The Statesman’s Yearbook Online

edited by Dr Barry Turner

flag of CHINA locator map of CHINA



The capital of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, is sometimes referred to by its former English name Peking. The city has been the seat of China’s administration and its cultural centre for most of the past 750 years. Although not on a river, Beijing is a natural route centre given its position at the convergence point of routes between the North China Plain and ranges of hills and ridges to the north. The city has a rectangular street pattern. Beijing has grown dramatically in the last six decades, but the built-up area occupies only 15% of the municipality: the remainder is countryside and villages and 42% of the population is rural.


The site of Beijing has been occupied since prehistoric times: the remains of ‘Peking man’, who lived about 500,000 years ago, were found at a village 50 km from the city centre. An important military and trading post was established on the north-eastern frontier of China, where Beijing now stands, more than 2,400 years ago. This centre became the city of Chi, capital of the kingdom of Yen. Chi was destroyed in the third century BC and its successor, Yen, remained a provincial town, at times falling under the control of northern nomads.

In the 13th century all of China was conquered by the Mongol hordes under Kublai Khan, who built a new city on the present site of Beijing in 1267-72. He named the city Ta-tu and established it as the administrative centre of his Yüan (Mongol) dynasty. The first emperors of the Ming dynasty transferred the capital to Nanjing (meaning ‘Southern Capital’) in 1344 but the third Ming emperor moved the imperial seat back in 1421 to what became known as Beijing (‘Northern Capital’). In the 15th and 16th centuries Beijing was rebuilt with inner (northern) and outer walls (the latter enclosing more than 50 square kilometres), and many temples and palaces were constructed.

The city was not damaged when overrun by the Manchus in the 17th century, but the original Summer Palace was destroyed by British and French troops in 1860. The legation quarter for foreign embassies, established in the middle of the 19th century, was besieged for months by nationalist Boxer rebels in 1900.

Beijing was the centre of the 1911 revolution when the imperial system was swept away. But, in 1928, the ruling Nationalists removed the seat of government to Nanjing. In 1937 Japanese forces occupying Manchuria entered Beijing, which remained under Japanese control until 1945. The Nationalists took control of Beijing in 1945 but the city was taken by the Communists during the subsequent civil war. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in Beijing.

In 1989 growing pressures for liberalisation and political change culminated in the occupation of Tiananmen Square by up to one million workers and students. After a stand-off, troops entered the square killing more than 1,500 and arresting many.

Modern City

Beijing is the principal cultural and political centre of China and, after Shanghai, the main industrial centre. The city has China’s main international airport and is a hub of road and rail routes. The new West Station is the largest in Asia. Beijing houses many foreign financial institutions and more than 400 scientific research institutes. Industries include metallurgy, chemicals and petro-chemicals, engineering, electronics, textiles and clothing, and food processing. Broad highways and tower blocks have recently replaced much of the older quarter and many of the remaining historic alleys and courtyard houses are being swept away, a process accelerated by the regeneration of the city that accompanied the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. In the last decade, tourism has become a major foreign-currency earner.

In 2003 Beijing was at the centre of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), during which over 15,000 people were quarantined.

Places of Interest

The heart of Beijing is the monumental Tiananmen Square, where parades are held. The mausoleum of Mao Zedong is in the square, in whose south-west corner rises the imposing Great Hall of the People in which the National People’s Congress holds its infrequent meetings in the grand auditorium. The Museum of Chinese History, which includes the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, is also in the square.

North of Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City whose Imperial Palaces are surrounded by a moat and walls. With their throne rooms, courtyards, golden roofs and marble columns and bridges, the palaces are a major visitor attraction. The Palace of Heavenly Purity was the seat of state occasions and imperial audiences, while the other two palaces were residences of the imperial family. All three palaces now form the Palace Museum, the home of mainland China’s greatest art treasures.

The Temple of Heaven is generally recognised as the greatest example of traditional Chinese architecture. Constructed between 1420 and 1749, the temple comprises three buildings approached by a magnificent avenue of cypress trees. The Temple of the Imperial Ancestors, now the Working People’s Cultural Palace, is built round a huge courtyard, whose verandas can seat nearly 10,000 people. The halls of this palace stage many important exhibitions.

Beijing’s open spaces include Ching-shan Park, from whose artificial hill the best view of the city can be obtained. Most tourists to Beijing also visit the Great Wall of China, which at its nearest to the city is about 50 km (30 miles) to the north.

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