San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Economic History
and Economy of Beijing

Northern Capital

Beijing is one of the world's great cities. It has an interesting and unique history. Unlike most major cities it is not located on a river or ocean. Its reason for existence at its location is entirely different than other great cities. Although it is not located on a water transportation route there were geographic factors favorable for its location.

The Geographic Setting

The map below gives the general nature of Beijing geographic setting.

On the map the green areas are lowland plains, the brown areas are mountains and hills and the dun-colored areas are highland plateaus, such as Mongolia.

As the map shows the north China coastal plain narrows in the vicinity of where Beijing is located. Trade caravans between the Huang He (Yellow River) valley and Manchurian plain would have to pass the general vicinity of Beijing. At the time that a city developed in Beijing's location the ocean was not a trade route; it was an impassable barrier.

Even more important than the trade between north China and Manchuria was the trade and military routes between Mongolia and north China. Travel was easier on the plains than in the mountains so the trade took advantage of as much plains territory as possible before entering the mountains.

The Region of Beijing in the Warring States Period

There were empires founded in the Huang He (Yellow River) valley in ancient times but these broke up into a dozen or so kingdoms. This was known as the Warring States Period. The kingdoms were as shown below.

The region of Beijing was the kingdom of Yan and their capital was a city known as Yanjing (Yan capital). Around 230 BCE the leader of the kingdom of Qin in the west began a program of conquest that resulted in the unification of the warring states into the First Empire in 221 BCE. The First Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, undertook a set of projects to unify the empire. One of those was to complete the Great Wall. Individual kingdoms had already built walls to protect themselves from the nomads of the north. The First Emperor linked those separate wall such as the one for the Yan kingdom to create the Great Wall of China.

The Early Empires of the Nomads North of China

One of the nomadic tribes of the north was the Liao who conquered an empire north of the Great Wall and some areas immediately to the south of the Wall. They were called Khitan and distantly related to the Mongols but they came from the Liao River valley of southern Manchuria. Being nomads they did not want just one capital. They felt they needed five to occupy sequentially. One of those capitals was at the site of where Beijing is now located. It happened to be the southern-most of their capitals so they called it Nanjing, Southern Capital. Thus Beijing, which means northern capital, was first Nanjing, southern capital. The Liao dynasty lasted from 916 to 1125 CE. The Khitan borrowed technology and style from the capital city of Kaifeng, the capital of the northern Song dynasty.

The Liao empire was displaced by the empire of the Jin (1115-1234), a nomad people of Tungusic Jurchen of Manchuria. The city at the site of Beijing the Jin called Zhongdu, central city. The Jin drove the Song dynasty out of their capital city of Kaifeng and used Kaifeng's building material to build up their Zhongdu.

The early 1200's was the period in which Temugin (Genghis Khan Great Lord) was building his empire based upon uniting the Mongol tribes and Turkic tribes into one great war machine. Some the Khan's army conquered the Jin empire and went on to conquer China as well. Genghis Khan's grandson, Kublai Khan, came to rule the Mongol Empire from China. There were richer cities to the south in central China, but Kublai Khan quick access to Mongolia so he decided to build up the city on the north edge of China. The Mongols called that city Khanbalikh, the Khan's city, but it was more generally known by the Chinese name Da-du, the Great City. The Mongols adopted the Chinese name Yuan (origin, as in Origin of the Universe) for their dynasty and attempted to assimilate Chinese culture.

Khubli Khan build Dadu near but not on top of the former cities at the site. It was built as a triple-walled, nearly square city with a spacial north-south axial layout based on the principles of Feng shui . In the outer wall there were eleven gates, two on the northern wall and three on each of the other walls. Within the outer walls there were nine north-south roads and nine east-west roads. Khublai Khan had previously had a capital built in Mongolia with a similar plan. This capital was called Shangdu (Upper Great City). (Shangdu was the source of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Xanadu in his poem Kubla Khan.)

The Ming (brilliant) Dynasty,
Conquerors of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty

In the fourteenth center there arose a revolution in central China. It was ultimately led by one of the most extraordinary individuals in human history. He was born in 1328 to poor peasants near the city which is now Nanjing. His name was Zhu Yuanzhang (Chu Yüan-chang). At that time the Yuan (Mongol) Empire was breaking down and unable to cope with the problem of a major drought. As a result famine was wide spread in central and northern China and seven million died of it including Zhu Yuanzhang's parents. He was orphaned at 16. To survive he joined a monastery as a monk.

Others in desperation were resorting to banditry and confiscating food and wealth and distributing it to the starving. One bandit leader, Guo Zixing (Chu Tzuhsing), in 1352organized an attack on the city where Zhu Yuanzhang was born and still lived. Guo Zixing's forces captured the city and Zhu Yuanzhang decided to join them.

Zhu Yuanzhang through native talent soon worked his way up in the rebel forces of Guo Zixing to second in command. Guo Zixing feared the talents of Zhu Yuanzhang but Zhu Yuanzhang married the adopted daughter of Guo Zixing thus reducing the fear of Guo Zixing that Zhu would replace him. In 1353, under Zhu's command, a division of the rebel forces captured a major district of Anhui Province. Other men of ability were joining Zhu. In 1355 when Guo Zixing died Zhu assumed the post of supreme commander of the rebel forces. Some leaders of competing rebel forces accepted Zhu's leadership. Scholars who served as officials in the Yuan government began to join Zhu and educate him in the principles of effective rule. The rebel forces were no longer bandits but a political movement to overthrow the Yuan dynasty. The Yuan rulers were able to suppress the rebellion in north China leaving Zhu in central China the only effective leader of the revolution.

Zhu Yuanzhang assumed the title of wu (duke) but was reluctant to declare himself wang (king). There were other claimants to the throne of China. These alternate claimants were defeated in military encounters or just died off and 1368 Zhu declared himself emperor and assumed the reign name of Hongwu (Great General) and the Ming for his dynasty.

Zhu Yuanzhang

Hongwu chose Nanjing as the capital. Also in 1368 Zhu's Ming forces captured the Yuan capital of Dadu and the Yuan emperor fled to Mongolia. The rest of China, Sichuan (Szechwan) and Yennan (Yünnan), were captured by 1382. Ming forces went on to add Korea, southern Manchuria, and Annam (Vietnam) to the empire. Even Mongolia was considered to have recognized the suzerainty of the Ming Empire.

Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang) re-established imperial rule by the scholar-bureaucrats called mandarins. He divided the rule of the empire among his sons. There were major problems settling the matter of who would succeed Hongwu as emperor. Finally when Hongwu died in 1398 the position was supposed to go to one of his grandsons rather than one of his sons. However one son, Zhu Di, who had ruled his principality from Dadu rebelled and took control. Zhu Di did not rule from Nanjing for very long. He moved the capital to Dadu and gave it the name Beijing (northern capital). He had lived and ruled there for about twenty years. It also made sense militarily to have the capital located near the border that had the greatest risk of invasion. Not only did this guarantee faster response from the imperial authorities it avoided giving border generals to much power, power that could be used against the central authorities.

Under Ming rule Dadu not only got the new name Beijing but a new section of the city was laid out. The Yuan city was known as the Tartar City. South of that city a rectangular plot was laid out and walls built on the other three sides. This came to be known as the Chinese City. It was during the Ming dynasty that the inner walled enclosure of the Forbidden City was built in the old Tartar City.

The Ming emperors gave great attention to maintaining the operation of the Grand Canal. The Grand Canal was desperately needed to bring grain from the south and central China farming areas to feed the population of Beijing.

During the Ming era China sent large fleets of ships into the Indian Ocean. These armadas carried as many as thirty thousand people. They went as far as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and East Africa. Technically and militarily these Treasure Fleets were a great success, but they threatened the power of the mandarin class and when the old emperor in the early fifteenth century the mandarins persuaded the new young emperor to call back the ships and destroy them. These fleets threatened the power of the mandarins because the fleets were under the contol of the court eunuchs who constituted a separate bureaucracy in composition with the mandarins. In particular the fleets were considered a threat to the power of the mandarins because their admiral, Zheng he, was a tall Moslem from southwestern China.

The technology and art of Ming China was superior to that of Europe of the time. Europeans wanted the products such as fine porcelain but there was little that they were allowed to exchange for them. The Europeans basically could get the Chinese products by paying for them with silver. This drained the silver from rest of the world into China.

The relationships of the various cities built at the site of the present Beijing can be seen in the following diagram.

The Locations of the Various Historical Cities
Built at the Site of Beijing

The Collapse of the Ming Dynasty
and Rise of the Qing Dynasty

In the early 1600's the Ming rulers in Beijing were experiencing troubles from many sides. In the north the tribes of the Tungusic Jurchen were attempting to invade. These were the descendants of the people who had created the Jin Empire that ruled north China from 1125 to 1234. They chose to call themselves Manchu, a term which meant great good fortune. A set of fortifications had been built that were hold the invasion forces back. In 1644 the Ming emperor sent his best general, Wu Sangui, to stop an attempted invasion.

The Ming empire was also experiencing a peasant rebellion under the leadership of Li Zicheng. When the general took most of the military forces from Beijing to thwart an invasion from Manchuria the rebels under Li invaded Beijing and captured the emperor. The emperor was forced to commit suicide and Li proclaimed himself emperor. Li expected the General Wu Sangui to serve him as he had served the Ming emperors. The general declined to do so. Instead he joined forces with the invaders from Manchuria and they drove out Li and his forces and captured Beijing. The Manchu then proceeded to capture almost all of China. They declared their dynasty's name to be Qing (Ch'ing).

(To be continued.)

The Basic Spatial Structure of Beijing

Below is given a schematic map of Beijing as it was cerca 1940.

In the above diagram the light blue area represents the city of Dadu created by the Mongol rulers. It later became known as the Tartar (Mongol) City. The series of lakes (in dark blue) were created at that time. They are named, from north to south, Shicha hai (Shih Ch'a Hai) (Lake of the Ten Pagodas), Bei hai (Pei Hai) (North Lake), Zhong hai (Chung Hai) (Central Lake), Nan hai (Nan Hai) (South Lake).

The area in red represents the Forbidden City complex that contained the imperial palaces. The area in yellow to the south of the Tartar City was added onto Tartar City by the Ming Emperors and was known as the Han (Chinese) City.

The two red circles to the north of the Forbidden City represent the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower. These towers served to announce the special times of the day such as the beginning and end of the nightly curfew and the changing of the watch.

In the original Dadu of the Mongols there were eleven gates. These gates are shown below. The names for which the English translations are not given are shown with their Wade-Giles transliterations.

The gates to the Han (Chinese) City the Ming emperors added on to the Tartar (Mongol) City are given below.

(To be continued.)

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