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History and development of Beijing

By Xing Xiaojuan, Cheng Shaoxia, Zhen Yinan, Lou Weisi, Dong Ming Updated: 2021-04-15 15:03

Beijing was once described by American architect Edmund Bacon as "possibly the greatest single work of man on the face of the earth". 

Beijing is a city combining history and modernity. Since the establishment of Youzhou (Youzhou was set up in the Han, Wei, Jin and Tang dynasties, covering the area of Beijing in ancient times), it has developed into a center for politics, culture and international exchanges as well as scientific and technological innovation.

Its special geographical location and political status give the city its characteristic shape.

Changes of the sites

Beijing has a history of about 3,000 years, and has almost continually been the capital for the last 800 years. It was the capital city in the Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, forming unique urban morphology and cultural accumulation.


Changes of the sites of Beijing [Photo/inBeijing.cn]

Zhongdu of Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) 

In the history of Beijing's urban development, Zhongdu occupies a special position. It was developed on the former site of ancient Jicheng with Lianhuachi (now near Beijing West Railway Station) as its main water source. In 1153, the Jin Dynasty moved its capital to Liao's Nanjing, calling it Zhongdu. Zhongdu was planned according to the layout of the capital city of the Song Dynasty's Bianliang (now Kaifeng in Henan province). Less than 100 years after its completion, Zhongdu was captured by Mongolian forces and completely destroyed.


Restored map of Zhongdu of the Jin Dynasty [Photo/inBeijing.cn]

Zhongdu consisted of a palace city, an imperial city and an outer city. The imperial city was located in the center of the outer city (slightly to the west), the palace city  located to the east of the center of the imperial city, and the north-south central axis of the palace city has become the main axis of the whole city. The central axis later became line 1 of the west wall of Beijing's outer city in the Ming and Qing dynasties (that is, today's Line 1 Binhe Road, Guang'anmen ).


Floor plan of the imperial city of Zhongdu [Photo/Gudu Beijing by Wang Nan]

Comparing the map of Zhongdu in the Dading and Zhenyou period (1160-1215) with the map of today's Beijing, we find that the location of Zhongdu is equivalent to the current western part of Xicheng District and parts of neighboring Haidian and Fengtai districts.

Its southwest corner is currently Fenghuangzui Village in Fengtai District (where there is now a Zhongdu Ruins Park), its northwest corner is Huangtingzi just to the south of the Military Museum, its southeast corner is Silutong to the southwest of Beijing South Railway Station, and its northeast corner is Cuihua Street in Xuanwumen.


Sketch map of Zhongdu and its current location [Photo/inBeijing.cn]

Dadu of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) 

In the early 1200s, the Mongols conquered large empires and tribal domains in central and northeastern Asia. One of the last of the empires that they conquered was the Manchu Jin Empire. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols captured Zhongdu in 1215 and looted and burned it.

Due to Zhongdu's ideal central northeast location for controlling their vast Yuan Empire, the Mongols established their new capital city there, calling it Dadu.


Restored map of Dadu of the Yuan Dynasty [Photo/inBeijing.cn]

The entire city area is square, with a perimeter of 28.6 kilometers and an area of 50 square kilometers, three fifths of the area of Chang’an in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Dadu consists of the palace city, imperial city and outer city, which were set symmetrically along an axis. The imperial city surrounded the palace city, and was built of stone. The central axis of the palace city was the central axis of the whole city.


Floor plans of the Ancestral Temple and Imperial Divine Temple in Dadu [Photo/inBeijing.cn]


Sketch map of the streets and Hutongs of Dadu [Photo/The Historical Architectural Map of Beijing] 

Beijing Yuandadu Relics Park is built on the basis of the Yuan Dynasty City Wall, and is the largest belt park in the urban area of Beijing. It integrates such functions as the protection of historical sites, the improvement of the ecological environment and leisure tours.

Beijing in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

In 1406, Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) ordered construction of the city of Beijing and the imperial palace.


Restored map of Beijing in the Ming Dynasty [Photo/inBeijing.cn]

During the Ming Dynasty, Beijing was divided into a total of 36 fangs (equivalent to the current day precinct), covering an area of about 62 square kilometers, with nine gates in the inner city and seven in the outer city.


Sketch map of the changes on the location of Dadu in the Yuan Dynasty and Beijing in the Ming Dynasty [Photo/Gudu Beijing by Wang Nan]

The planning of Beijing in the Ming Dynasty focused on the construction of the palace city and the imperial city. The palace city is the current Forbidden City. It is divided into two parts - the outer palace and the inner court. The outer palace consists of Taihe Palace, Zhonghe Palace and Baohe Palace, and the inner court has the three imperial harems of Qianqing Palace, Jiaotai Palace and Kunning Palace as its center; and finally there is the Imperial Garden.

In addition, Wansui Mountain (called "Jingshan" since the Qing Dynasty) was artificially piled up behind the palace city, forming the commanding height and geometric center of the whole city at that time. 

Outside the palace city is the imperial city. The imperial city was formed in the Yuan Dynasty, was called "Xiaoqiang", and played a role as the guard of the imperial city.

The Imperial Root Ruins Park on the east wall of the imperial city is by far the largest street park completely open in Beijing.

Famous buildings such as the Ancestral Temple (now the Working People's Cultural Palace), the Imperial Divine Temple (now Zhongshan Park) and the Temple of Heaven were all built in the Ming Dynasty.

The layout of Beijing remained unchanged during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the Minguo period (1912-49) until the early days after the founding of the People's Republic of China, while the urban area gradually expanded outward to meet development needs.

Beijing in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) 

The buildings and the general layout of Beijing remained unchanged during the Qing Dynasty. Comparing the map of Beijing in the Qianlong period (1736-1795) with others of the Ming Dynasty, we find that only the names of the main streets and palaces have been adjusted, while the number of streets has increased.


Restored map of Beijing in the Qing Dynasty [Photo/inBeijing.cn]


Sketch map of the layout of Beijing in the Qing Dynasty [Photo/Gudu Beijing by Wang Nan] 

The greatest contributions of the Qing Dynasty to Beijing's urban construction were the three mountains (Wanshou Mountain, Yuquan Mountain and Fragrant Hills) and five gardens (Changchun Garden, Yuanmingyuan, Qingyi Garden, Jingming Garden and Jingyi Garden) built in the city's western suburbs.


Floor plan of the "Three Mountains and Five Gardens" [Photo/The Historical Architectural Map of Beijing] 

Nowadays, there are new campuses and dormitory areas of Peking University on the ruins of the Changchun Garden; Yuanmingyuan was looted and burned by invading Anglo-French allied forces, and is now Yuanmingyuan Ruins Park; Qingyi Garden was renamed the Summer Palace after expansion, and is listed today as a world cultural heritage site; while Jingming Garden and Jingyi Garden are now Yuquan Mountain and Fragrant Hills Park (Xiang Shan).


Profile of contemporary Beijing [Photo/Gudu Beijing by Wang Nan] 

In 1949, Beiping was liberated peacefully. On September 27 in the same year, it was renamed Beijing and became the capital of the People's Republic of China. Since then, it has gradually developed into a modern metropolis.

Administrative Division 

With a history of over 3,000 years since the foundation of the ancient Jicheng in 1045 B.C., Beijing was previously the Shangdu of the Yan in the late Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century - 771 BC), Youzhou of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the capital city in the Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Now, it is the capital of the People's Republic of China.

Over this course it has developed into a national center for politics, culture, international exchanges and scientific and technological innovation center.

Since 1949, Beijing has experienced significant administrative division changes.

February 1949 


An interim division of 32 districts was effected based on the 20-district division of the Kuomintang administration before 1949.

October 1949


32 districts were merged into 26 districts, and further rearranged into 20 districts after the take-over.

September 1952


Wanpin county (in whole) as well as Fangshan county and Liangxiang county of Hebei province (in part) were allocated to Beijing.   

March 1956 


Changping county was dissolved. All administrative regions of Changping except Gaoliying Town were incorporated into Beijing as Changping district. Additionally, seven townships of Tongxian county of Hebei province, namely Jinzhan, Changdian, Beigao, Sunhe, Cuigezhuang, Shangxinbao and Qianweigou, officially became part of Beijing.

March 1958 


Tongxian, Shunyi, Daxing, Liangxiang and Fangshan,under the jurisdiction of Tongxian special region of Hebei province, as well as Tongzhou city were transferred to Beijing.

October 1958


Huairou, Miyun, Pinggu and Yanqing counties of Hebei province joined Beijing.

February 2010 


Dongcheng district and Chongwen district were dissolved. In replacement, a new Dongcheng district was set up. In the meantime, Xicheng district and Xuanwu district were dissolved to form a new Xicheng district, covering both the old Xicheng and Xuanwu districts.



On April 30, 2015, the Outline of the Plan for Coordinated Development for the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region ("Outline") was approved by the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, which specified the tasks to release non-capital functions from Beijing in an orderly manner, accelerate the planning and construction of the subsidiary administration center of Beijing (i.e., the sub-center), and promote relocation of municipality-affiliated entities in whole or in part to the sub-center. 

Topographic Features

Beijing covers an area of 16,410.54 square kilometers (sq km) and is located at a latitude between 39.4 and 41.6 degrees north and a longitude between 115.7 and 117.4 degrees east. Beijing has a higher northwestern part and a lower southeastern part. To the west is a branch of the Taihang Mountain – Xishan Mountain; and to the north is Jundu Mountain, part of the Yanshan Mountains. They intersect at Beijing's Guangou Valley, shaping a giant semi-circle curve opening to the southeast. This curve is called "Beijing Bay".  

Despite a largely mountain-dominated terrain, Beijing has plains, hills and terraces. Overall, five river systems run through the city, the Yongdinghe River, Chaobaihe River, Jumahe River, Wenyuhe River-Northern Canal System and Juhe River–Ji Canal System.

Situated at the northern end of the North China Plain, Beijing is at the junction of three different geographic areas, i.e., the Northeast Plain, Mongolia Plain and North China Plain. The city borders the Central Plain in the south and lies near the Bohai Sea in the east. As part of the Haihe River System, the North Canal, Yongdinghe River, Daqinghe River, Ziyahe River, and South Canal collectively form a gigantic section-shaped system that converges at Tianjin to flow into the Bohai Sea.


The following shows the look of the Olympic Center area from 1999 to 2017, including how the National Stadium (a.k.a. Bird Nest) was constructed and how the neighboring area changed from the bid-winning to the closing of the Olympics Games.

Underground Pipelines 

There is a huge, complicated pipeline network underground, including power, telecommunication, sewage, gas and heating systems, which secures effective operation of the city like the bloodline.

Along with the city's development, underground pipeline systems have been expanding. According to a survey by the Beijing Institute of Surveying and Mapping that covered 81,700 kilometers of underground pipeline, the Dongcheng and Xicheng districts have the highest piping density. Some areas can have a dozen pipes placed in parallel underneath the roads.

Urban Transport 

Supported by a large complex transport system, Beijing offers highly integrated transportation by highway and railway and bus to meet people's daily needs. According to available statistics, on average, people in Beijing commute approximately 17.4 kilometers and spend 52.9 minutes on the road every day. Traffic has been a prominent "city disease".

Stereoscopic Topography

Beijing – a world-renowned historical city – has maintained its historical landscape. Utilizing three-dimensional modeling, the Beijing Institute of Surveying and Mapping has launched city models for areas within the sixth ring road, including refined representation of modern architecture such as Chang'an Avenue and Guomao (a.k.a. Beijing CBD) as well as historic establishments such as the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Shijia Hutong. The 3D models show the details of the city's texture.

These 3D models have an important role to play in updating historical blocks and cultural/architectural preservation, as history has been recorded in great detail, including that of the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City.

In addition to offering a base platform for refined urban management at greater efficiency, these models will provide spatial data support and services for projects in smart city urban planning and city preservation.

Over the course of history, the city of Beijing has left everlasting footprints on the map. Thanks to the old town preservation project as well as key projects such as the Sub-center, Winter Olympics and Daxing International Airport, Beijing will take on a new refreshed look.



Topography amplitude map of Beijing (Source: Announcement of Beijing Municipality's First National Geography Census)



Landsat image map of Beijing (Source: Announcement of Beijing Municipality's First National Geography Census)



Topographical division map of Beijing (Source: Announcement of Beijing Municipality's First National Geography Census)



City image map of National Stadium and neighboring blocks (Source: Data Aircraft Carrier by Beijing Institute of Surveying and Mapping)



Underground pipeline types and distribution of Beijing (Source: Data Aircraft Carrier by Beijing Institute of Surveying and Mapping)


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Thermal map of public transportation of a certain date in Beijing (Source: Data Aircraft Carrier by Beijing Institute of Surveying and Mapping)


Source: Data Aircraft Carrier by Beijing Institute of Surveying and Mapping

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