"Centre of the Middle Kingdom" Beijing by Ramonq

Beijing Travel Guide: 6,601 reviews and 16,753 photos

The Centre of the Universe

Beijing is a city of superlatives. It is the capital of the world's most populous nation. Its imperial credentials are impeccable. Many of its monuments and wide boulevardes are majestic and they have been drawing lots of visitors into the city. Beijing is definitely a must-experience place to visit. Walking around the world's largest square, the Tienanmien, I felt like I was in the centre of the universe because it is around here where this Asian superpower wields its omnipotence over 1.2 billion people. Around the expansive square are massive Stalinesque edifices that house the powerful Chinese bureaucracies. In the south end of the square are gigantic gates that used to be part of the wall that protected Beijing from the outside world. This wall has since been torn down and made way for a ring road. The north end of the square also has a gate which has the famous large painting of the revered Chairman Mao, whose remains are still on display in the mausoleum in the middle of the square. The north gate leads to the heavily fortified Forbidden City which was once cut off from the common people of Beijing for hundreds of years during the imperial times, until the erstwhile Chairman Mao abolished the monarchy to set up the People's Republic of China. Mao's effort to isolate China from the Western bourgeois culture through the Cultural Revolution program failed and China has now opened its gates to foreign influence.

Nowadays, the Forbidden City is open to the millions of local and foreign tourists and the whole of Beijing is embracing consumerism with gusto. Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympic Games which transformed the old city into a modern, albeit soul-less, place. Old hutongs (narrow-laned neighbourhoods) have been bulldozed to make way for strange looking highrise buildings, sinewy freeways and crowded subways. Beijing has increased its subway system for the Olympics and thousands of new cars are squeezed into the freeway every year while factories are mushrooming in the outskirts of the city. The air quality has deteriorated so badly that I could taste the dust particles!

The City throughout the Ages

Beijing has a 4000 year old history that started as a collection of farming towns around the vicinity. Various dynasties have developed the area, but it was the Ming dynasty which was spawned in the 11th century that transformed Beijing into the grand royal city that we admire today, a capital city for the Han Chinese people. Although the first appearance of the Great Wall of China was around the 8th century BC whose function was to defend warring Chinese states from each other and from the northern invaders, it was the Ming Dynasty who unified the states and expanded the wall to its most extensive form, as a fortification from the northern barbarians in Mongolia and Manchuria. This era was Beijing's Golden Age when many of the palatial temples ands royal residences were constructed. The beautiful wooden Temple of Heaven is one of the finest example of classical Chinese architecture. The Ming also laid the foundation for the square shaped city and constructed most of the popular tourist sites that can be seen today such as the Forbidden City and the Tiananmen Square. Beijing called itself the "Centre of the Universe" and the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo seem to agree according to his memoir during his visit to the city in the 15th century. A massive wall separated the city from the outside world, but these walls have since been torn down with only the gates retained for posterity, although the walls around the Forbidden City is still present

Despite its colossal size, the Great Wall was eventually breached and the Manchurians ruled China under the Qing Dynasty, yet they retained Beijing as the capital city. The Qing Dynasty built parks such as such as the wonderful Summer Palace. Alas the dynasty collapsed with the last Emperor, the child Puyi who was locked up in the Forbidden Palace in the early 20th century. China declined into a failed state with European powers carving up the place until the Boxer Rebellion erupted. The Summer Palace was looted by the vindictive Europeans, and later the Imperial Army of Japan marched down the Forbidden City. This was too humiliating for China, that by the end of WW2 the rise of nationalism led to the birth of the People's Republic of China under Mao Tse Tung. Beijing became a communist fortress which led to the capital city's isolation between 1940's-80's. It was said that Beijing was, during Mao's time, the grayest most boring city in the world, where faceless people wore black Mao suits and rode bicycles to the factories and bureaucratic offices.

Rise and Fall and Rise of Beijing

Even after his death, Mao's picture still hangs on the main entrance to the Forbidden City. He would be turning on his grave (which is right in the centre of Tiananmen square) if he sees what has become of Beijing today. It did not become the socialist Chinese paradise that he envisioned, but it is now more and more of a city that is embracing Western capitalistic values.

During the ancient times, when there is a problem, Beijing would build a wall around it, but nowadays, Beijing's solutions is to destroy or throw money at it. A classic example is the ever expanding rectangular ring roads around metropolis. The pace of change in Beijing is so fast that its citizens are showing signs of stress. People who used to live in medieval backwater hutongs have been forced to move out and learn how to use elevators to their homes or catch the Metro to work. Western luxury goods are everywhere including American fastfood stores. Bicycles are becoming rarer and the freeways are now choked with Japanese made cars. You will hear people constantly hacking, coughing and spitting out the putrid dusts from their lungs. Beijingers are resigned to this and they just leave it to the government solve the problems of the day.

But despite the frenzied massive infrastructure catch-up, I still like Beijing. One can still glimpse and experience the civil life. The parks around Beijing are still a welcome respite. The Chinese have a great talent for designing a peaceful and beautiful park. Elements of stone, water, trees and architecture all blend into an artwork masterpiece. I was very pleased to wander around Beihai and the Temple of Heaven parks. And there are many more parks being developed around this gargantuan city. As a result of lessons learnt during the Olympics, the city is looking into eco-friendly green solutions as they try to limit cars and factory emissions. With tens of millions of compliant citizens, this may be achievable. All the best to Beijing!

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Magnificent monuments
  • Cons:Air pollution
  • In a nutshell:The Great Oriental City
  • Intro Updated Jul 19, 2009
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