1902 Encyclopedia > Peking (Beijing), China

Peking, China
(also known as: Beijing, Peiping and Pekin)

PEKING (BEIJING, PEIPING, PEKIN), the capital of the Chinese empire, is situated in 39° 36" N. lat. and 116° 27’ E. long., and stands on the northern extremity of the great alluvial delta which extends southwards from its walls for 700 miles. For the last nine centuries Peking, under various names and under the dominion of successive dynasties, has, with some short intervals, remained an imperial city. Its situation near the northern frontier recommended it to the Tatar invaders as a convenient center for their power, and its peculiarly fortunate position as regards the supernatural terrestrial influences pertaining to it has inclined succeeding . Chinese monarchs to accept it as the seat of their courts. In 986 it was taken by an invading force of Khitan Tatars, who adopted it as their headquarters and named it Nanking, or the "southern capital." During the early part of the 12th century the Chinese recaptured it and reduced it from the rank of a metropolis to that of a provincial city of the first grade, and called it Yen-shan Foo. In 1151 it fell into the hands of the Kin Tatars, who made it a royal residence under the name of Chung-tu, or "central capital." Less then a century later it became the prize of Jenghiz Khan, who, having his main interests centered on the Mongolian steppes, declined tomove his court southwards. To his great successor Kublai Khan (1280-1294), however, the establishment of a capital within the frontiers of China became an necessity, and, following the example set him by preceding sovereigns, he made choice of Yenking, as he rechristened the city. With his usual magnificence, he rebuilt the town, which became known in Chinese as Ta-tu, or "great capital," and in Mongolian as Khanbalik, or "city of the khan." During the reign of the first emperor of the dynasty (1368-1399) which succeeded that founded by Jenghiz Khan the court resided at the modern Nanking, but in the eyes of the succeeding sovereign Yunglo (1403-1425) the political advantages of a northern residence appeared so obvious that he transferred his court to Peking (i.e., the northern capital), which has ever since been the seat of government.

Peking (Beijing) map

Map of Peking (Beijing)
(Date: circa 1885)

During the periods above mentioned the extent and boundaries of the city varied considerably. Under the Kin dynasty the walls extended to the south-west of the Tatar portion of the present city, and the foundations of the northern ramparts of the Khan-balik of Kublai Khan are still to be traced at a distance of about 2 miles in a northerly direction beyond the exiting walls. The modern city consists of two parts, the nui ch’ing, or inner city, commonly known to foreigner as the "Tatar city," and the wai ch’ing,or outer city, known in the same way as the "Chinese city." These names are somewhat misleading, as the inner city is not enclosed within the outer city, but adjoins its northern wall, which, being longer than the nui ch’ing is wide, outflanks it considerably at both ends, as may be seen in the accompanying plan. The outer walls of the double city contain an area of about 25 square miles, and measure 30 miles in circumference. Unlike the walls of most Chinese cities, those of Peking are kept in perfect order. Those of the Tatar portion, which is the oldest part of the city, are 50 feet high, with a width of 60 feet at the base and 40 feet at the top, while those of the Chinese city, which were built by the emperor Kea-tsing in 1543, measure 30 feet in height, and have a width of 25 feet at the base and 15 feet at the top. The terre-plein is well and smoothly paved, and is defended by a crenellated parapet. The outer faces of the walls are strengthened by square buttresses built out at intervals of 60 yards, and on the summits of these stand the guard-houses for the troops on duty. Each of the sixteen gates of the city is protected by a semicircular enceinte, and is surmounted with a high tower built in galleries and provided with countless loopholes.

The population of Peking is reckoned to be about 1,000,000, a number which is out of all proportion to the immense area enclosed within its walls. This disparity is partly accounted for by the facts that large spaces, notably in the Chinese city, are not built over, and that the grounds surrounding the imperial palace, private residences, and temples are very extensive. Viewed from the walls Peking looks like a city of gardens. Few crowded neighborhoods are visible, and the characteristic features of the scene which meets the eye are the upturned roofs of temples, palaces, and mansions, gay with blue green, and yellow glazed tiles, glittering among the groves of tress with which the city abounds. Enclosed within the Tatar city is Hwang ch;ing, or "Imperial city," which in its turn encloses the Tsze-kin ch’ing, or "Purple Forbidden city," in which stands the emperor’s palace. On the north of the Tsze-kin ch’ing, and separated from it by a moat, is an artificial mound known as the King shan, or "Prospect Hill." This mound, which forms a prominent object in the view over the city, is about 150 feet high, and it topped with five summits, on each of which stands a temple. It is encircled by a wall measuring upwards of a mile in circumference, and is prettily planted with trees, on one of which the last emperor of the Ming dynasty (1644), finding escape from the Manchu invaders impossible, hanged himself. On the west of Prospect Hill is the Se yuen, or "Western Park," which forms part of the palace grounds. This park is tastefully laid out, and is traversed by a lake, which is mainly noticeable from the remarkably handsome marble bridge which crosses it from east to west. Directly northwards from Prospect Hill stand the residence of the Titu, or "governor of the city," and the Bell and the Drum Towers, both of which have attained celebrity from the nature of their contents, - the first from the huge bell which hangs in it, and the second from the appliances it contains for marking the time. the bell is one of five which the emperor Yung-lo ordered to be cast. In common with the others, it weighs 120,000 lb, is 14 feet high, 34 feet in circumference at the rim, and is 9 inches thick. It is truck by a wooden beam swung on the outside, and only at the changes of the night-watches, when its deep tone may be heard in all parts of the city. In the Drum Tower incense-sticks, specially prepared by the Astronomical Board, are kept burning to mark the passage of time, in which important duty their accuracy is checked by a clepsydra. Another of Yung-lo’s bells is hung in a Buddhist temple outside the north-west angle of the city wall, and is covered both on the inside and outside with the Chinese texts of the Lankavatara Sutra, and the Saddharma pundarika Sutra.

Turning southwards we again come t the Purple Forbidden city, the central portion of which forms the imperial palace, where, in halls which for the magnificence of their proportions and barbaric splendor are probably not to be surpassed anywhere, the Son of Heaven holds his court, gives audience to ambassadors from tributary states, and receives the congratulations of his ministers at the annual seasons of rejoicing. In the eastern and western portions of this city are situated the residences of the highest dignitaries of the empire; while beyond its confines on the south stand the offices of the six official boards which direct the affairs of the eighteen provinces. It was in the "yamun" of one of these boards – the Le Pu or board of rites – that Lord Elgin signed the treaty at the conclusion of the war in 1860, an event which derives especial interest from the fact of its having been the first occasion on which a European plenipotentiary ever entered Peking accompanied by all the pomp and circumstances of his rank. Outside the Purple Forbidden city the most noteworthy building is the Temple of Heavens, which stands in the outer or Chinese city. Here at early morn on the 22d of December the emperor offers sacrifice on an open altar to Shang-ti, and at periods of drought or famine presents prayers for relief to the same supreme deity. The altar at which these solemn rites are performed "consists of a triple circular marble terrace, 210 feet wide at the base, 150 in the middle, and 90 at the top." The uppermost surface is paved with blocks of the same material forming nine concentric circles, the innermost consisting of nine blocks, and that on the outside of eighty-one blocks. On the central stone, which is a perfect circle, the emperor kneels, "surrounded first by the circles of the terraces and their enclosing walls, and then by the circle of the horizon." In the same temple stands the altar of prayer for good harvest, which is surmounted by a triple-roofed circular structure 99 feet in height. The tiles of these roofs are of glazed porcelain of the most exquisite deep-blue color, and add a conspicuous element of splendor to the shrine, which even without their aid would inspire admiration by the grace of the design and the rare beauty of the materials employed in its construction.

The older powers of nature have shrines dedicated to them at the altar to Earth on the north of the city, the altars to the Sun and Moon outside the north-eastern and north-western angles respectively of the Chinese city, and the altar of Agriculture inside the south gate of the Chinese city. Next to these in religious importance comes the Confucian temple, known as the Kwo-tsze- keen. Here there is no splendor; everything is quite plain; and one hall contains all that is sacred in the building. There the tablets of "the soul of the most holy ancestral teacher, Confucius," and of his ten principal disciples stand as objects of worship for their countless followers. In one courtyard of this temple are deposited the celebrated ten stone drums which bear poetical inscriptions commemorative of the hunting expeditions of King Suen (827-781) B.C.), in whose reign they are believed, though erroneously, to have been cut; and in another stands a series of stone tablets on which are inscribed the names of all those who have obtained the highest literary degree of Tsin-sze for the last five centuries.

In the south-eastern portion of the Tatar city is the observatory, which was built by order of Kublai Khan in 1296. During the period of the Jesuit ascendancy in the reign of K’ang-he (1661-1721), the superintendence of this institution was confided to Roman Catholic missionaries, under whose guidance the bronze instruments now existing were constructed. Unlike the thoroughfares in the cities of central and southern China, the streets of Peking are wide and open, but, being unpaved and the soil being light and alluvial, they easily become almost impassable from mud in were weather and ankle-deep in dust in dry weather. The inhabitants of Peking being consumers only, and in no way producers, the trade of the city is very small, and the article of the European treaties which prohibits foreign merchants from trading within the walls is, therefore, to be regretted only as an instance of the narrow-mindedness of the Chinese Government.

E. Bretchneider, Archaeological and Historical Researches on Peking and its Environs (1876); S. Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom (1884); Edkins, Peking (1870)

The above article was written by: Robert Kennaway Douglas, Keeper of Oriental Printed Books and MSS. at the British Museum; Professor of Chinese, King's College, London; China Consular Service, 1858; Assistant in charge of Chinese Library, British Museum, 1865; author of The Language and Literature of China; Confucianism and Taoism; China; A Chinese Manual; and The Life of Li Hung-Chang.

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