World Facts Index > China > Beijing

To the first-time visitor, Beijing seems vast and sprawling. Characterized by long, wide boulevards, and a labyrinthine network of overpasses and freeway systems, it can be a bit bewildering. Fortunately, there is order behind the seemingly apparent chaos. At the heart of Beijing is the Forbidden City, which lies literally smack dab in the center of the city. Beijing's lay out roughly centers around the three Ring Roads which encircle the city. The Second Ring and Third Ring Roads are the main freeway systems to take for getting around in the city and downtown. The Fourth Ring Road lies further out, and is useful for commuting to the airport or to the outlying suburbs.

There are 10 districts and eight counties in the Beijing municipality proper. Within each district are distinctive "areas". Most areas of interest are in the eastern Chaoyang district and central Dongcheng district of Beijing which make up downtown. The following list are highlights.

Chaoyang District - Probably the most concentrated commercial and residential area in Beijing, Chaoyang has most areas of interest for the visitor. Within this district are Chaoyang Park, Sanlitun, and the Jianguomen and Ritan area (business/embassy district).

Chaoyang Park - A beautiful park that is being touted as the next people-watching hang out to rival Sanlitun. Bars, pubs, restaurants and shops have all taken residence here. Buy freshly baked bread from Bella's and then scoot next door to Jenny Lou's to do a little bit of grocery shopping. Cap off the day by heading over to the Big Easy for some spicy Cajun and live blues.

Chongwen District - Located south of the city, this is an established area with boutiques, and shops selling everything from eyeglasses to sporting goods. Not as flashy as the other areas, Chongwen is still worth a visit for the Temple of Heaven as well as the Chongwen/Hongqiao open air market which is found northeast of Temple of Heaven. Bargains can be had for traditional Chinese handicrafts and other unique knick knacks.

Dongcheng District - Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Mao's Mausoleum- this is Tourist Central. Major hotels abound here such as the Beijing Hotel. If tired of sightseeing, one can always do some serious shopping in the neighboring Wangfujing area.

Fengtai District - This is located southwest of Beijing. Mainly an industrial area, there are several cultural and historical sites worth visiting such as the China Space Museum, Fengtai Park, and Marco Polo Bridge.

Haidian District - this northwest part of the city is also known as the university district where China's equivalent to Harvard and Yale, Beijing University and Qinghua University, reside. Because of the young student population, this area has a reputation for being hip, artsy and on the cutting edge. Also designated a high-technology zone, this is where the aspiring Microsofts and Internet start-ups are found. There are plenty of cheap restaurants and casual bars like Solutions that cater especially to the student crowd.

Jianguomenwai/Ritan - A wide mix of international faces can be seen here: tourists, businesspeople and local Chinese. The main street, Jianguomenwai, is a mad hustle of people, cars, and vendors selling everything from CDs to rickshaw rides. Major hotels and office buildings are found here, including the massive China World Hotel. Tourists can try their hand at bargaining at the always crowded Silk Market. Just a few blocks away, however, one can find peace and quiet in the graceful tree-lined streets of the embassy area, and in serene Ritan Park.

Sanlitun - Sanlitun is a loosely designated area of bars and pubs with Sanlitun Bar Street as its heart. Sanlitun Bar Street is Beijing's premier people-watching spot. On a warm sunny day, this is the place to be as people chill out over drinks on the outdoor sidewalk patios while watching life go by. Besides the ubiquitous cafes and bars, there are also numerous funky shops selling everything from framed prints to Tibetan handcrafts to clothes. The Sanlitun open air market is a place for good bargains on North Face jackets as well as other designer goods. At night, the decadent side of Sanlitun is revealed. Clubgoers can plan an evening itinerary by hitting the Den, the Vogue and Havana.

Wangfujing - This is Beijing's shopping street. Located in Dongcheng, it is perenially crowded at all times of the day with shopaholics and tourists alike. Recently unveiled to the public after months of renovations, this street is a showcase of Beijing's economic progress to modernity. Partially closed to cars, pedestrians have free rein over the wide sprawling streets. Stop off at the Beijing Foreign Language Bookstore to pick up a Chinese dictionary or the latest John Grisham potboiler. Go shopping at Sun Dong An Plaza, Beijing's mammoth-like shopping mall. Feeling peckish? Dine on deep fried scorpion among other culinary delights at the Wangfujing Night Market. If the idea of chomping on insects is not terribly attractive, upscale dining can be had at the several five and four- star hotels in the area.

Xidan/Xianwu - Like Wangfujing, this area is known for its shopping! But while Wangfujing is a place to be seen, Xidan is a place where local Chinese shop so better and cheaper deals can be had here than in Wangfujing. Browse in the small shops and stalls for bargains on clothing, shoes and CDs. Several shopping centers can be found here such as Parksons, Xidan Scite, and Xidan Department Store.

History of Beijing

Beijing's history spans back 500,000 years ago to the days of prehistory when the first primitive humans walked the earth. Archeological evidence unearthed near Beijing in 1921 proved the existence of Peking Man hominids. Since prehistory, Beijing has seen imperial dynasties come and go, and has been witness to tumultuous wars, rebellions, and power struggles.

The earliest records of human settlement for Beijing date back to 1000 BC during the Shang Dynasty when a small town name Ji arose, which served as a trading outpost for Mongols, Koreans and other ethnic groups. In the 7th century BC, during the Yan Kingdom, this town soon developed into the capital. Struggles for control of the establishment between the Mongols and Manchurians were frequent due to its advantageous geographic position. Around this time, the name Ji became displaced and Beijing was then known as Yanjing. A number of dynasties reigned supreme during this time.

In 1215 AD, the capital fell under attack by the Mongolian warlord, Genghis Khan and his warriors during his campaign to build his vast empire. After a seven-year siege, it was subsequently destroyed by the Mongols. In its place emerged Khanbaliq (Khan's Town) or Dadu (Chinese for Great Capital). It was built in 1267, under the control of Genghis Khan's brother, Kublai, Khan. By 1279, Kublai had conquered all of China, becoming ruler of the largest empire in history. This reign was known as the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

In 1368, ushered in another dynasty, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Zhu Yuanzhang led an uprising, overthrowing the Mongol empire and taking over Beijing. Under Zhu's control, the city changed names (again) to Beiping and was demoted from its capital status. Instead, the imperial capital was Nanjing located in the south. However, in the early 1400s, Zhu's fourth son, Yong Le returned the imperial capital back to Beiping and renamed it Beijing, which literally means Northern Capital. It was Yong Le who laid down 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 also built during his reign.

The Manchus put an end to the Ming Dynasty in 1644, establishing the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Under the Qing, Beijing was further expanded and improved with the construction of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). But this peaceful period would not last. By the late 18th century, Beijing was subject to foreign invasion from the French and British, anarchy, and local rebellion. Many Chinese were angered by the incompetence and corruption of the Qing rulers, especially Empress Dowager Cixi (1834-1908), leading to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Many foreigners were killed during the rebellion, and in retaliation, foreign Allied Forces invaded Beijing.

In 1911, the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed. The Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) rose to power and the Republic of China was founded with Sun Yat-sen as president. However, things still remained the same with warlords and foreigners battling for control, rampant corruption and poverty among the local Chinese. These conditions were ripe for rebellion and change, leading to the growing popularity of Marxism and the formation of the Communist Party. In 1921, the Communist Party was formed in Shanghai which included Mao Zedong as one of its members. The Kuomintang, under Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party formed an alliance to seize control from the warlords and foreigners and to reunify China. However, this alliance was not to last. A power struggle erupted between the Communists and the Nationalists after World War II, leading to civil war. Defeated, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and on October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was formally declared at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, China faced tumultuous years. Mao launched the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both of which led to disasterous 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. This chaos was to remain until Mao died.

In 1979, Deng Xiaopeng emerged as the country'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, growing private businesses, rising personal incomes and a construction boom - but it's still a question of what political change will result.


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