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Beijing History and Beijing's Historical Attractions

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

Beijing has a history of about 3,000 years. It first became the capital of a big regional empire under the Mongols in 1271. After that, it continued to be the capital of the Ming and Qing empires, and it was the capital of modern China for most of the 20th century.

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

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

Pre-Qin Empire Beijing

Until the 7th century BC, a small state called Ji had a fortified city in what is now southwestern Beijing. But the state was conquered by the Yan state. Yan made Ji its capital.

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

Qin to Sui Dynasty Beijing

Qin Empire MapQin Empire map

The first Emperor of Qin (Qin Shihuang) designated the city of Ji to be the administrative center of Guangyang Commandery. He divided his empire into 36 prefectures, and the city became the capital of one prefecture. It was a strategic trade and military center.

In 215 BC, the First Emperor visited Ji. The Qin Dynasty fortified Juyong Pass to the northwest, as part of the Great Wall linking and strengthening project, to protect Ji from invasion. This strategic pass was considered key to invading the Beijing area.

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

During the Eastern Han Empire (25–220), the population of the city grew significantly and the city became relatively more important.

But starting from 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, apart from briefly in the late 300s, when it was designated as the capital of the Northern Wei Kingdom.

Sui to Yuan Dynasty Beijing

Grand CanalThe Grand Canal linked southern China with Beijing.

The Sui Empire (589–618) emerged a big empire in 589. They changed Beijing forever, because, in order to ferry troops and supplies to fight a war in the northeast, they built the Grand Canal to link Ji to central China and the Yangtze. Economical and relatively quick transportation helped the area prosper and made the area relatively more important than before.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) took control over the empire in 618. During the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, partly through use of the canal, Ji's regional population approximately tripled.

Several centuries later, however, when the Tang Empire was collapsing, the Qidans (Khitans) came from the upper reaches of the Liaohe River and moved south to occupy Ji and make it one of 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 the Qidans set out to conquer the central plains of China.

Yuan to Qing Dynasty Beijing — Imperial Capital

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

In the early 1200s, the Mongols were conquering large empires and tribal domains in central Asia and northeastern Asia. One of the last of the empires that they conquered the Beijing area was the Manchu Jin Empire (1115–1234), whose had made Ji their capital and renamed it Zhongdu. The Mongols under Genghis Khan captured Zhongdu in 1215 and renamed it Yanjing.

In 1271, Kublai Khan declared "Beijing" his new capital, renaming Yanjing as Dadu. Dadu was the capital of the Mongolian Yuan Empire (1276–1368).

When the Yuan Empire fell due to internal rebellion, the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) continued using the city as their capital. The imperial court built huge structures to house themselves that remain to this day. Among these, the most famous are the Forbidden City, a huge fortified palace area with room for staff and troops, and the Temple of Heaven.

The Ming Dynasty also (re-)built the Great Wall. Most of what tourists can see now id the Ming Great Wall. The wall and forts along it were built especially strongly around the Beijing region. It is a world architectural wonder. The Great Wall was built to keep out the Jurchens (Manchu) and Mongolians. Though it stemmed attacks, it failed when a Ming generals allowed the Jurchens to enter Shanhaiguan Pass.

The Manchu invaders established the Qing Empire (1644–1912). It was their capital until the end of their reign in modern times. They preserved the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, but they didn't maintain the Great Wall.

Modern History

A Nationalist Army general ruled China from Beijing from 1912 to 1928, when the capital was shifted to Nanjing. Beijing was then made a capital of the Japanese puppet government until 1945.

In 1949, Beijing became the capital of Communist China, when Mao Zedong declared the beginning of the People's Republic of China from the rostrum in Tian'anmen Square.

Historic Beijing Sights

See the ancient buildings: You can see structures and ruins dating back before the Yuan era. You could also tour the Great Wall sections to the north.

Museums in Beijing: Visiting the museums is a fine way to learn about Beijing's history.

See the modern city: The government has constructed mega projects such as the Beijing International Airport Terminal that is the worlds second largest. You could also see the futuristic buildings at the site of the 2008 Olympics. Sightseeing around the 22,000,000 people city is interesting.

See the Great Wall around the North of Beijing

Mutianyu is the Great Wall section we most recommend. It is fully-restored to its former glory, and is therefore more suitable and popular with families and senior customers than the more crowded or more challenging un-restored sections.

You can tour other Ming Great Wall sections too. Click here for the list of Great Wall sections.

Touring to Discover Beijing's History

The Bird's NestThe Bird's Nest is a sports arena built for the 2008 Olympics

Tour Beijing by subway: An inexpensive and quick way to get around to see the sights is on your own by subway.

China Highlights' Private Tour Service

Of course, the most efficient way to tour in terms of saving time and headaches and probably the most enlightening way to tour for most tourists is to go with a good tour company with a good reputation that provides individualized care. 

China Highlights offers private chauffeured transport and an English-speaking guide. It is a more comfortable and convenient alternative to public transportation and Chinese group tours, and a good knowledgeable guide can help you learn a lot more and enjoy your time.

Beijing History Tours

Mutianyu Great Wall TourOn tour on the Ming Great Wall at Mutianyu

If you are interested in traveling to Beijing, you can take one of our Bejing tours. You'll learn about Beijing's history firsthand by touring the sites.

1-Day Forbidden City and Beijing Highlights Tour: You could see the luxurious Forbidden City where Empress Cixi presided over the end of the Qing Empire. Then hike the wall at Mutianyu.

Tell us what aspect of Beijing's history most interests you, and we'll tailor-make your tour.

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