Běijīng (北京) first emerged as a national leader some 2,000 years ago. It was originally called Yànjīng (燕京) when it was established as the capital of the State of Yan, and for this reason you’ll see Yanjing Beer across town; it’s one of the favorite brews amongst the locals. After the fall of Yan, during the later Han and Tang Dynasties, Beijing lost its status as a capital, but it remained a major prefecture of northern China.
In 938, Beijing was conquered by a nomadic people called the Khitans, who declared it the capital of their Liao Dynasty (907-1125). Later, the Mongols seized the city in 1215, and in 1264 Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) made Beijing the capital of China, naming it Great Capital (Dà Dū;大都).
After Kublai moved his capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Beijing (a move to gain more control over the Chinese heartland), the empire encompassed most of East Asia. Beijing, under the rule of the Khans of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368), developed into a major world city, and it was during this time that it saw the rise of the Bell and Drum Towers, the hutongs, the city wall, and many other monuments that still grace the historic landscape.
After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, the emperors of the ensuing Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) moved the capital to the southern city of Nánjīng (南京). However, in 1403 the Ming Emperor Zhū Dì (朱棣), also known as Emperor Yǒnglè (永乐), moved it back to Beijing and gave the city its current name (Nanjing means Southern Capital, while Beijing means Northern Capital). The Ming period was Beijing’s golden era, a time when the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, an enormous section of the Great Wall, and many other Beijing landmarks were built. During Ming rule, Beijing prospered into a massive city, becoming the religious and cultural center of Asia and one of the biggest cities in the world.
In 1644, the Manchu descendants of the Khitans overthrew the declining Ming Dynasty and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Manchu imperial court, taking full advantage of the Ming’s ambitious building projects, moved into the Forbidden City and contributed to Beijing’s aura by constructing the Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace. These palaces served as retreats from the steamy Beijing summer heat for the emperors and their entourages.
It was also during the Qing Dynasty that Western countries established foreign legations in the Qiánmén (前门) area, south of the Forbidden City. China was notorious for closing its gates to the world, but that all changed after the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s, when the country was forced by France and Britain to open its doors.
With Christian missionaries and businessmen flooding into China and the disarray of the Qing Empire, frustrated and unemployed locals banded together in the name of nationalism to eject the foreigners. Foreign churches, embassies and businesses suffered violent and deadly attacks around Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, as the Boxers – known as such because of the martial arts they practiced – tried to rid their land of all things foreign.
In the end, a force of eight world powers (the UK, the US, Japan, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany and Italy) intervened militarily to quell the radical Boxer Rebellion. The Eight-Nation Alliance succeeded and eventually forced Empress Dowager Cixi (who originally supported the Boxers) to sign a series of unfavorable treaties – a move that eventually lead to the Qing’s demise.
The Qing Dynasty came to an end in 1912, and China fractured into a land of competing warlords. The Kuomintang political party (KMT, or Nationalists) under the guidance of Sun Yat-sen (the first president of China) took power and moved the capital back to Nanjing in 1928, renaming Beijing to Běipíng (北平; Northern Peace). Beijing still remained an important city during the years of KMT rule, but it returned to the front stage after the Nationalists were first weakened by the ferocious Japanese invasion and then defeated by a communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong. On October 1, 1949 Mao stood on the balcony of Tian’anmen Tower and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China with its capital in Beijing. Since then, Beijing has been the nation’s political, cultural and educational hub, and it’s considered the ideological center of the Chinese nation.
Today, Beijing is often described as a city of curious contrasts. This sprawling metropolis of more than 20 million people is one where you and your neighbor might still use a communal outhouse. It’s a center of bold, outspoken modern art, but you still can’t access Facebook or get uncensored internet searches. There are more Gucci stores than days of the week, but shoppers in these high-end venues walk in wearing rubber ducky pajamas. Hard science and technology are lauded as the road to prosperity, and yet people will still pay out the nose to avoid having an unlucky 4 in their phone number.
Make no mistake, these endless juxtapositions are more than just contrasts – they’re conflicts. The destruction of Beijing’s ancient hutong alleyways is merely the most visible symbol of a culture that is being torn down, papered over, imported, exported and rebuilt at a whiplash-inducing pace. Alongside old pleasures like tranquil walks at the Temple of Heaven, blue skies over the ancient towers of the Great Wall, and perfectly prepared portions of Peking Duck, Beijing offers hordes of office workers fighting their way through jam-packed subways, while intractable pollution clouds blot out the sun for days at a time and massive abandoned shopping malls glisten with wasted marble and glass.
Beijing’s contradictions can be seen in the people as well since much of local life takes place in public: men get haircuts on the curb, elegant old women practice ballroom dancing in the park, and young people, escaping the lack of privacy that results from multiple generations living under one roof, take their courtship to the streets. At the same time, thanks to the internet and Western TV and movies, the average Chinese high-schooler may be just as vampire-obsessed, social media-happy and NBA-gripped as their American or European counterparts. Personal appearance is also seen as an important means of self-expression, just as in the West, and tattooed punk rockers and gold-plated iPhone fashion cases attract no special attention on the street.
For now, Beijing is the political center of the world’s emerging superpower, and it’s doing everything in its might to keep the country steaming ahead on this trajectory. Already the policy changes decided in its walled compounds and massive ministries resonate not only throughout China, but to the furthest corners of the globe. No one knows for sure where Beijing will lead the country of China, but if history is any indicator, you can be sure that any major events will probably happen right here in the capital.
It’s hard to say what Beijing is for sure, except that it’s gritty, it’s thrilling, and it’s the perfect time to visit, because in this moment the past and the future are equally visible. So what are you waiting for? Come now, because this place changes in the blink of an eye.
One aspect of Beijing culture is the appearance of its leadership: nine times out of ten, you can count on a politician being a middle-aged man in a dark suit in the back seat of a Benz with dyed jet-black hair. It’s said that gray hair is a sign of vulnerability, so Chinese politicians hit the salon to maintain a coal-black coif. The mayor of Beijing, a 56-year-old Communist Party member named Wáng Ānshùn (王安顺), is no exception. Wang took office in January 2013 after serving the Party in Jilin Province, Gansu Province, and Shanghai. Upon his election, Wang told news outlets that he vowed to do more to manage Beijing’s recurring air pollution problem, saying, “The current environmental problems are worrisome.” Surprise, surprise! So far the hazardous levels of air pollution only seem to have gotten worse.
Though he runs a city of more than 20 million, Wang and his nine vice-mayors are overshadowed by Guō Jīnlóng (郭金龙), the Party Secretary of the Beijing Municipal Committee, who is the highest-ranking official in the government of Beijing. Also in the mix are the national-level politicians who live and work in Beijing, like China’s newly appointed president, Xí Jìnpíng (习近平), who is considered by some observers to be a relatively conservative politician who is likely to support stronger government controls and make no real effort to increase transparency.
The real thorn in the government’s side is the internet, which certainly didn’t invent political dissent, but has made it much easier to spread. As the Great Firewall of China maintains an ever-growing list of blocked sites and search terms, Chinese netizens have taken to Twitter-style micro-blogging sites such as www.weibo.com to spread news, gossip and opinions that travel fast and far before censors can kick in.
For these reasons, it should be no wonder that Beijing, as the heart and soul of Chinese politics, is the epicenter of China’s large and somewhat influential group of micro-blogging crusaders. Recently, however, the government passed anti-defamation legislation to issue prison sentences for any netizen – blogger or otherwise – who posts an “inaccurate rumor” that goes viral. What makes the new law especially draconian is the fact that China’s version of “viral,” in this instance at least, is if the “rumor” is reposted 500 times or more and is viewed by at least 5,000 people; decidedly low numbers. Since the law was passed in the summer of 2013, dozens have been detained, internet censorship is tighter than ever, and blogging site Weibo has seen a 70% drop in usage since its peak in 2012.
While Beijing’s southern counterpart Shanghai has a reputation as China’s financial hub, the capital is giving it a serious run for its money. Many heavy industries and factories have been pushed out of Beijing – Beijing Capital Steel, once one of the biggest employers and biggest polluters in town, has been relocated to Tángshān (唐山) in Héběi (河北) Province – as the city attempts to ditch the “Made in China” manufacturing-based image of Chinese business and refashion itself as a center of white collar entrepreneurship and innovation.
Beijing is home to 44 Fortune 500 companies, more than any city in the world except Tokyo, and 279 Fortune 500 companies have invested in more than 637 projects in Beijing. The action is clustered in several areas. The Central Business District on the east side of town has become a hub of corporate headquarters, high-end malls, and housing to serve the business community. Financial Street (Jīnróng Jiē;金融街), known as Beijing’s Wall Street, is another hotspot for growth, as is Zhōngguāncūn (中关村), which is often called “China’s Silicon Valley.”
All of this investment led to a blistering 9% growth in GDP between 2011 and 2012. The rosy picture is occasionally interrupted by complaints over corruption and the growing inequality between rich and poor, and sky-high real estate prices have Beijingers’ income stretched thin. But in a country with extreme poverty and economic restriction only in its recent past, rising living standards go a long way toward neutralizing discontent.
Peking Duck may be the most famous of the capital’s culinary offerings, and with its crisp red skin, tender meat, and huge array of sauces and accompaniments, it’s easy to see why. But a fancy duck dinner doesn’t quite capture the real food scene in Beijing, where a wide variety of cheap, filling, and delicious fare is the default. Whereas rice is the staple food in southern China, northerners tend to go for bread and noodles. For breakfast, Beijingers tuck into yóutiáo (油条，fried dough sticks) and wash it all down with hot soy milk. Bǐng (饼), a thin pancake-like bread, appears in all forms, from the crunchy jiānbǐng (煎饼) to meat-stuffed ròubǐng (肉饼), and from jiǔcài bǐng (韭菜饼) stuffed with cabbage, chives, leeks, and egg to dàbǐng (大饼) sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Beijing is a dining out kind of town. There are 60,000 restaurants here and many of them overflow out onto the sidewalks. Roasted sweet potatoes are for sale on practically every corner, along with boiled corn and, in the summer, slices of pineapple or melon on a stick. You can’t take two steps in Beijing without passing a place selling chuan’er (chuàn’er; 串儿) – meat kebabs, usually lamb – jiǎozi (饺子; dumplings), bāozi (包子; steamed buns with meat or veggie filling), or mántóu (馒头; steamed bread rolls). Food from other areas of China is well-represented in Beijing too (spicy Sichuan, sweeter Shanghai, hearty Mongolian hot pot, etc), and there are even Western imports like KFC and Pizza Hut.
What is a hutong? Well, in short they are ancient alleyways originally built by the Mongolians around 800 years ago. The original hutongs were shaped and formed over the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties by siheyuan (four-sided courtyard houses). Over time and subsequent population booms, the hutong neighborhood planning structure soon formed into a fascinating maze of narrow alleyways, while many siheyuan were divided up into sections to fit different families. The communists of the ‘60s and the capitalists of today have had a field day bulldozing these classical streets and houses to make room for the new.
A saying among Beijing old-timers is, “There are 360 large hutongs and as many small hutongs as the hairs on an ox.” That may have been true 60 years ago, but it’s less true every day, as the city continually razes these ancient alleyways to construct higher-density neighborhoods with more modern amenities. In fact, in 1949 the city had 3,050 hutongs, and in 2004 the count numbered only 1,300. Today, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 remain.
Among the dusty and ramshackle dwellings crammed into many hutongs, there are some real gems, like beautifully preserved ancient courtyard homes complete with elaborately painted façades and glazed tile roofs. Some hutongs, like Nánluógǔ Xiàng (南锣鼓巷), Wǔdàoyíng (五道营), and Fāngjiā (方家), have been almost completely co-opted by bars, restaurants, boutiques, and shops catering to tourists, expats, and wealthy Chinese. Do a little wandering and you can easily find yourself on a relatively untouched street, with laundry hung out to dry, folks gathered chatting on stoops, and grandparents working out on low-tech public pull-up bars.
According to ubiquitous government posters, the Beijing spirit is “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness and Virtue.” But what it means to be a Beijinger has become harder to pin down with the influx of an estimated 7 million plus migrant workers to the capital. Though they build the subways, staff the restaurants, nanny the children, and generally subsidize the increase in living standards for the middle-class by working for scandalously low wages, they’re derided as wàidìrén (外地人; outside place people) and are blamed for everything from overpopulation to pollution. Making matters worse, because the government distributes social benefits through a residence permit called hùkǒu (户口) that is tied to one’s place of birth, these migrants have little access to health-care or education once they leave their hometown since they don’t hold a Beijing hukou.
At last count, Beijing’s population numbered over 20 million, making it one of the most highly populated cities in the entire world. As if this 20 million figure wasn’t impressive enough, the reality of Beijing’s population may be even bigger thanks to these migrant workers. The city’s true headcount is notoriously difficult to grasp because of the transient and unregistered nature of its migrant population, but one unofficial counting method that has been suggested measures the number of Beijing transportation smartcards issued, which Beijing’s Municipal Commission announced is now over 40 million. Even accounting for tourists (most of whom don’t use them) and other visitors, that number is certainly far higher than the 20 million usually put forth. Despite serious air pollution and extremely high property prices, by some estimates more than 500,000 newcomers arrive in Beijing every year.
The curious demographics of Beijing’s population have also been shaped in other ways. Beijing is a city of only “one child,” thanks to the One Child Policy that was introduced in 1979 to control China’s mushrooming population. The result is what some call “Little Emperor Syndrome,” where every child is an only-child and therefore subject to a confusing mix of smothering adoration and painfully high expectations for success. A preference for male children led to widespread selective abortions, causing men to outnumber women so badly that by 2020 it’s estimated that more than 24 million Chinese men may be unable to find a spouse. So, Beijing, along with other Chinese cities, is full of single males and spoiled children. Yikes!
China boasts 56 ethnicities among its population, though Han Chinese are by far the majority. In Beijing, the Han nationality makes up 96.5% of the total, while the other 55 ethnic minorities total about 300,000 and are mostly Manchu, Hui, and Mongolian. Beijing’s population also includes a growing number of foreigners. As many as 200,000 from dozens of countries are attracted by adventure and opportunity in industries ranging from English teaching to management consulting and international politics. Though generally welcomed, expats are subject to occasional police “crackdowns” when global politics demand a demonstration of China’s power.
Beijing’s top notch universities have attracted some of the brightest individuals from around the country, and the city’s boom economy has led many recent graduates to stick around and work. For this reason, most of the people you meet in Beijing aren’t actually from Beijing; you can find Chinese from Xinjiang to Shanghai here. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough opportunity to go around Beijing’s (and in general China’s) enormous population, leading many graduates to settle for menial jobs in the proverbial “ant colony.” This new subculture known as “the ant tribe”- coined because they live in such cramped, claustrophobic conditions with as many as a dozen sharing small apartment spaces - are young educated college grads working low-skill, low-wage jobs in Beijing. The competition in this city is so high that the ants are making less than minimum wage and are forced to live on a shoestring budget. Beijing’s most famous ant colony is in the neighborhood of Tangjialing.
The Car Boom
Once a model of feng shui harmony and proportion emanating from the central Forbidden City, the layout of the city itself is now dominated by concentric ring road highways, numbered from two (the innermost) to the soon-to-be-constructed seven - an epic 950 km (590 mi) circle that will travel all the way south to Tiānjīn (天津) and into neighboring Hebei Province. Why so many roads? Well, there are a whole lot of cars, so many that the government was forced to institute a monthly lottery process to determine who has the right to drive on any given day.
How many cars are there today? At last count in 2012, the number reached just over 5 million. That’s one car for every man, woman and child in the entire country of Finland! And you can bet that number is rising each day. In February 2013, 1.42 million applicants competed for 18,511 plates. Even with the quota, experts expect to see 6 million cars on the road by 2015.
Of the 45 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China, Beijing boasts an impressive six of them: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the Peking Man Site.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization predicts that China will become the number one international tourism destination by the year 2020 – it’s already third, behind France and the United States, despite the fact that it has only accepted visitors since the late 1970s. Some 26.3 million foreigners came to China in 2013, and 3.9 million of them made their way to Beijing (the number for Shanghai was 5.1 million). Where do the masses of visitors hail from? In 2013, Americans constituted the largest number with 747,587 checking out China’s capital, followed by South Koreans, and Japanese with 377,105 and 248,751, respectively. Germans (230,317) and Brits (175,425) rounded out the top five.
In regards to crime, Beijing is extremely safe. This is not to say life is danger-free though, since crossing the street with chaotic traffic can be deadly, scams are everywhere, and it seems that every day there are new reports of food contamination. But compared to most cities and towns throughout the world – large or small – violent crime is nearly nonexistent.
Guns are unheard of and highly illegal, and streets that always have people roaming about means there are eye witnesses everywhere. The city is also wired with cameras, but even in the places where there are none, it seems that every citizen between six and 96 has an (possibly fake) iPhone complete with a video recorder.
The most prominent crime that any Beijing visitor needs to watch out for is surely thievery, especially pickpockets. Make sure your backpacks and purses are zipped up tight and hold them in front when you’re in a crowded place. Watch your pockets while you’re compressed into the subway car with 10,000 people, and consider keeping your cash in a money belt under your clothes, or at least in a place on your torso where you can see it. Finally, though this might sound obvious, don’t drink so much that you fall down the stairs, crash your bike or tumble into the gutter. There are plenty of party spots in Beijing, and we all know accidents can happen when people are intoxicated. Be sure to pace yourself and remember to ask, “Do I really need another shot right now?”
Beijing sits on the North China Plain at roughly the same latitude as Philadelphia. The Xishan and Yanshan mountain ranges curve around the city to the north and west, shielding it from the winds and sands of the Gobi Desert. Despite this natural barrier, spring sees sandstorms whipping dust into Beijing just as the city thaws from the bone-dry freezing winter. The generally pleasant spring weather leads to wet hot monsoon-influenced summers, followed by crisp blue-sky autumns.
Beijing is an overwhelmingly flat city (hence the popularity of bicycles for getting around). The tallest point in downtown Beijing, Coal Hill (Méi Shān; 煤山) in Jingshan Park, is only 88 m (289 ft) high. A series of lakes dot the landscape of central Beijing – the three northernmost lakes of Xīhǎi, Hòuhǎi and Qiánhǎi are collectively known as Shíchāhǎi and are heavily visited and lined with hookah bars, rickshaw drivers, and souvenir stands. Just to the south, the lake of Běihǎi is surrounded by a lovely park, while Zhōnghǎi (中海) and Nánhǎi (南海) are within Zhōngnánhǎi (中南海), a private residence compound for China’s political leaders. In the northwest, mountains and grand forests characterize the land, but if you continue north just outside of the city you’ll reach the Great Wall and then the barren desert sands of the Gobi.
There are 16 districts in Beijing. While that number sounds overwhelming, don’t sweat it, most of them are rural areas where you probably won’t be going (unless you want to spend some time out by the Great Wall). The Forbidden City is the geographic apex of the city, meaning all ring roads and metro lines run around it. Inside the Second Ring Road (which more or less follows Line 2 of the metro), the Forbidden City divides two of the city’s most popular districts: Xicheng (West City) and Dongcheng (East City). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which of these districts lies on either side of the Forbidden City. A little bit outside of Xicheng is the Haidian District, and to the east of Dongcheng is the Chaoyang District. To keep it simple, you can find just about everything you need in these four districts, but each one possesses it’s own unique flair and personal touch:
Dongcheng District (Dōngchéng Qū; 东城区):
This is hutong central, but the areas directly to the east of Tian’anmen Square are going through a fairly massive makeover as luxury hotels, tourist massage parlors and expensive restaurants are becoming the name of the game. Still, if you wander just off the main drags, you can easily catch the essence of Old Beijing in its surviving hutongs.
Best Attractions - Tian’anmen Square & Surrounding Area, Lama Temple Area, the Hutongs, Forbidden City
Best Drinking - Cuju, Zajia, Temple & Dada
Best Eating - Nanluogu Xiang, Mr Shi’s Dumplings, Argo
Xicheng District (Xīchéng Qū; 西城区):
The west side of the Forbidden City is a mixed bag. On one hand you’ve got your old crumbling hutongs that haven’t seen the renovations that the east side is getting. On the other hand, along Financial Street, modern skyscrapers and transparent buildings mark the tree lined avenues. In the middle of it all are the Shichahai lakes. Xicheng is a great place to relax and chill by the water and get lost in its labyrinth of ancient hutongs.
Best Attractions - Tian’anmen Square & Surrounding Area, Drum and Bell Tower
Best Drinking - Shichahai Bar Street
Best Eating - The Box, 4 Corners
Haidian District (Hǎidiàn Qū; 海淀区):
To the northwest of Xicheng is Haidian, and the further into it you travel, the more you get away from the center of the action... that is, until you reach the college town at Tsinghua University and Peking University at Wudaokou (on subway Line 13). Here, you’ll find cheap bars and restaurants, mostly with a funky international vibe that has been greatly influenced by the local and expat student populations. There are even the treasures of the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace, and tons of great nature and hiking trails far from the concrete jungle.
Best Attractions - Summer Palaces and University Area, Fragrant Hills Park
Best Drinking - Propaganda, Wudaokou Beer Garden
Best Eating - Around Wudaokou for Japanese and Korean, East is Red
Chaoyang District (Cháoyáng Qū; 朝阳区):
Chaoyang is without question one of the nicest areas of town, and for this reason it’s no wonder so many of the local expats choose to call this place home. You’re not going to find any hutongs, rolling mountains or ancient palaces, but if you’re looking to raise the bar and experience the finer side of Beijing, this is where you want to start.
Best Attractions - CCTV Building, Chaoyang Park, 798 Art District, Olympic Legacies
Best Drinking - In and around Sanlitun Village & Bar Street, Heaven Supermarket
Best Eating - Haidilao, Lei Garden, Quanjude, Duck de Chine
“It’s big, it’s polluted, it’s crowded, and it’s either too cold and dry or too wet and hot. But somehow it still manages to be my favorite city in the world!”
Anyone who knows China is aware that this country is just one big (and often hilarious) contradiction. With Beijing being the center of it all, sometimes you just can’t help noticing some of the quirky shenanigans that happen in this city day in and day out. Some are funny, and some make the average local or expat want to pull their hair out, but no matter what your take is, they are the aspects that make Beijing the place that it is.
Where’s the restroom?
Beijing has some of the highest rent prices in the world. The only problem is if you plan on living in the hutongs you’re likely going to pay hundreds of dollars a month for a studio that doesn’t even have a bathroom. Get ready to pop a squat with your neighbors and even their kids in the communal pot down the road in sub-zero winter temps!
How much did you say the rent was again?
Even if you do find a modern apartment with its own bathroom, chances are you’re still going to have to share it with at least one complete stranger. But if you get really, really lucky, then you may just find one all for yourself. Of course, if you live near the center of the city, rent will be higher, but even if you live an hour outside of town, you’re still going to be paying close to US$500 per month for a small studio.
For this reason, a favorite conversation topic amongst local Beijingers is rent prices, and you can always see a group of people outside real estate companies complaining about the prices they have listed on their front windows. If you speak Chinese, don’t be scared to strike up a conversation about rent with a local, it’ll make their day! Especially when you compare housing prices here to the ones back home.
Don’t forget your gas mask!
China is the world’s number one investor in green energy, and yet in some miraculous way toxic clouds of pollution choke the major cities’ airways. It’s amazing how Beijing, one of the country’s most important places, manages to suffer the most from this serious problem. And if pollution wasn’t enough to hack a lung up, sand storms from the Gobi blow in during the spring, sandblasting cars, skin and eye balls alike. How many other major cities in the world still have sand-storms?
Beijing has more than 20 million people, so where are all the buildings? If you stand in the center of town, right in the middle of the hutongs, you’ll notice that you aren’t in a pile of massive skyscrapers. In other world metropolitan zones like New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong, you’d be overwhelmed with the height of the buildings surrounding you on each side. This is not the case in Beijing. The center is comprised of modest, one or two story buildings in the hutongs, making much of downtown feel like rural Hebei Province with a fantastic village-in-a-city vibe.
That’s the skyline?
OK, so there is a skyline, but it’s far to the east, after the Third Ring Road, and once you do lay your eyes upon it, you won’t help but chuckle at the CCTV Building that locals have affectionately called the “Big Underpants”. If a giant tower shaped like a raggedy pair of underwear wasn’t enough, the municipal government has just announced plans to erect a gigantic structure that resembles an enormous... well, let’s just say it’ll be the most phallus-shaped icon in China.
Where can I park my ride?
With so many cars and a massive shortage of parking spaces, sidewalks, street sides, parks, playgrounds, and even the entrance gates of apartment complexes have become parking lots. If you’re not driving a car, you’re probably on a bike, electric scooter, or motorcycle, and you can bet your last baozi that these machines will be squeezed inbetween cars for an awkward metal jigsaw puzzle. Besides making bike transportation a hassle, it can even turn walking down the street into a game of Tetris.
China may have won a ton of medals in that fateful summer of 2008, but a lot of the town’s citizens lost their houses due to the billions spent on the makeover. The municipal government went on a rampage, kicking old folks out of their ancient houses, only to tear them down to make the city look “more modern for the foreign eye.” There were a handful of other controversies surrounding the Olympics as well, and the Bird’s Nest Stadium still sits mostly idle. Now, with Beijing lobbying to host a Winter Games, some of the locals are left saying, “Oh no, not again!”
Home, sweet home!
Despite all of Beijing’s ups and downs, at the end of the day most Beijingers still love the city and are proud to be a local. Maybe it’s the thousands of years of history and culture or the never ending diversity of international and Chinese restaurants. Maybe it’s the economic opportunities this great city has brought to many, or the numerous fun and unique activities just an arm’s reach away. Whatever it is, there is something truly special about Beijing, and anyone who lives here long enough forms a love-hate relationship with the city – riding their bike through chaotic traffic in the middle of a sand storm, asking the person in the next stall over for an extra square of toilet paper, and making fun of the government’s new blue-prints for the next “building of the future.”
Holidays & Festivals
When Chinese New Year rolls around, the entire country buckles its seatbelt for the world’s largest annual human migration. Train tickets sell out in a matter of seconds, buses overflow with travelers toting huge suitcases full of gifts, highways become parking lots, and drivers get out of their cars to walk dogs and do pushups while waiting for the traffic to budge an inch. For the masses of migrant workers and college students far from their hometowns, this trip may be the only time they make it home all year.
The majority of Chinese holidays unfold on a lunar calendar, and nowhere are they more vibrant than in Beijing. Chinese New Year (also known as Spring Festival; Chūn Jié; 春节) sees the city erupt with fireworks launched by local Beijingers (though the authorities have tried to restrict these homemade displays, you wouldn’t know it from looking at the sky). It’s as big as Christmas in the West, but it falls sometime between late January and mid-February and lasts about half a month. The New Year celebration concludes 15 days after it begins with the Lantern Festival (Yuánxiāo Jié;元宵节), featuring a parade and a lion dance to honor the first full moon, and a whole lot of yuánxiāo (元宵; sticky rice dumplings with sweet fillings) are eaten up over the holiday.
In early April comes the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Qīngmíng Jié;清明节), which was traditionally a time to visit ancestral gravesites to clean them and make offerings. These days, it’s more likely to be celebrated with a spring outing of some sort. May Day (Wǔyī Guójì Láodòng Jié;五一国际劳动节) on May 1st brings a three-day national holiday, while June’s Dragon Boat Festival (Duānwǔ Jié; 端午节), honoring ancient poet and patriot Qū Yuán (屈原), brings high-spirited boat races and zòngzi (粽子; sticky rice dumplings).
For the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhōngqiū Jié;中秋节), usually taking place in September, families reunite and eat moon cakes, round pastries filled with rich red bean paste or the yolks of duck eggs. Revelers worship the Chinese goddess Cháng’é (嫦娥), who is said to inhabit the moon after taking her husband’s elixir of immortality to keep it from a thief. The public holiday National Day (Guóqìng Jié; 国庆节) celebrates the October 1st founding of the People’s Republic of China with a massive party in Tian’anmen Square, and the party extends for a full seven days, sometimes known as Golden Week (we do not suggest attempting to travel in China during this week).
Western holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas have also caught on to some extent, though really only as opportunities for commerce.
Unique Beijing Festivals
There are countless only-in-Beijing festivals and events to watch out for, and while there are certainly too many to mention in just a few breaths, we have drawn up a few of our favorites to wet your appetite.
Huangyaguan Great Wall Marathon
When: Third Saturday of May
As if hiking the rugged hills of the Great Wall was not difficult enough, a marathon is organized every summer. Beginning at Huangyaguan, near the city of Tianjin, the race also features a half marathon, a 10k and a 5k. Registration begins in July.
Red Leaf Festival
When: October 15 to November 7
Held in the beautiful Fragrant Hills Park on the east side of Haidian District, the Red Leaf Festival celebrates the magnificent colors and scenery that saturate the hillsides of eastern Beijing every autumn. Come for beautiful flower displays and food.
White Cloud Temple Fair
When: January and March
January sees an excellent temple fair at the Baiyun Temple (also known as the White Cloud Temple), that fills the grounds with craft makers, performers and snacks of all kinds. The temple holds another festival during March to honor the birthday of its founder, Qiu Chuji.
798 Art Festival
When: End of September
Located in the 798 Art District in Beijing’s affluent Chaoyang District, the 798 Art Festival is one of China’s premier art shows.
Beijing International Beer Festival
When: August 15 to 31
Though it certainly doesn’t hold up to the Oktoberfest of Munich that it purports to emulate, the Beijing International Beer Festival definitely puts on a respectable show, with international beers, a carnival atmosphere and plenty of drinking contests.
Beijing Chrysanthemum Exhibition
When: September 26 to November 16
One of the four traditional flowers of China, chrysanthemums come into a fantastic bloom every autumn in Beijing, and you can catch some outstanding displays of them at parks around the city. The best places are at Beihai Park and the International Flower Port.
A range of temple fairs erupt around Beijing throughout the year. Some temples have their own special events to celebrate a late monk’s birthday or some other special event, but nearly every temple holds celebrations during Chinese New Year/Spring Festival.
Beijing’s weather is schizophrenic, and anyone here will tell you that seasons can often transition over the course of one week. The winters (December to February) are dry with little (or no) snow, and temps hover around the freezing mark. It’s also during the winter that pollution levels soar since most folks keep warm by using coal as their preferred heating fuel. Summers (June to August), on the other hand, will make you believe you’re in a Brazilian rainforest: they’re hot and humid, and torrential downpours and thunderstorms are common. The spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) periods, both lasting about three months, are the most pleasant times to visit since temperatures are moderate and humidity and thunderstorms are tame.
The most famous of Beijing’s traditional musical styles is by far Peking Opera (Jīngjù; 京剧). Known also as Beijing Opera, this timeless art still holds a notable amount of interest among the Chinese today, and it’s quite easy to find traditional performances around the capital in places like teahouses and the National Center for the Performing Arts. Beginning some 1,300 years ago during the Tang Dynasty and evolving throughout the Song Dynasty, Beijing Opera came to encompass songs, ballads and folklore through a loosely related set of dazzling skills, including martial arts, acrobatics and stylized dance. Face painting and the wearing of elaborate masks evolved as well, mimicking a practice begun by soldiers attempting to intimidate their enemies.
Mixed sex performance groups were banned for hundreds of years, leading to a tradition of actors taking on the roles of the opposite sex and ultimately bringing this practice to the level of a stylized performance technique. One of the most famous Beijing Opera performers of the 20th century (and truly of any century) is Mei Lanfang. Known for his perfection of the female role, he was ultimately immortalized when his feminine performance techniques were adopted into their own school.
Beijing Opera is considered far and wide as the elite of Chinese operatic styles, which boast at least one different style for every provincial region of China. Peking Opera makes use of three of China’s most traditional and spiritually haunting instruments, the erhu, the jinghu and the yueqin (all of which are stringed instruments). The erhu is two stringed and set to a low register, while the jinghu, another two-stringed piece, is set to a higher tuning and plays much like a Chinese viola. The two often work in concert and can produce some of the most stirring music of traditional China. Sometimes played individually and often accompanied by the four-stringed guitar-like yueqin, these instruments make up the quintessential sounds of ancient Chinese music and are staples in Beijing’s traditional opera.
For those expecting to find their way to a new punk rock, rock, metal or blues club every night and witness the sonic power of Beijing’s most uproarious rockers, you will be happy campers. China may have caught on to the rock and roll scene several decades late – almost entirely the fault of the oppressive Cultural Revolution – but these days Chinese rock is a force to be reckoned with (especially at the underground level), and nowhere else is that more prevalent than in Beijing.
Unlike some cities that double as both political capitals and financial capitals (e.g. Paris, London), Beijing is solely a seat of political power (the financial capital is Shanghai). This is a massive fuel for the fire of underground rock and punk rock in Beijing, where the stifling pressure of the iron-fisted ruling party is felt here more than anywhere else in China, giving rise to alternative (and at times) revolutionary music. Because outspokenness and government criticism is so muted, most of these bands must play at night in small local spots, and few can do more than make a poor-man’s living off of the income from continuous gigs. Between the silencing power of the government and the piracy epidemic that grips much of the country, making music by selling CDs is not possible. If you’re into seeing some rock groups in Beijing, a few names to keep an eye out for are Brain Failure and Subs, the new wave sounds of the Re-TROS, or noise-pop from Snapline. For some outstanding Blues that sounds like its straight out of the Mississippi Delta, check out the Western trained sounds of the Big John Blues Band, who usually play at their home venue CD Blues near Ritan Park.
Hip hop is in a nascent stage, but it and electronic music are beginning to take off as well, and there is no shortage of rap or DJs in Beijing. The biggest name is Mickey Zhang, which you can easily spot on fliers around town, but it’s a piece of cake finding electro, house, techno, drum and base or trance just about anywhere downtown on any given weekend.
As the traditional aesthetics that had governed Chinese arts for thousands of years went into rapid decline during the rise of communism, propaganda campaigns aimed at confronting and gilding the plight of the lower classes were commissioned to fill the artistic void. So hijacked was the art scene in Beijing after 1949 that anything unrelated to promoting the party was banned outright. A huge influx of foreign techniques and concepts filled an aesthetic scene that had been homegrown and focused on the natural and ethereal worlds for countless generations, and overnight the Chinese infatuation with mystical and metaphysical topics was pounded into cold hard realism, stating the concrete and ruminating on detail.
Soviet art was imported wholesale, and nothing was left untouched by the hammer and sickle. Traditional Taoist and Buddhist dreamscapes were replaced by blazing red suns, burly peasants and industrial scenes with Maoist or Stalinist quotations. New buildings were designed in monolithic granite and marble faces, cordoned with fences and topped with red stars. Sculpture drew from purported scenes of peasant struggle against landlords or marches of the PLA. All interpretation of beauty was legislated to be seen through the eyes of Marxism; anything not complying was removed.
Littered across quirky shops, touristy streets and the canvases of modern artists today, propaganda art was first forced into the aesthetics of China after the founding of the PRC in 1949. Most propaganda posters focused on scenes of the working class with men and women proudly raising tools against backdrops of smoke stacks and machinery, but also included a plethora of wild imagery, including the crushing of counterrevolutionary activity, the success of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, Maoist ideals, fat and “well-nourished” Chinese babies, and the “utopias” of China and North Korea. However, propaganda art went into rapid decline after the death of Mao and during the 1980s under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Nearly all of what you will find today are reproductions that are sought for their kitschy appeal.
Modern Art Movements
Most post-1989 art ruminated on the loss suffered that summer at Tian’anmen and became obsessed with feelings of isolation and socioeconomic issues. Consumer culture became a hot topic, as did social change and materialism. Many works, like those of Yue Minjun, became extremely cynical through pieces such as his stirring set of masks feigning joy through horrible pain. After an initial mass exodus of artists to the West, many of them returned a decade later, bringing with them a smattering of new inspiration and ideas from their journeys in places like Paris, London, Rome and New York City. The government’s grip on expression ever-so-slowly loosened throughout the 90s, and though censorship certainly remains, it has slackened the reigns enough to allow a burgeoning and avant-garde art scene in much of modern China (though, things may be tightening once again under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping).
Today, the most nascent and modish scenes are blossoming in Beijing’s 798 Art District. Ai Wei Wei, perhaps best known in the West for his outspoken dissidence, has been an integral part of 798. His works range from helping to design the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing – which he has distanced himself from and called “a fake smile of bad taste” – to his temporary exhibition of a million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that graced the floor of the Tate Modern Art Museum in London. Like many outspoken artists, writers or bloggers, Ai’s studios have been repeatedly shut, and he is harassed under the guises of operating “illegal buildings” (as was said when his Shanghai studio was ruined) or charges of “tax evasion” (when his Beijing home was raided).
As the Qing Dynasty was on its way out and two revolutionary forces – the Nationalists and the Communists – competed for control of the country, many Chinese were fueled by new ideas of the importance of the common person. Through the fire of an exciting spirit of a new China, the author Lu Xun broke free of the haughty grip of Classical Chinese and in 1918 wrote “A Madman’s Diary” in vernacular (common) Chinese. It was as revolutionary as it was stunning; in one piece he had broken the shackles of thousands of years of literary elitism and invited millions of commoners to the reading party. His work singlehandedly changed literature in China, and from its publishing on, all works would be written just the way normal people spoke and thought.You can visit Lu Xun’s former residence in Beijing.
Unless you can read Chinese, your options for reading contemporary Chinese authors are very limited. One sure-fire option is the short story writer Zhu Wen, whose 2007 collection I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China has been published in English and is a fantastically humorous criticism of the get-rich movement in China and its many absurdities.
Mo Yan (pictured on the left) won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for his fascinating, and at times heart-wrenching, novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. It’s about a kind and wealthy land-owner who is reincarnated as various farm animals upon his death and he experiences the development of China since the ‘50s through their eyes.
Beijing Reading List
You’ll get more out of your trip if you do some reading about Beijing before you arrive. It doesn’t have to be a dry history tome, either – there are plenty of contemporary novels and non-fiction that will get your imagination going.
Last Days of Old Beijing, Michael Myer
An American takes a position at a local public school and quickly becomes a fixture in his rapidly crumbling hutong neighborhood. Despite the understated humor, it provides a fascinating perspective on the constant changes to the capital’s landscape and outlook.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang
While it’s not specifically Beijing-focused, this classic memoir, which has sold more than 13 million copies, captures the scope of recent Chinese history by following three generations of women in one family as they overcome war, the Cultural Revolution, and the frantic and competitive world of modern China. Gripping and personal, it’s a great history lesson. Be aware that this book is banned in China.
The Last Empress, Anchee Min
This work of fictionalized history takes one of the most notorious women in Chinese history, the Empress Dowager Cixi, and creates a powerful first-person narrative that makes her surprisingly relatable. Cixi’s position, trapped between those who wanted to open China to the West and those who wanted it to remain cloistered, echoes on some level the current struggle within the Communist Party.
Beijing Coma, Ma Jian
One of China’s best-known novelists takes on the Tian’anmen Square events with a well-crafted metaphor for the country’s relationship with that day. A student activist wounded in the square remains in a coma, unable to move on or forget, but also unable to express himself.
Rickshaw Boy, Lao She
This famous satirical novel, published in 1936, helped initiate Chinese literature in its modern form – previously, elevated Classical Chinese was the dominant language of writing. The natural style of expression combines with wry observation and vivid description to create a haunting story of hard labor and misfortune in Beijing.
Film in China actually goes all the way back to 1905, when the first home-grown Chinese movie, Conquering Jun Mountain, was filmed in Beijing. Apart from Conquering Jun Mountain, which was simply an excerpt from Beijing Opera, the capital of the Chinese film industry was the set in the exotic flair and sophistication of Shanghai, which opened its first cinema in 1908. The industry grew to cover over 140 Shanghai theaters until its climax in the 1930s (peaking with the 1937 comedy about three unemployed university graduates, Crossroads), but declined under the Japanese invasion that began the Sino-Japanese War and WWII in Asia.
Creative film further declined under the watch of the Communist Party, who regulated it to glorify the Party and produce propaganda at breakneck speed and efficacy. The filmmakers who weren’t already sent running to the West by the Japanese packed up their bags and headed to Hong Kong. Filmmaking in the Mainland came to a full standstill as only eight movies were made between 1966 and 1977.
Two years after the death of Mao Zedong, the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy precipitated the birth of the esteemed and internationally acclaimed “Fifth Generation.” The cinematic creations of the Fifth Generation began to move away from the colorless and stern visage of communist complexion and churned out beautifully conceived tragedies that (while they often garnered less interest in the Mainland) blew the socks off of movie goers and critics in the West. Some of the best known and stalwartly appreciated early films of the Fifth Generation directors are Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984), Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987), and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief (1986).
These days, contemporary Chinese film is driven largely by a market – domestic and international – with an insatiable hunger for historical pieces, mostly in the vein of martial arts action or heroic war tales. While much of the rest of China’s film industry is dominated by sappy love dramas and superficial stories of spoiled socialites, others boldly approach deeper social issues. See our list below for some excellent recommendations of films about Beijing.
The Last Emperor (Mòdài Huángdì; 末代皇帝) (1987) – Bernardo Bertolucci’s seven-Oscar-winning film chronicles the life of China’s last emperor, Puyi, as his life is transformed by the end of dynastic rule in China and the ascension of the Communist Party.
Farewell My Concubine (Bàwáng Biéjī; 霸王别姬) (1993) – Chen Kaige’s masterpiece follows the lives of two friends from Beijing’s School of Opera as they struggle through the political and social mayhem that gripped China from 1920 to the Cultural Revolution.
In the Heat of the Sun (Yángguāng Cànlàn de Rìzi; 阳光灿烂的日子) (1994) – Directed by Jiang Wen, this stirring and surreal piece is about frenzied Beijing youth during the final days of the Cultural Revolution.
Beijing Bicycle (Shíqīsuì de Dānchē; 十七岁的单车) (2003) – Following the young courier Guo as he tracks his stolen mountain bike throughout Beijing, Wang Xiaoshuai’s colorful and mesmerizing story is a top pick.
Lost In Beijing (Píngguǒ; 苹果) (2007) – Directed by Li Yu, this film, which was too steamy for Chinese censors, depicts the story of a female massage parlor worker and her love triangle with her boss and his wife. It all takes place as Beijing changes at a frenetic pace, and the twists and turns make it a great choice.