Beijing (Peking) is the capital of China. It lies at the northern end of the fertile agricultural plain of northern China, close to the main routes leading to the Mongolian uplands and to Manchuria. Beijing, under various names, has been important since about the 12th century BC. In AD 1267 the Mongol conqueror Kublai Khan made it the capital of his empire and in 1275 it was visited by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who was full of admiration for the splendours of the city. After the Mongols were driven out, the Ming emperors changed their capital from Nanjing (“Southern Capital”) to Beijing (“Northern Capital”).
The Mings were overthrown in 1644 by the Manchu emperors, who were removed from power in the revolution of 1911. China then became a republic, with Beijing the capital. The city remained the capital until 1928, when the Chinese Nationalists renamed it Peiping (a name it had around 1400) and moved their capital back to Nanjing. Peiping was held by the Japanese from 1937 to 1945. In 1949 the Nationalists were defeated and driven to Taiwan by the communists, who restored the old name Beijing and made the city the capital of the People’s Republic of China.
Despite all these changes, Beijing has altered little since Marco Polo’s day. It is a fascinating city. It has very hot summers and bitterly cold winters. The air is generally dry and can be dusty, as sands from the Gobi Desert are whipped down from the plains. This is why you often see pictures of Beijing cyclists and pedestrians wearing face masks. Thanks to the spacious way in which it was laid out by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, Beijing has broad main streets, unlike most Chinese cities. The main streets are lined with trees, behind which the shops are decorated with painted fretwork. Along the roads pass buses, trolley-buses, lorries, a few cars, pony carts, mules, and hundreds of thousands of bicycles.
Beijing laid out on a rectangular grid pattern, with wide roads criss-crossing north-south and east-west. All the city’s outer and inner walls, wall-gates, temples, palaces, and market places were built according to this layout. The city is made up of the northern or Tatar city and the southern or Chinese city, both of which are surrounded by walls. The Tatar city is roughly square. Inside it is the Forbidden City, containing the palace of the emperors, once “forbidden” to ordinary Chinese. It is now a restored national museum open to all. Inside the series of inter-connected courtyards are buildings roofed with golden tiles and staircases of white marble. Outside the Forbidden City there is a chain of artificial lakes surrounded by pleasure grounds and temples. Famous landmarks include the Summer Palace, to the north; the Temple of Heaven; the Beijing Hotel; and, right in the middle, the largest city square anywhere in the world – Tiananmen Square (also known as Red Square). The mausoleum of Mao Tse-tung, founder of modern China, is at the centre of the square. Other public buildings, including the massive Great Hall of the People (which can seat 5,000 people for a banquet), are located around the square, along with many colourful flags and giant portraits of Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin and also Mao Tse-tung. The Chinese enjoy strolling across this gigantic paved area and many use the vast space as a place from which to fly all sorts of kites. Up to 1,000,000 Chinese gather in the square to celebrate the country’s National Day on 1 October. The communist government, which was set up in October 1949, has done much to modernize Beijing, improving sanitation, providing parks, and expanding industry. The broad main road leading south from the Forbidden City to the gate of the Chinese City is lined with modern government buildings. Away from the wide, busy avenues are much narrower alleyways, where many traditional home compounds, complete with courtyards, house family groups in a way of life that seems remote from the hustle and bustle of the city. Farther out new housing estates, factories, suburban towns, and parks have been added to the city in recent years. Main industries include the manufacture of railway track and locomotives, machine tools, electronics, agricultural machinery, and chemicals. Beijing is a centre of learning, with universities and scientific institutes.
The population of the municipal area of Beijing is about 10,820,000 (1990), and of the city proper 6,800,000 (1989). Beijing is the second largest city in China, after Shanghai.