A Historic Introduction to the City of Beijing 1153 AD - 1368 AD
A rough Schematic of the Old Imperial City as it was originally conceived during the 3rd Reign of the Ming Dynasty.
Clearly outlined are the Walls of the Imperial City, which included a far larger area than today's Palace Museum.
Satellite Image overview of Beijing Center, revealing the Old Imperial City layout and Borders as they were (generally) until 1949.
Click Satellite Image to go to View Largest Version -
Beijing - Earliest History as The Capital of China
In 755 A.D. Beijing was known as the City of Yen and as the main military and administrative station of General An Lushan of the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. - 907 A.D., it became the de facto Capital of North China when the regions rebelled against the central rule of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong in Chang'An (Xi'An).
Although the An Lushan Rebellion was defeated after its highpoint in the year 756 A.D. the northern city of Beijing and the regions beyond were never restored to the Tang Empire, instead falling under the influence of northern "barbarian" peoples of Mongolian descent.
Beijing became the Capital of China for the first time during the years of the Liao Dynasty (907 A.D. - 1125 A.D.), of which remnants can still be found in the city today.
The Liao Dynasty, who are also known as the Khitan Empire and were a vassal state of Tang arose in North China, Mongolia and Manchuria immediately after the Fall of the Tang Dynasty Empire in 907 AD.
Before counterbalanced and kept in check by the might of Tang Forces, after the fall the Tang, the Khitan People managed to conquer considerable parts of China before being absorbed by the Jurchen Jin Dynasty of later years.
became the first Great Khan to fully devote his attention to China.
It was he who pressed the war campaign against the Southern Song until it was fully completed, and it was he who brought all of China under Mongol Rule in the year 1279 A.D. It was also he who changed the changed the Mongol line of Great Khan's into an orthodox "Chinese" Dynasty.
Taking the Dynastic Title of Great Yuan (大元帝國), adopting Chinese court ceremony and posthumously conferring the Title of "Grand Progenitor" upon Genghis Khan while himself taking the Title of "Regenerating progenitor", the new styled Khan ruled essentially from the City of Beijing.
The future Emperor, Kubiliai, had first visited the city of Beijing in the year 1260 A.D. shortly after his election as "Great Khan" (Which made him the Supreme Grand Khan among the 4 Khans) when the ruined city was still known as Ta Qing (having been renamed from the Jin Zhongdu). In the immediate aftermath of this visit the Mongolians ordered repairs of the heavily damaged City Walls.
Then in 1263 A.D. upon his return to the city the Khan apparently had developed much more ambitious plans. At the time he ordered the construction of a new Imperial Capital with new city walls, an entirely new moat to surround it, and a Palace, all in locations slightly north-west of the old Jin Capital of Zhongdu.
It was only in 1266 AD, shortly before the Mongols full conquest and reunification of China that the reconstruction of the city began. Renaming what was left, the Yuan Mongols rebuilt the City, recreating it as their Capital, the City of Dadu also know as Khanbalik, the City of the Khan. Later after the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271 AD, the Capital of Beijing, would become the
The Liao Era Capital was divided into 26 Districts or Fang, a result of the strictly ruled district market system handed down from the Tang Dynasty. The Fang themselves were sub-divided into Shanlan, which were small sections of the City enclosed by Fences, inside of which a tight-knit community lived their lives plying (nearly) the same Trade. Shanlan were the economical building blocks of the City. This system of Shanlan would last throughout the following centuries and was still in use in Beijing throughout the Ming Dynasty Era (1368 A.D. - 1644 A.D.).
The oldest building in Beijing today dates from the Liao Dynasty Era (907 AD - 1125 AD) an Era of Foreign Domination for the Han. That is, the only and now unique stone Pagoda in Beijing, a part of the Temple.
The Liao Dynasty was established in 907 AD, and in 928 A.D. they broke through the Great Wall of China, or what remained of it a lenghty period of neglect during the Tang Era. Some decennia later in 936 AD, they established a secondary capital in what is now Beijing, renaming the city to Nanjing but at the time it was also known as Yenqing, which roughly translates as "City of Yen". In turn, Yen was the name given to the 16 north-eastern regions when they rebelled against central powers during the An Lushan Rebellion that nearly brought down the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. - 907 A.D.) in Fall the Khitan People managed to conquer considerable parts of China before being absorbed by the Jurchen Jin Dynasty of later years.
Under the Liao Dynasty it was named Nanjing (the "Southern Capital") opposing the Northern Capital Shangjing in Inner-Mongolia. It was also known as Yanjing.
In Chinese tradition, the Emperor was the center of all things and not his Palace. Thus, when the Emperor in China moved home, so the Capital was moved and the new Home City became the Political as well as the economical center of the entire Nation. Before 1153 AD several Cities had been the Capital of China, all of whom lay more to the West and near the Yellow River in Shanxi-, Henan- and Shaanxi Provinces.
The title of Imperial Capital however did not have the weight it would normally carry, since the Khitan who established the Liao Dynasty held firm to their "barbarian" or better said their nomadic ways, hence during the Liao Reign the Emperor and thus the seat of Government moved between five Imperial Capitals, according to the prevailing season. Thus, there was also a western and a central Capital, in addition to the southern Capital at Beijing and the supreme Capital in the ancestral heartlands of the Khitans.
As one court official describes this process in an account left from this era; "During the autumn and winter they shunned the cold; during the spring and summer they avoided the heat. Following water and grass and engaging in hunting and fishing made up the yearly routine. For each of the four seasons the Emperor had a temporary palace in which to reside. This was called a Na-Po."
A Na-Po then was apparently something like a large city of tents, something described as a "felt city" consisting of traditional nomadic dwellings by a visiting Song Dynasty diplomat.
As a result the Liao Dynasty "Capital" of Beijing was but a modest city, the remains of which can now still be identified just outside the former City Walls of the Ming & Qing Dynasty Capital in north-west Fengtai District. In fact, the Liao Dynasty did surprisingly little to alter the face of the existing city of Beijing, only adding a small "Imperial City" in the south-west corner of their Capital.
The city however did flourish as historical sources do tell that in the three main markets of Yen
(Beijing) of that time, "all the products of the soil and sea" were available to the inhabitants.
As recorded, actually none of these Na-Po tent cities were situated anywhere near the city of Beijing, however breaking with the overall routine, at some times, the Liao Dynasty Emperors would reside in the city of Yen (Beijing) when they would come to hunt duck and swans at a large lake situated near that city. It is known that the Liao Dynasty Emperors would engage in this hunting whenever they visited their "Southern Capital".
A written record describes how in the year 1025 ; "The Emperor paid his respects to the aged, showed his kindness to widowers and widows, and gave a banquet.
The drinking lasted until night fall. Six streets were illuminated by lanterns as if it were daytime. Officials and commoners strolled about enjoying themselves. The Emperor also looked on, being incognito."
A Historic Photo of the now destroyed Balizhuang Stone Pagoda Tower in the 1920's.
Yanjing - Beijing as Capital of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty
The Liao Dynasty established by the Khitans was eventually overrun by
more powerful forces descending from the Far North in the shape of the
In the following period of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115 AD–1234 AD), the City of Beijing was the Capital of China under the Name Zhongdu. The City of Zhongdu was located along the river near the village of Fengtai and today's Temple of Heavenly Peace (Tianning Si). It was so chosen by Imperial Decree in the year 1153 AD, and named Zhongdu (中都), or "Central Capital". The choice was a logical one since as the Jin controlled Manchuria as well as the North China plain entire, Zhongdu (Beijing) found itself in a near central location within this realm. The decision to move the central Capital to Yenjing also symbolized the Jin Dynasties acceptation of the fact that that their realm was essentially a "Chinese (styled) Empire" although its being run by an alien people originating from beyond the Chinese Realm.
Ransacking the fallen Song Imperial City of Kaifeng for materials, the victorious Jin constructed a new Capital with clear "Chinese" Feautures on the North China Plain. This new city was nearly square shaped and its 4 reinforced city walls measured some 20 miles in length, making it much larger than the previous Capital of the Liao Dynasty. In each wall there were 3 gates. Reportedly 800.000 laborers and 400.000 soldiers were called upon to build it.
Using some of the foundations of the former Liao Dynasty Palace, the Jin built an almost square walled city about 5 and a half miles in circumference within their Capital, creating an "Imperial City" within which the in Rulers could safely live secluded from the pre-dominantly Chinese citizenry. This was the Jin Palace, whose buildings were decorated in gold and painted in five colors.
The Jin Dynasty Imperial Palace, a fore-runner of the now world-famous "Forbidden City" stood for nearly a 100 years at the center of the City of Zhongdu starting a tradition of "forbidden" Imperial Cities within the "Northern Capital".
Beijing is prone to Earth-quakes, the last struck in 1976 AD laying waste to parts of the City of Beijing and killing 100's of 1000's in Fangshan.
With the gaining of the Title of Imperial Capital, the City of Beijing became the end-point of the then stil active land-bound Silk Road. The Caravans laden with goods started arriving at the City Walls in the 12Th Century. Their movements would continue throughout the years and centuries until well into the 1900's when they were finally replaced by railroads as the main means of long distance transportation.
The Stone Pagoda of the TianNing Si before official opening in November 2004 AD.
constructed in 1119/20 AD during the 9Th and 10Th Years of the TianQing Reign. Its Proud 58 Meter Tower for a long time was a landmark of Fengtai Village.
Earliest Origins of Today's Beijing
The fires lit by the Mongols in 1215 reportedly burned on and off for a full month gradualy erasing the existance of the once proud Jing Dynasty Capital. Meanwhile the remaining Jin, including the Emperor and his court fled to the City of Kaifeng establishing a new Capital on the ruins of the plundered second Capital of the Khitan Liao.
After the armies of Genghis Khan conquered Zhongdu and raised it to the ground, slums emerged due south of the Mongol nomadic Encampments, creating the earliest Xuanwu District. The Mongols however by no means intended to build a Capital at Beijiing, since they were nomadic, and since they already had a Mongolian Capital, which was the "city" of Karakorum, a huge tent semi-encampment. Karakoram was not turned from encampment into a city before 1236 A.D. and thus, after its destruction the remaining city of Beijing was used merely as convenient regional administrative center.
Then, in the middle of the 13Th Century certain centrifugal forces began to assert themselves. As the Mongol Empire stopped expanding, the four Khan's who had divided the conquered lands left by Genghis became rulers rather than conquerors, and they were compelled to grapple with the particular problems of their domains. Kublai (Also: Kubilai), the grandson of Genghis and the man who completed the conquest of the entire Chinese realm,
During the Liao- and Jin- and during the Jurchen Jin Dynasties, the Northern Tribes (Mongolians) had become an increasingly strong military power. After capturing western lands along the famous the Silk Road, The Mongolians moved on Jurchen Jin China. Under leadership of Genghis Khan, war was declared in 1211 AD, and in the resulting war the Jin suffered continuous loss of territory. In 1215 AD already, the 3 Mongolian Armies dispatched reached the Jin Capital, which was taken and destroyed after a short siege.
Zhongdu was wiped from the Map and existed no more. The Jin Empire however was not broken completely and the fleeing Emperor moved his Capital to an earlier Capital, namely Kaifeng on the Yellow River, due East of LuoYang. The final defeat at the hands of the Mongols came in the year 1234 AD. The City was overrun, and essentialy burned to the ground over the course of a month.
B.B.C. Historic Documentary on the Life of Temujin, aka Genghis Khan, featuring the siege and fall of the city of Zhongdu.
This page was last updated on: June 2, 2017
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Mongol (Tartar) Capital
Jin Dynasty Capital
Constructed at around the same time, a twin Tower of the TianNing Stone Pagoda, the Balizhuang Pagoda Tower stood in balance on the Eastern approaches to the City, however it was destroyed in the early 20Th Century by a heavy earthquake and no traces of it can be found today. Only old photographs of this ancient city monument are left to remind us.
Tianning Temple was recently restored and reopened in 2005 AD. It has been open to visitors eversince and is one of the more spectacular but "off the beaten Path" tourist spots within the city.
A Schematic Map of the Eurasian Trade Routes existing in the 13Th Century. Clearly marked in Red Accent on the Map are the cities of the network of land-bound trading routes through Central Asia known as the Silk Road (the path of Marco Polo and others).
Map Trade Routes in Asia in the 13Th Century.
Family to China and described his visit to the Imperial Palace as an awe inspiring experience. According to him the Palace was "Enclosed all around by a great wall forming a square, each side of which is a mile in length; that is to say, the whole compass thereof is four miles". As far as Marco Polo was concerned it was "the greatest Palace that ever was".
It would go too far to repeat everything that Marco Polo wrote about Dadu and the Imperial Palace of the Khan here, however among things he also noted that; "the roof is very lofty, and the Walls of the Palace are all covered with gold and silver". Furtermore he noted "The Hall of the (Central) Hall of the Palace is so large that iit easily could dine 6000 people; and it is quite a marvel to see how many rooms there are besides". "The building is altogether so vast so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything that is superior to it".
Last but not least, Marco Polo noted that "between the two walls of the enclosure which I have described (The city walls and the walled enclosure containing the Palace itself), there are fine parks and beautiful trees bearing a variety of fruits. There are beasts also of sundry kinds, such as white stags and fallow deer"
Thus the main lay-out for an Imperial Capital to last until today was
determined, and, as time passed, the legend of the Greatest Capital on earth was established in the far West, on the other side of the ancient "Silk Road" , in Europe.
Other intercontinental travelers arrived around the same Time, most notably Ibn Battuta (1304 AD–1368 or 69 AD), the Morroccan traveler who according to some historians visited Beijing as well. Together they described the City of Dadu, which was a city whose site was selected on the
Monuments of the City that arose during the Yuan Dynasty include the Imperial Academy (or College), which would play a central role in the Entry Exams for the Imperial Administration for the next 7 Centuries. Adjacent stands the Temple of Confucius established during the same time, another example of how the invading Mongols were by no means primitive and also adopted the majority of the customs of the sedentary city-bound lifestyle of the now oppressed Han Chinese. The Mongol Empire was the largest land Empire in history, and its creation provided entirely new circumstances for trade and migration across the continent. Thus, among things Beijing saw an influx of Muslim migrants and traders. The Muslims were highly appreciated allies of the Mongols in their conquest, and for their emissaries a special Mosque was built in the Dongcheng District. Today this Mosque, the Dong Si is still regarded as the Largest and Main Mosque in Beijing, and is the only one with a Minaret in the City. In fact, together with the Oldest Mosque in Beijing at Oxen Street (Niu Jie') in Xuanwu outside the City Walls it is listed among the 11 Historic Mosques in China (Read more in: "History of Islam in China").
The Central Hall of Teaching at the Imperial College, as first established by the Mongol Emperors of the Yuan Dynasty, in acknowledgement of the importance of the Confucian Scholars within the central administration of the Mongol-Chinese Empire, the Cathay Khanate (1271 - 1368 A.D.).
China Report - Map Yuan Dynasty Mongol Empire in Time 1206 AD - 1294 AD
A Schematic Map of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan (TeMuJin) and descendants through its several stages of conquest in its short but Impressive Existance in History. Timeline depicts the Mongol Conquest starting in the Year 1206 AD, when Genghis Khan first united the Mongol-Turkic Tribes of Mongolia and Lake BayKal becoming Great Khan. The Timeline continues through the year 1219 AD, the year 1223 AD taking Transoxiania, 1227 AD, 1237 AD when the Northern Jin Dynasty of China was annihilated, 1259 AD conquering ancient China above the Jiangste River and 1279 AD when all of China was taken and the Yuan Dynasty Established under the Kublai Khan. Last is the Year 1294 AD when the
home of a giant Imperial Palace.
As mentioned, the first parts of the City to emerge were mere Hutong, however it were the Mongolians who chose a new geographical location of the power Center within this Grandiose new Capital. The site first chosen was situated due north of the city walls of the destroyed city of Zhongdu and lay on the Eastern Bank of what was long known as Lake Jishuitan, which is the congregation of large lakes in the Center of above satellite image.
At the time it is said to have been the location of
Mongol Empire reached its largest geographical size and Zenith, 22% of world land area, but through lack of central leadership and over-expansion fragmented into 4 large parts, then imploded upon itself.
a magical Hill, which was placed upon an equally magical Island which was entirely surrounded by the Lake. It is known that in the Jin Dynasty this Island was highly revered, and to honor it as a special place, the hill had been ornamented with flowers and trees while marble pillaged from the fallen Song Capital at Kaifeng had been used to decorate it with ballustrades and walkways. Henceforth the Island, today a well-known part of the spectacular Beihai Park, became known as the "Island of Flowered Jade" and fell under Imperial Favor.
Even later, in 1179 the Jin built a lavish Palace with one hundred rooms on the eastern bank of the Lake surrounding the mound, including both within its grounds as part of its beautiful palace gardens. Today, it is held that this Palace was the first ever building to arise at the site of what, 3 Imperial Dynasties after, is still known as "The Forbidden City". The Palace was known as the "Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquilities" and served as the Summer Residence of the Jin Emperors. Under the Yuan Dynasty it would however become part of the winter residence (the main palace) of the Mongol Emperors.
To be exact, although the "Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquilities" was damaged during the Mongol siege and conquest of the City in the year 1215 A.D. it was still reasonably intact, and it is said that in 1260 A.D. when Kubilai first visited the Beijing area, the Palace was the only place in the city fit to serve as the residence of the all-mighty Khan and his court.
Some scholars and historians believe that Kubilai may have lived on the "Island of Flowered Jade" itself, protecting himself with the surrounding lake and finding his home at the "Hall of the Moon" on the Island between the year 1263 and the completion of the new Capital of Dadu (Khanbalik).
As for the rising city of Dadu, remaining documents have revealed that 382 families were displaced before the completion of the city walls in the year 1267. In 1268 A.D. already, temporary Palace Walls were put up and, some 3 years later, 1271 A.D. a work force reportedly of some 28.000 laborers descended on the site to replace them with the final walls to enclose the new Imperial Palace. Thereafter, in 1273 A.D. construction started on the actual Halls of the Palace, probably making use of materials and foundations of the old "Palace of Ten Thousand Tranquillities" as they were completed in that same year. Thus, on the day of the Lunar New Year (February 12, 1274) the Kubilai Khan, the Yuan Emperor was finally able to visit the main Hall of the Palace, there receiving congratulations from his flock of followers upon the completion of this giant feat of architecture.
(In all reality however, the Palace was not entirely complete with soldiers of the Imperial Body guard reportedly completing the Palace or repairs of it in 1281 A.D. wheras the City Walls of Dadu were completed as late as 1292 A.D. only shortly before the death of the first Great Khan turned Emperor.)
Marco Polo visited the City of Khanbalik in the Year 1273 AD during the second visit of the Polo
You Tube Video: Marco Polo - Journey to the East ; a Review of Marco Polo's tales of China (Cathay).
circular city of Beihai Park as well as the Island of Jade within its waters are said to be other remnants, having been a part of the inner Palace of the Kublai.
To find more information about the conception of the Imperial Palace of Dadu during the time of the Mongolian Empire and its great influence on the later architecture of the Ming Dynasty Capital of Beijing and its Imperial Palace, the "Forbidden City", read:
Starting with the settling of the Mongol Khan's and the subsequent Yuan Dynasty , Beijing has been the Capital City of China, with some interruptions, at least since the Year 1271 AD. Important
basis of topographical analysis made on the basis of geomancy (the theory of Feng Shui), and thus was a city built along Chinese traditional lines. This city was layed out in districts, with the Palace of the Emperor set along the North-South Axis facing the auspicious sun in the southern direction.
The Imperial Palace standing within the walled city, was called "Da Nei", or "Great Within". This Great Within then was the inner-most enclosed city in the City of Dadu (Khanbalik). Within the main wall of the city was the "Xiao Rampart" named after a heroic Liao Princess, which enclosed the whole complex of palaces, gardens and lakes that later times became known as the "Imperial City".
Within the Imperial City was the Palace City which, at least according to the accounts of Marco Polo, was itself enclosed by a 36 foot high wall. Marco Polo told that there were 8 watchtowers to each wall, and identified these as palaces rather than towers.
The precise dimensions of the Palace City of the Mongolian Emperor are, as yet, not precisely known however its enclosure probably measured somewhat under half a mile from east to west, and something like a 1000 yards from north to south. Access was provided by six gates, one in the north, one to each side and three in the south. Buildings within the Palace city were divided again by a north-south axis and balanced to each side.