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Roads, Gates and Walls - Beijing Then and Now

Chinese History - Beijing Walls, Roads and Gates
Beijing’s ring-roads follow the routes of the old city walls

by Luke Hambleton

One of the first things that any visitor to Beijing will notice is an obsession with building ring-roads around the city. The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth ring-roads encompass the city like the ripples on a pond.

The more observant among you will have noticed that there is no first ring-road. It is thought that the honour of being the number one road of the capital goes to Chang’an Avenue that intersects with Tian’an men Square at the very heart of the old Imperial City.

In the same way that modern Beijingers define addresses and navigate around their city using references such as north, south, east, west, inner, outer, second, third ring road, we know that the city walls served the same purpose during the Ming and Qing.

Before being torn down to make way for the ever expanding railway infrastructure in the 1950s, the walls and gates of Beijing acted as focal points and barriers between communities in and around the city.

For example, the gate at Xizhimen became famous among Beijingers as an escape route from the monotony of the city into the verdant Western Hills. Sites that still pleasure locals on day trips such as Xiangshan and the Botanical gardens were the destinations of choice passing out of Xizhimen.

The surviving Deshengmen gate became connected with the exotic Silk Road, as trade and diplomatic envoys from Central Asia could frequently be seen on transit here.

In a similar fashion, Chaoyang gate opening out to the east was the very first glimpse of Beijing caught by traders and travellers from the south who had taken the Grand Canal that terminates in the eastern suburb of Tongzhou. The best living example of this can be seen at the markets around Qianmen (just south of Tian’anmen Square).

Famous as a bottleneck entrance to the city, it has always been a favourite spot for traders to set up shop and continues to be a great place to hunt down those bargain T-shirts and Mao badges.

Western tourist to Beijing today follow in the foot steps of men such as scholar Liu Shangyou who was so impressed by the walls in 1643 that he couldn’t help murmuring to himself “How beautiful the vastness of the mountains and rivers. This surely is a gift from Heaven!”

Late 19th century tourist E.T.C. Werner remarked that he felt like a “puny Occidental” when faced with the soaring turrets of Beijing’s gate houses.

Three of the best surviving examples today can be seen at Deshengmen (5 mins walk east of Jishuitan subway), Yongdingmen (next to the Temple of Heaven) and Qianmen (on Tian’anmen Square) which houses a small museum of quaint old Beijing photographs.

The only part of the main city wall to be left standing today can be found just behind Beijing railway station at Chongwenmen, the home of the tax and revenue offices for all trade in and out of Beijing.

Although it maybe difficult to imagine the emotions felt by the likes of Liu and Werner, the modern visitor can still climb the wall and if you’re lucky, even meet the Keeper of the Wall who inhabits the original guard tower.

To fully understand the layout of Beijing today, it is important to trace the development of the structures that defined the city in the past: her gates and wall. The old Imperial City, whose main entrance, Tian’an men, still takes pride of place in modern Beijing, stood at the heart of the 15th century Ming city.

At its centre lay the Forbidden City with the city walls enclosing the park lands of Beihai and Zhongnanhai, as well as a section of the city just to the east of the Forbidden City, in which the relatives of successive emperors lived.

A very short section of this wall which separated the imperial family from their subjects can still be seen today at the Imperial City Wall Park just north of Wangfujing.

The main city wall follows the course of the No. 2 subway line. Originally constructed during the Yuan dynasty, it was extended to form the current shape of the second ring-road during the Ming in 1550 to include a rectangular block of land to the south.

This was to protect religious sites such as the Temple of Heaven and the main Mosques of Niu jie (Ox street) from increased Mongol attack. This southern section of the city was to become the home of all ethnic Chinese residents of Beijing when the Manchu army invade from the north in 1644. T

hese events lead everything within the second ring road area to be split into the Manchu and Chinese Cities, with Tian’an men, as always, at the centre.

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