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A brief history of the northern capital for expats living in China

Beijing has always had a special place in the history of China. The city itself dates back more than 3000 years, to a time before China existed as a unified state. Today, it stands as the dazzling modern city and seat of power of one of the world’s strongest economies, second only the US. However, Beijing wasn’t always called Beijing, and it wasn’t always the seat of Chinese political power.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1403 that Beijing became the city it is today – and that was the 16th name given to this city in the north of modern China. So what happened in Beijing leading up to this point, making it the seat of Chinese power? Here’s a brief history of ancient Beijing, leading up to the point where it took the name we know it as today.

Pre Imperial Beijing

Beijing is believed to have been founded in roughly 1045 BC when, the Zhou dynasty had conquered the area’s previous rulers. According to Confucius, King Wu of Zhou was so pleased with his success and so eager to establish himself in his new territory that he immediately named the descendants of the Yellow Emperor as the rulers of Ji. The City of Ji now accounts for southwest modern Beijing. Ji, along with its neighbouring state Yan, were part of a very important north-south trade route between the northern mountains and the central plains. Unfortunately for Ji, it also had a steady water supply in the form of the lotus pool which is still seen at Beijing West Railway Station. Yan attacked and conquered its neighbour, and moved its state capital to Ji. This is where Beijing gets its unofficial name as Yanjing – the ‘Yan Capital’.

Yan was a powerful state in early Chinese history, conquering and absorbing its neighbours as it grew into one of the seven major powers in the Warring States period (473-221 BC). While this was still 1500 years before the Great Wall was built, the rulers of Yang were already having trouble with invaders from the north – in this case, the Shanrong steppe nomads. The city officials decided that a wall – the Yan walls – would be built along the north of the city to protect its people. You can still see parts of this wall in Changping County which date back to 283 BC. Unfortunately the walls didn’t protect Yan from the other Warring States – the City of Ji fell to the state of Qin in 226 BC. 5 years later in 221 BC, the ruler of Qin had conquered all of the other states, and declared himself the First Emperor.

Early Imperial Beijing

In 106 BC Imperial China underwent a bit of restructuring; rather than being split into 48 commanderies, the country was split into 13 prefectural provinces. Ji became the prefectural capital of Youzhou; unfortunately Ji fell once more during the Three Kingdoms Period (280-220 BC) – a famous time in Chinese history where three different emperors all claimed legitimate succession from the previous Han dynasty, vying for the seat of power.

At this point, Ji was controlled by Cao Pi, a very famous figure in Chinese history, and the first emperor of Cao Wei. It was at the end of this period (220 BC) when the Great Wall of China began being built, with the aim of keeping the invaders from the north out of Ji – a city which was still under constant attack.

It wasn’t until the 10th century until Ji became important on a national level. In 938 AD Youzhou was renamed Nanjing, the ‘Southern Capital’. This was a secondary capital to Shangjing in modern day Mongolia. Some of Beijing’s oldest landmarks in the south west of the city date back to this period of growth. Nanjing finally fell in 1122 when the Jin army of the Song dynasty marched from the north. The city was renamed Yanjing once more.

Beijing becomes the seat of power

In 1153 the Jin emperor Wanyan Liang moved south from Shanjing to Yanjing. In honour of its new role housing the emperor, the city was renamed Zhongdu, the ‘Central Capital’. This was the first time in Beijing’s long history where it was the capital city during a major dynasty. It was around this time that the city grew in earnest, both in terms of size and infrastructure. Some of these sites, such as Beihai Park still stand today.

Zhongdu stood as the capital for 60 years before Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader, took the capital by force. It wasn’t until a peace treaty was written up several years later that Khan withdrew from the city, returning to Mongolia; the capital of China was moved from Zhongdu to Kaifeng, further south. Zhongdu was left as it was the emperor tried to rebuild the city in 1214; the Mongols saw this as a breach of the peace treaty and Kublai Khan invaded the city once more.

In 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming Dynasty recaptured the city, known then as Dadu. The city was renamed Beiping, ‘Northern Peace’, in honour of this great victory. Beiping slowly grew into a military power in the north, becoming the official seat of power once more when Zhu Di declared himself the Yongle Emperor in 1380. Zhu Di moved to Beiping where he lived as the third emperor of the Ming dynasty until 1403, when he renamed the city to Beijing. Beijing, the ‘Northern Capital’ was elevated to the status of centrally administered city. This led to a massive reconstruction of the city, building some of Beijing’s most iconic sites in the process, including the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven.

This was a turning point in the history of the city, which remained the Chinese capital until 1912. In 1949 it was declared the capital city of the People’s Republic of China – a title it still enjoys to this day.

If you’re looking to move to China and see some of these deeply historical sites for yourself, such as the remains of the Yan Walls, the Great Wall of China, Beihai Park, the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven, please feel free to contact a member of our Beijing team today.

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