China Beat Archive



Rob Gifford

Date of this Version


Document Type



July 21, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright July 21, 2008 Rob Gifford. Used by permission.


The essence of Beijing has always been found in its buildings. The city has no major river, no coastline. There are some hills to the west and the north, with the Great Wall stretched across them, but there is none of the geographic razzle-dazzle that created towns like Hong Kong or San Francisco or Sydney or Istanbul. As the historian Arnold Toynbee noted when he visited in the 1930s, Beijing as a city owes little to nature and everything to art.

The art of which Toynbee wrote was contained within the ancient walls of the Forbidden City, where the emperor resided at the heart of old Beijing. But the art was also the buildings themselves: beautiful, angular structures that suffused the dusty soil beneath them with an imperial significance, sanctifying an otherwise unremarkable spot on the North China Plain.

The man responsible for creating Beijing was the third emperor of the Ming dynasty, known as Yongle. On his orders, between 1405 and 1421 thousands of workers constructed a new city, a city that would be the new capital not just of China but of the world, and indeed the universe. In traditional thinking, all under heaven belonged to Yongle, and all the world revolved around his domain, a belief made explicit by the country’s name for itself: Zhong Guo, the Middle Kingdom.