History of Beijing

Mother Earth Travel > China > Beijing > History

Beijing's history spans back 500,000 years ago to the days of prehistory when the first primitive humans walked the earth. Archeological evidence unearthed near Beijing in 1921 proved the existence of Peking Man hominids. Since prehistory, Beijing has seen imperial dynasties come and go, and has been witness to tumultuous wars, rebellions, and power struggles.

The earliest records of human settlement for Beijing date back to 1000 BC during the Shang Dynasty when a small town name Ji arose, which served as a trading outpost for Mongols, Koreans and other ethnic groups. In the 7th century BC, during the Yan Kingdom, this town soon developed into the capital. Struggles for control of the establishment between the Mongols and Manchurians were frequent due to its advantageous geographic position. Around this time, the name Ji became displaced and Beijing was then known as Yanjing. A number of dynasties reigned supreme during this time.

In 1215 AD, the capital fell under attack by the Mongolian warlord, Genghis Khan and his warriors during his campaign to build his vast empire. After a seven-year siege, it was subsequently destroyed by the Mongols. In its place emerged Khanbaliq (Khan's Town) or Dadu (Chinese for Great Capital). It was built in 1267, under the control of Genghis Khan's brother, Kublai, Khan. By 1279, Kublai had conquered all of China, becoming ruler of the largest empire in history. This reign was known as the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

In 1368, ushered in another dynasty, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Zhu Yuanzhang led an uprising, overthrowing the Mongol empire and taking over Beijing. Under Zhu's control, the city changed names (again) to Beiping and was demoted from its capital status. Instead, the imperial capital was Nanjing located in the south. However, in the early 1400s, Zhu's fourth son, Yong Le returned the imperial capital back to Beiping and renamed it Beijing, which literally means Northern Capital. It was Yong Le who laid down the foundations for modern-day Beijing. He built the basic city grid with the Forbidden City as its heart and center. Other famous structures such as the Temple of Heaven and the Bell Tower were also built during his reign.

The Manchus put an end to the Ming Dynasty in 1644, establishing the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Under the Qing, Beijing was further expanded and improved with the construction of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). But this peaceful period would not last. By the late 18th century, Beijing was subject to foreign invasion from the French and British, anarchy, and local rebellion. Many Chinese were angered by the incompetence and corruption of the Qing rulers, especially Empress Dowager Cixi (1834-1908), leading to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Many foreigners were killed during the rebellion, and in retaliation, foreign Allied Forces invaded Beijing.

In 1911, the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed. The Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) rose to power and the Republic of China was founded with Sun Yat-sen as president. However, things still remained the same with warlords and foreigners battling for control, rampant corruption and poverty among the local Chinese. These conditions were ripe for rebellion and change, leading to the growing popularity of Marxism and the formation of the Communist Party. In 1921, the Communist Party was formed in Shanghai which included Mao Zedong as one of its members. The Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party formed an alliance to seize control from the warlords and foreigners and to reunify China. However, this alliance was not to last. A power struggle erupted between the Communists and the Nationalists after World War II, leading to civil war. Defeated, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and on October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was formally declared at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, China faced tumultuous years. Mao launched the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both of which led to disasterous results for Beijing and the country. In an attempt to eradicate all capitalist or exploitative influences, the fanatical Red Guards destroyed temples, monuments and works of art; and persecuted intellectuals and writers. Political infighting and power struggles within the Party further contributed to the chaos. This chaos was to remain until Mao died.

In 1979, Deng Xiaopeng emerged as the country's leader, launching a modernization program that emphasized open market reforms, greater contact with the West, and economic growth. Despite the economic reforms, Deng was determined to maintain the Communist political ideology. In 1989, student pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square turned tragically violent. Since then, Beijing has seen considerable economic change, growing private businesses, rising personal incomes and a construction boom - but it's still a question of what political change will result.