The Central Axis and the history of Beijing
By Lars Ulrik Thom  ·  2023-02-24  ·   Source: NO.9 MARCH 2, 2023
A digital exhibition on the Central Axis of Beijing projected onto the undercroft of the Drum Tower in Beijing on August 28, 2022 (XINHUA)

When pioneering journalist Eliza Scidmore, National Geographic's first official female writer, photographer and board member, visited Beijing in 1899, she wrote a 20-page rapturous article about the city's architecture. What I found curious was its absence throughout of the term Central Axis. 

It was in 1996 that I first arrived in Beijing from Denmark and discovered a stark difference in what Scidmore and I found most striking about the Beijing cityscape.

At that time I had no idea what the Central Axis was. But in retrospect, it was along this 7.8 km-long urban artery that I discovered Beijing's architectural essence. It was the Central Axis of Beijing that first led me to the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park. But Scidmore was less fortunate because, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), these imperial sites were off-limits to the outside world.

The history of Beijing has always fascinated me. I discovered the Central Axis continues to evolve and extend with the city's growth.

Beijing's Central Axis begins at Yongding Gate in the south and extends north through what is now Tiananmen Square, through the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park and up to the Drum Tower and Bell Tower. The term Central Axis came to prominence in the years preceding the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Another reason why Scidmore made no mention of the Central Axis was that it went by another name during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. In True Accounts of the Qing Dynasty, a compilation of official Qing Dynasty chronicles, the expression Imperial Road designates what we know today as the Central Axis of Beijing.

Some say that the celebrated architect Liang Sicheng, who studied urban planning in Beijing as a youth, first used the term Central Axis in reference to Beijing's backbone. The Central Axis was hence inextricable from urban planning.

There are many theories regarding the origins of the Central Axis of Beijing. As a foreigner, I am not qualified to say which is right or wrong, but my favorite one is Xi Jin Zhi Ji Yi. The author, Xiong Mengxiang, states, upon founding the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Kublai Khan wanted one of his closest advisers Liu Bingzhong to lay out and construct his new capital. After construction was complete, Kublai Khan asked Liu to confirm that the city, and his dynasty, had indeed been established along a central axis facing the north. Liu pointed to a tree standing outside today's Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the south end of the Forbidden City, and told the emperor, "This tree was my guide." Chinese ancients would often use the shadow cast by a tree or a pillar as a reference, whereby all shadows at noon point north.

The Central Axis of Beijing is thus a symbol of the ancient capital and is the world's longest urban central axis. According to modern calculations, the Central Axis of Beijing, as delineated by Kublai Khan, coincides more or less with the meridian line that runs through Beijing, deviating by just 200 meters.

It's position, however, was intentional, because Beijing was originally built as Kublai Khan's winter capital and, 270 km or farther north, stood Shangdu, his summer capital. Chinese fengshui (an ancient Chinese traditional practice which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment) held that building the capital and palace on the veins of the dragon that was believed to lie beneath Beijing would ensure a stable society and guarantee good harvests for all time.

Most of the important imperial buildings were positioned symmetrically to the east and west. The main reason why Kublai Khan established his capital in Beijing was its central location, which avoided containment by the north while enabling him to control the south. That centrality is why it's such an excellent choice for modern visitors! 

The author is a Danish historian who has lived in Beijing for more than two decades

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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