The origins of modern-day Beijing date back to over 2,000 years ago when the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) began fortifying the city’s strategic mountain passes, used by nomads to attack and pillage the sedentary farmers inhabiting the plains. The ancient Great Wall allowed farmers to establish the city of Ji, a regional seat of power.
For most of the 1,200 or so years after the fall of the short-lived Qin Dynasty, Beijing was somewhat of a frontier town, frequently changing names and rulers. As each kingdom settled in, it used Beijing as a fortified staging ground for attacks against other steppe nomads competing for the regional farmland. Beijing was first established as a significant capital by the Jin Dynasty (1126-1234), and Zhongdu (‘Middle Capital’) grew to a population of nearly one million.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) expanded China to include Manchuria, Mongolia and Tibet. The Qing enlarged the Forbidden City and built enormous imperial gardens in Beijing’s outskirts. This opulence left China vulnerable, and foreign imperial encroachment, culminating in the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, crippled the Qing court and humiliated China. The tides of revolution grew, and Sun Yat-sen led the military uprising in 1911 that officially ended thousands of years of imperial rule in China.
During the years leading up to World War II, China was divided between feuding warlords, Communists (CCP) and the Kuomintang Nationalists (KMT), led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Mao Zedong led the Communists to victory in 1949, forcing the KMT to retreat to Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, Mao stood on Tiananmen Gate and declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
In the past 60 years, Beijing has arguably changed more than it did in the previous 600. Mao removed the relics of Beijing’s imperial past and rebuilt the city as a functional and industrial capital. In an effort to push China into the industrial age with his Great Leap Forward initiative, small and large factories were built and staffed by agrarian workers, causing millions to starve to death. During the Cultural Revolution that followed (1966-76), many of Beijing’s temples and other architectural treasures were damaged by zealots who saw them as vestiges of old China.
Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy in the 1980s, sparking rapid economic growth and a massive construction boom. Nevertheless, in the 1980s Beijing’s tallest building was the 17-storey Beijing Hotel. Beijing’s growth hit breakneck speed just after the turn of the millennium, when China was accepted into the World Trade Organization and hosted the 2008 Olympics. The latter allowed Beijing to showcase itself as an international city and China as a world superpower. In fact, Beijing hasn’t experienced such rapid growth and transformation since the Jin Dynasty.
State-sponsored projects have left physical impressions on the city, but the more profound changes defining Beijing are social and economic. Millions of rural migrants move to Beijing seeking not only jobs, but also a taste of the glitz and glamour of a global metropolis. To satisfy the tastes of a new moneyed class, Beijing abounds with giant malls, boutiques, international restaurants and flashy nightclubs. Beijing’s youth are independent and outward-looking, influenced by their exposure to international ideas and culture. Indeed, nothing on the gargantuan scale of Beijing’s transformation could have happened without the opening to the outside world. Foreign investment, technology and millions of international visitors have permanently transformed Beijing and China.
Of course, breakneck growth has a price. Despite government measures prior to the 2008 Olympics, Beijing remains one of the world’s most polluted cities. Most of the charming old hutongs have been bulldozed in favor of more efficient block-like buildings. Unless you’re standing in the middle of the Forbidden City, there’s little evidence to indicate that you’re in the middle of historical China. And although inflation is centrally controlled, prices are still rising and the poor are not keeping up with the rich.
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