A Brief History of Beijing

It is believed that human settlement in Beijing dates back to about 600,000 years ago. Beijing’s history reflects the development of Chinese civilization.

Beginning of Beijing’s Culture

Fossil records of “Peking Man”, dated back to about 600,000 years ago, were found in 1920s in Zhoukousian, Fangshan District, Beijing. The discoveries of man-made tools and the evidence of the early use of fire astonished the world. Relics of the “Upper Cave Man” found in 1933 and those of the “New Cave Man” recovered in 1973 can respectively be traced back to about 30,000 years ago and 135,000 years ago. The sites of the “Peking Man”, “New Cave Man” and the “Upper Cave Man” at Zhoukoudian testify that Beijing was home to early human beings and a birthplace of human civilization. The culture of Beijing began in Zhoukoudian.

Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian, Beijing

The UNESCO designated the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian a World Heritage Site in 1987. It is a treasure house for human fossils, and also a research base for palaeoanthropology, prehistoric archaeology, palaeontology, stratigraphy, and petrology.

Remote Legends

About 4,000-5,000 years ago, settlements in the Beijing area thrived on basic agriculture and animal husbandry. It was said that the tribe led by the Yan Emperor (Yan Di) was defeated by the tribe led by Chiyou. So Yan Emperor turned to Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) for help. The Yellow Emperor defeated Chiyou and eventually united the Chinese nation. Zhuanxu, a third-generation successor of the Yellow Emperor, was said to have offered sacrifices to gods and ancestors in Youling, which is the earliest known name of the Beijing area. It is believed that Beijing entered its civilized epoch at that time.

Beginning of the City

Beijing is an ancient city in the world, and the city’s origins can be traced to more than 3,000 years ago. Its true significance came in the early years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC – 771 BC), during which the emperor gave his feudal lords plots of land (or feods). One of these plots of land was the Yan Kingdom, with the “City of Ji” as its capital. The “City of Ji” marked the beginning of Beijing’s long history as a city.

During the tumultuous Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and much of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), the conflicts resulted in Yan expanding its empire and swallowing up much of the surrounding land. Historical records show that the City of Ji was a famous and wealthy city.

Military Hub Becomes a Capital

After Emperor Qin Shihuang conquered his rivals and unified China in 221 BC, the City of Ji was chosen as the administrative centre of Guangyang Prefecture, one of the key prefectures in China’s first feudal empire. Beijing became a commercial centre connecting the North and the South during peacetime and a military centre during wars. In the ensuring centuries, there were numerous conflicts and changes. The city emerged as a frontier garrison, serving as a staging base for campaigns against the empire’s nomadic enemies to the north.

During the Liao Dynasty (AD 916-1125), the city became the alternate capital of the Liao Kingdom, which was founded by the Khitan people who lived in today’s northeastern China. Because Beijing was located south of the Liao homeland, it was renamed Nanjing (in Chinese “nan” means “south”).

During the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), the city was designated the capital, renamed Zhongdu (Middle Capital). This was a turning point because Beijing has been regarded as a national political and cultural center since then.

Capital of the Yuan Dynasty

In the early 13th century, the Mongols led by Genghis Khan invaded the city. But it was left to Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, to finally conquer all of China and establish the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Beijing was chosen as the capital of the Yuan Dynasty and named Dadu (Great Capital), which was meticulously laid out with the same grid plan that characterizes Beijing’s central urban area today. Dadu enjoyed worldwide fame in the 13th century. Envoys and traders from Europe, Asia and Africa who paid visits to China were astounded by the splendor and magnificence of the city.

Capital of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

After the fall of the Mongol Empire in 1368, the early Ming emperors ruled from Nanjing (today’s Jiangsu Province). The Ming troops conquered Dadu and renamed “Dadu” as “Beiping” (Northern Peace). After usurping the throne from his nephew in 1402, Zhu Di (also known as Emperor Yongle) ordered the construction of the city and the Forbidden City in 1406. In 1421, Emperor Yongle relocated to what was now known as the Beijing (Northern Capital).

Forbidden City, Beijing

After a lengthy rule, the Ming Dynasty fell into decline. In 1644, a federation of Manchurian tribes from the north, after being given free passage through the Great Wall by a disaffected general, conquered the city and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Forbidden City was then enlarged, the Summer Palace and Yuanmingyuan Park were built, and communications with other countries were increased.

Great Wall, Beijing

Capital of New China

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and Beijing became the capital of new China. With a history of over 3,000 years and a capital history of more than 860 years, Beijing is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals in China. After more than half a century’s construction and development, Beijing, with its rich historical resources and extraordinary vibrancy, has become an international metropolis connecting the past with the modern.

Tian'anmen Square, Beijing

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