beijing kept growing. In 1553, the southern part of the Outer City that included the Temple of Heaven was enclosed with a wall. So the overall walled area of Beijing measured 4 by 4½ miles.

The outer city around the inner walled section continued to grow in size. The total population of Beijing grew to 960,000 residents in 1448, and another 2.19 million people lived in the surrounding region.

So it once again reached the size it had under the Mongols more than 100 years earlier. Beijing was the largest city in the world from 1425 to 1635. In 1530, they built the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon in this outer ring where the commoners lived.

The Construction of the Ming Great Wall (1472–1644)

Emperor Yongle's successors in the Ming Dynasty also rebuilt the Great Wall. From about 1472 onwards until 1644, they strengthened it (particularly around Beijing) and vastly lengthened it so that it stretched 8,850 km (5,500 miles) from Jiayu Pass in the west to Shanhai Pass and the sea in the east, and included another stretch in Manchuria. The wall and forts along it were built especially strong around the Beijing region. It is a world architectural wonder.

Beijing's Strategic Location

It is interesting that after taking a defensive posture against their northern enemies and building the Great Wall, the Ming Dynasty retained Beijing as their capital city even though they lost much of their northwestern territory to the Jurchens by 1580. Beijing was no longer geographically central and was far to the north of most of the population. The Grand Canal enabled them to maintain a million people in the city until 1635 near the end of their empire.

The Fall of the Ming (1643–1644)

The Forbidden CityThese big Forbidden City plazas once were the stage for grand Ming imperial functions.

Ming rebels captured Beijing in 1644 after a series of major natural disasters signaled to the people that the dynasty had lost the "Mandate of Heaven." Corruption had weakened the government and military.

When the rebel army went to attack Ming General Wu Sangui and his army who were guarding the Great Wall against the Manchus at Shanhai Pass, the general surprised them by siding with the Manchus. The Jurchens, Mongolians, and General Wu's army chased the rebel army back to Beijing.

While retreating, the rebel army set fire to parts of the Forbidden City. The last emperor of the Ming hanged himself, and the empire was in chaos for months.

Qing Dynasty History (1644–1912)

Shanhaiguan PassThe Ming army kept northern invaders from the Shanhai Pass for centuries, but as the empire fell the Ming army invited them in!

The Manchu invaders established the Qing Empire (1644–1912). Beijing was their capital until the end of their reign in modern times. For the Qing dynastic clan, Beijing was advantageous as a capital city for many of the same reasons it was strategic for the Mongols. It was near the middle of their vast empire that was the fourth largest in recorded history and even bigger than the Yuan Empire, and it was astride the passes that connected their vast Mongolian and Manchu domains with rest of their empire.

Under Manchu leadership, Beijing prospered. They preserved the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, but they didn't maintain the Great Wall, so it fell into ruins. The Grand Canal was maintained just as in earlier times so that the Beijing flourished once again as the imperial capital city. The population grew again so that Beijing was the largest city in the world from 1710 to 1825. By 1825, 1.3 million people lived there.

Foreign Occupations (1860 and 1900)

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, English and French troops took control of greater Beijing and the Forbidden City and occupied it until the end of the war. They discussed burning down the Forbidden City to punish the dynasty, but decided to burn the Summer Palace instead.

In 1900, Empress Dowager Cixi fled from the Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion. Once again, foreign troops occupied Beijing and the Forbidden City until the following year.

The End of Beijing as Imperial City (1912)

After being the home of 24 emperors, 14 of the Ming Dynasty and 10 of the Qing Dynasty, the inauguration of the new Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen in 1912 meant that the Forbidden City was no longer the palace of the emperor. The former emperor was allowed to live in the inner court (the northern half of the Forbidden City), but the southern half of the Forbidden City was opened to the public.

Modern History (1912–present)

Palace of Heavenly PeaceThe Palace of Heavenly Purity is in the inner court where the former Emperor Puyi took refuge after 1912.

A Nationalist Army general ruled China from Beijing from 1912 to 1928 when the capital was moved to Nanjing. The Forbidden City became the Palace Museum in 1925.

In 1937, the Japanese army captured Beijing, but the city was little damaged, and the flammable wooden buildings of the Forbidden City were spared damage. The Japanese created a puppet government, and Beijing became the capital of the Japanese-controlled territory until 1945.

In 1949, Beijing became the capital of Communist China. Mao Zedong declared the beginning of the People's Republic of China in Beijing. At this time, Beijing had a population of about 2 million.

Beijing was still centrally located within China and close to the big seaports and the center of economic activity in the northeast as China reconstructed. China retained much of the northwestern territories of the Qing Empire and Inner Mongolia to the north. The northeast provinces had a big population and were important economically.

After WWII, the northeastern areas were China's main industrial center. The area had rich mineral resources and other natural resources. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese had built up the regions' mines, factories, and transportation system, trained the laborers, and built a heavy industry base.

Beijing also benefited from being closer to the Soviet Union than the large southern cities during a time when China's transportation system was primitive and inadequate. The Soviets sent supplies and aid to Beijing by rail and through the port in Tianjin.

Modern Era Tourism (1949 to Present)

China Highlights guide at the Forbidden CityCrowds of tour groups (background) and individual tours and guides (foreground) visit the Palace Museum daily.

For the 10 year anniversary of the People's Republic, the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum were completed adjacent to Tian'anmen Square in 1959. The National Museum is now the world's 3rd most visited museum with about 8 million visitors in 2017.

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Red Guards tried to destroy the Forbidden City and damaged it substantially, but then Premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the Forbidden City. From 1966 to 1971, all the gates of the Forbidden City were sealed to protect it.

In 1987, UNESCO listed the Palace Museum as a World Heritage Site for its significant place in the development of Chinese architecture and culture. Today, about 16 million people visit annually, and it is the world's most visited museum.

The Modern Capital and the Lead Technology Research Region

Beijing has been transformed from an impoverished city of 2 million to a metropolis of 24 million people in the urban area, growing to 12 times its size in 70 years by 2018. It is the world's second biggest city proper after Shanghai.

It is modern China's political and education center. The Beijing Capital International Airport has been the second busiest in the world since 2010. The per-capita income has grown to about 20,000 USD in 2018, and it has been growing about 6 percent or more per year.

Tianjin's port, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) away, promotes Beijing industry and exports greatly. It is now the world's 10th largest container port.

The northwestern district of Beijing is considered China's Silicon Valley, where the talent from China's best universities and research centers, which are concentrated in Beijing, is funded by Beijing's venture capitalists and the government.

Explore Beijing with Local Experts

great wall travel You can explore the Great Wall and other great places in Beijing more easily with us.

From big Ming construction marvels to modern ones, Beijing has many interesting places to see. The city is so big however, that to maximize your enjoyment, a private tour guide and driver, not to mention an expertly-designed itinerary, would be a great help.

Here are two Beijing sample itineraries for your consideration:

Looking for a unique and personalized tour? Tell us what aspect of Beijing's history most interests you, and your other interests and requirements, for an expertly tailored tour.

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