A Short History of Beijing

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China’s history spans an incredible 5,000 years, and many of the country’s defining dramas have taken place in Beijing. Here’s a short history of Beijing, brought to you by Bespoke.

Peking man first settled in the area half a million years ago, and while the first Chinese emperor was created in 221BC, it wasn’t until 1279 that Mongol invaders first made Beijing their capital. However the Mongolian horsemen lacked the administrative skill to control the huge agricultural population, and it wasn’t long before rebellious farmers overthrew the Mongols to create the Ming dynasty. The capital was briefly moved to the southern city of Nanjing, but the third Ming Emperor, Yongle, brought it back to Beijing in 1421, creating the city’s grid system and building many of today’s landmarks, including the Forbidden City.

In the late 19th century during the Qing dynasty, China awoke to the fact that it was not the world’s only super power. British forces attacked the city over trade disputes, and the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion in 1900 saw fighting in the streets between foreign forces and imperial troops. By 1911, all faith in the Qing court had evaporated, and thousands of years of imperial rule in China ended as Nationalist Sun Yat Sen announced the Republic of China. However, shortly afterward, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party won a victory in the civil war against the Nationalists and it was at this point that much of the old city was destroyed. Mao’s revolution focused on building the new rather than protecting the old, and temples were torn down, elegant courtyard homes divided up to house several working families, and the Ming dynasty city walls were replaced with what is now the Second Ring Road.

In 1976, after decades of insularity, poverty and hardship as a result of Mao’s misguided policies, the ‘Great Helmsman’ died. His replacement, Deng Xiaoping, led China’s opening up and economic reforms, but it was on his watch that one of Beijing’s most shocking events took place: the Tiananmen Square massacre. After the death of a moderate but disgraced official in 1989, students gathered in the square to mourn his passing and protest the lack of transparency in government. After 50 days of protests, Deng gave the order for troops to fill the square. Hundreds (possibly thousands) died, and many more were imprisoned after the incident.

Today’s Square bears no marks of the incident, and indeed today’s Beijing is a city largely filled with pride. Being awarded the Olympics was proof, if any was needed, that China had finally arrived on the world stage. However the speed and scale of development that has taken place in the last six years is quite astounding. In the run up to the Olympics, a vast number of Beijing’s most historic hutong (old lanes) were destroyed, and many people were forced out of the homes their families had lived in for generations. Nevertheless, today’s young Beijingers are a confident bunch. Buoyed by their country’s economic strength and the success of the Olympics, most will tell you there’s nowhere else on earth they’d rather be.

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