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Beijing History

Beijing has a long and tumultuous past–archaeological evidence unearthed nearby indicates that the early hominids known as “Peking Man” inhabited the area some 500,000 years ago. Since then, the city has seen imperial dynasties come and go and has been witness to wars, rebellions, foreign invasions and revolution!

The earliest records of human settlement in Beijing date back to 1000 BC. During the Warring States Period (453-221 BC) the town of Ji arose, serving as a trade outpost for Mongols, Koreans and other ethnic groups. Ji became the capital of the Kingdom of Yan, and its strategic position led to struggles for control between Mongols and Manchurians.

In 1215 AD, the capital fell to the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan and his warriors, during his campaign to build a vast empire. After a seven-year siege the city was destroyed. In its place emerged Khanbaliq (Khan’s Town) or Dadu (Chinese for Great Capital)–built in 1267, under the control of Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan. By 1279, Kublai had conquered all of China (together with most of Asia), becoming ruler of the largest country in history. This reign in China’s history is known as the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

In 1368 Zhu Yuanzhang led an uprising against the Mongol Empire and seized Khan’s great city. Thus began the Ming Dynasty. Under Zhu’s control, the city changed names to Beiping (Northern Peace) and was replaced as imperial capital by Nanjing (Southern Capital) in the south. The demotion did not last long, however. In the early 1400s, Zhu’s fourth son, Yong Le, returned capital status to Beiping and renamed the city Beijing (Northern Capital). It was Yong Le who laid 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 built during the reign of Yong Le.

The Manchus put an end to the Ming in 1644, establishing the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Under the Qing, Beijing was further expanded and modernized with the construction of the Old Summer Palace and the (new) Summer Palace. However, this peaceful period was to end in violence. By the late 18th century, Beijing was subject to foreign invasion from the French and British, followed by anarchy and local rebellion. The incompetence and corruption of the Qing rulers, particularly Empress Dowager Cixi (1834-1908), angered many Chinese and led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Many foreigners were killed and, in retaliation, foreign armies invaded Beijing.

The Qing Dynasty finally collapsed in 1911. The Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) rose to power and the Republic of China was founded with Sun Yat-sen as president. But the situation did not improve. Warlords and foreigners battled for control, and corruption and poverty were rife. These conditions were ripe for rebellion and change, leading to the growing popularity of Marxism and the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai in 1921. The Kuomintang, now under Chiang Kai-shek, allied with the Communists to seize control from the warlords and foreigners and to reunify China. However, a power struggle erupted between them after World War II, leading to civil war. Defeated, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and on 1 October 1949 the People’s Republic of China was formally declared by Mao Zedong from Tiananmen Gate.

Under Mao’s leadership, China struggled to erase the effects of feudalism and colonialism and build a new nation. Mao launched the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both of which led to disastrous 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, which remained until Mao’s death in 1976.

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’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, with the growth of private businesses, rising personal incomes and a boom in construction.