The city of Beijing—bustling, sprawling, striving; home to some 15 million people—was originally designed along the simple lines of a body. According to legend, the god Nezha tamed the waters of the northern plain, and the layout of the city’s imperial buildings reflected his physical form. Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, represented Nezha’s brain. The Zhengyang Gate was his head. The Forbidden City contained the five viscera; Chaoyang Gate was the right hand. Every organ had its marker, and the design dated to the early 15th century, when the Ming emperor Yongle established the capital on its current site. Yongle was a ruler with vision, and he wanted the city to reflect his glory.
Today, the capital’s largest map publisher is a company called Sinomaps, and they have to update their Beijing diagrams every three months to try to keep pace with changes. Sometimes they even attempt to draw tomorrow: On the wall of their office hangs an enormous map of Beijing, future-tense. It shows an unbuilt Central Business District, a series of planned Olympic parks, and five subway lines that don’t yet exist. There are new streets, new buildings, new bus lines. The only thing that isn’t new is the sense of change, because for much of the past century Beijing has been a city in transition. Mao Zedong left his mark, commanding the destruction of the city walls, most imperial gates, and countless temples. After Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms, the market continued the process, as most of the old hutong alleyways became valuable real estate that was converted into wide streets and apartment blocks. If Nezha has any opinion on the changes, he’s in no position to speak. A good chunk of his head is now a traffic roundabout; his right hand has become a subway station. His guts are clogged with souvenir stands; his gullet is full of tourists. Mao’s creation of Tiananmen Square, a mile of empty marble, sits above Nezha’s brain like the blank beginning of an idea still waiting to take shape.
The people, though, will always tell you what they think. In modern times, that’s become the heart of Beijing; the city’s construction is a blur, but the local character can still be drawn in clear, precise strokes. The typical Beijinger is straightforward, practical, and opinionated. His Mandarin rolls with r’s, as if speaking through a mouthful of marbles. He knows politics and culture better than business, and he disdains the money-grubbers of Shanghai. The Beijinger can be cynical, but usually he expresses this through humor rather than anger. Mostly, he remembers. He remembers when the city was mostly hutong, and he remembers the clear blue skies of the pre-pollution capital. He knows what happened around Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. He also knows what it was like to live in poverty, and he hasn’t forgotten the decades of Western imperialism and Japanese invasion. This is Beijing pride—beneath it all lies the knowledge that for most of the last century, the Chinese were isolated and disrespected by the outside world. There is no other part of the country where memories are so long.
In February of 2001, before deciding on which city would host the 2008 Summer Games, the International Olympic Committee sent a final inspection group to Beijing. That week, the heat was turned off in many office buildings, in hopes of reducing pollution, and tens of thousands of volunteers cleaned up city streets. There were few complaints and not a single public protest; the typical Beijing cynicism evaporated. On the final afternoon, the foreigners traveled in a five-car motorcade, visiting potential event sites across the city. Whenever they came to a traffic light, it turned green, as if by magic. Bicyclists and pedestrians lined the intersections to watch; hundreds of street cleaners stood at attention, brooms in hand. Yongle’s vision had returned—one city, one body, one idea—and now it was just waiting to breathe.
PETER HESSLER taught English for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fuling, China, becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, was based on his experiences in Fuling. Later he became the New Yorker’s first full-time resident correspondent in China. His latest book is Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!