In Story of the ‘Jing, we examine the history and tales of our beautiful city and how they inform the capital as we know it today.
Beijing in the 21st century has no shortage of historical sites worth exploring for an afternoon. The current iteration of the Chinese capital dates back at least 600 years, or 700, depending on your opinion of Mongolian cultural and aesthetic contributions to urban planning. Since many of the most popular contemporary tourist attractions were those once controlled exclusively by the imperial court, despite their antiquity, it wasn’t until the last century that ordinary people (not to mention random foreigners) had access to the historic city parks and palaces. .
The agreement that led to the abdication of the last Qing dynasty emperor on February 12, 1912 included a caveat that the young monarch could continue to reside in at least part of his family’s former Forbidden City. While Puyi lived in the back hall of the palace, distinguished visitors and those with money for a ticket could visit a “Gallery of Imperial Antiquities”, which opened in 1914. A decade later, the lord Feng Yuxiang expelled the unfortunate former emperor and his family from the palace grounds. On October 10, 1925, a grand ceremony inaugurating the new Palace Museum was held in front of the Gate of Heavenly Purity, once the dividing line between the outer courtyard and the private inner estate of the imperial family. The Palace Museum of the Forbidden City celebrates its centenary in 2025, and plans are already underway for a series of special exhibitions to mark the occasion.
Other sites in the former imperial city, including many gardens surrounding the palace, were also opened to the public after the end of the dynasty. The Altar of Grain and Soil, located southwest of the Forbidden City, was opened as “Central Park” in 1914, one of the first former Imperial sites to become an entirely public park. In 1928, the name was changed to “Zhongshan Park” to honor revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (commonly known in Mandarin as Sun Zhongshan) who died in Beijing in 1925. Opposite Zhongshan Park, across the gate Tiananmen, the ancient The ancestral temple complex opened in 1924 as “Peace Park” before receiving its current name, “Beijing Workers’ Cultural Palace”, on May 1, 1950.
Access to Beihai Park was more limited. It was turned into a park in 1925 but was often closed to the public depending on the needs of the municipality and, later, the central government. It was reopened in 1978 and remains one of the most visited former imperial gardens in the city. Nearby Jingshan Park, famous for its 360 degree views of the city, was opened as a park in 1928 under the then newly established Palace Museum.
Without an emperor, there was little need to maintain the altars and other ritual spaces of the Temple of Heaven. Yuan Shikai, provisional president of the Republic of China but with an eye towards a more permanent position, made the last imperial sacrifices at the Temple of Heaven in 1913. Yuan died in 1916, his imperial ambitions in tatters, and the Temple of Heaven opened to the public in 1918.
The Summer Palace is another former imperial space that has since become a popular tourist attraction. The gardens, known in Chinese as Yiheyuan, were rebuilt in the 19th century after being destroyed by the 1860 Anglo-French Expedition at the end of the Second Opium War. After the end of the Qing dynasty, there had been a plan to eventually move the last emperor from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace once proper renovations had been carried out. In 1914, the Imperial Family allowed the Summer Palace to be open to visitors, hoping that ticket sales could cover some of the cost of maintenance and reconstruction. Puyi’s expulsion from the Forbidden City also meant the end of the former imperial family’s control over the Summer Palace. The Beijing municipal government converted the space into a public park in 1924.
While many sites in Beijing were opened to the public during the Republican period, few remained consistently accessible throughout the 20th century. There were long periods – particularly in the 1960s and 1970s – when old historic spaces were either closed for protection or reallocated to modern uses, including as police stations, warehouses, factories, schools and community centers. Prince Gong’s Mansion, near Qianhai, served as part school, barracks and air-conditioning factory before undergoing a complete makeover and welcoming the public from 1996. The Confucian Temple and Academy imperial temple housed the collection of the Beijing Capital Museum until 2006. One form or another of the Dongyue Temple has stood in its present location along outer Chaoyangmen Street for more than 700 years, but in the 20th century the site was handed over to a number of official (and unofficial) offices and organizations before which was left of the complex received a much-needed facelift and began re-admitting visitors in 1999 (it is currently closed for another round renovations).
It’s easy to take for granted the access we have to Beijing’s past or the care with which many of these sites are currently maintained, preserved, renovated and rebuilt. While many historic places no longer exist (or only exist during imperial times), efforts to open up Beijing’s history to the world have allowed residents and visitors to experience a bit of the grandeur and the majesty of the city. imperial past.
About the Author:
Jeremiah Jenne earned his Ph.D. in Chinese History from the University of California, Davis, and has taught late and modern imperial China for over 15 years. He has lived in Beijing for nearly two decades and is the owner of Beijing by Foot, running history education programs and walking tours of the city.
READ: History of the ‘Jing: What’s wrong with the old red door on Ghost Street?
Images: Historical Photographs of China from the University of Bristol