Geomantic design

The third Ming emperor, Yongle, is credited with the planning of the capital. In 1421, he moved his government from Nanjing to Beijing. Improperly pronounced in the West, the city became known as Peking, a name that persists in such instance as Peking duck. The plans of Yongle followed the principles of geomancy, the traditional doctrine of wind and water, which strives to attain harmony between human life and nature. Screened from the north by a semicircle of hills topped by the Great Wall, Beijing lies on a plain that opens to the south, an auspicious direction, as it was toward the south that the generosity and warmth of Yang was thought to reside. All important buildings in the old city face south, protected from harmful influences from the north -- whether winter Siberian winds or enemies from the steppes. South-facing Qianmen ---the Front Gate to the city -- was the largest, most beautiful, and most sacred gate. The hill of Jingshan, to the north of the Imperial Palace, was probably also constructed according to geomagnetic principles.

A north-south axis centered on the Imperial Palace divides the city; important buildings and city features were laid out as mirror images on either side. Temple of the Sun, for example, has its equivalent in Temple of the Moon. Equally complementary were Xidan and Dongdan, the eastern and western business quarters, which are still two of the capital's main shopping streets. Some of the most notable landmarks of old Beijing lie on the north-south axis, lined up like pearls on a string. From the north: Bell and Drum Towers, Coal Hill, Imperial Palace, Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) and Qianmen. In the middle of this chain is the heart of ancient China, the Dragon Throne, from which the emperor governed as the ritual mediator between heaven and earth. This was considered the center of the physical world, perceived like the city as a gigantic grid. The city, and the world, and everything within, were given a clearly defined place in a hierarchy, depending upon how far they were from the center. This imperial throne remains embedded in a majestic palace, which is also square and surrounded by high red walls on all sides -- the so-called Forbidden City. Outside was the imperial city, again square, and crowded around this was a sea of mainly single-storey houses. Curved like the crests of waves, the roofs of the homes of the wealthy and of influential officials in this inner city were not allowed to rise above the height of the Imperial Palace. This part of Beijing is still considered to be the inner city, or old city, but only a few monumental gates of the mighty defensive walls that once surrounded Beijing have survived -- Qianmen in the south, and Victory Gate in the north.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the inner city was the domain of the ruling Manchu, the outer city to the south for the Han Chinese. In the Chinese area, the doors of the houses were lower, the hutong (alleys) were narrower, and the rice bowls were less full. Instead of tea, people drank hot water. Instead of satin boots, they wore sandals. Bored Manchu officials and wealthy merchants, and the occasional prince in clever disguise, sometimes left their comfortable surroundings for the Chinese tea and bathhouses, brothels, restaurants, and bazaars. Today, the area south of Qianmen remains livelier than other parts of the city. A bustling street running west from the top of Qianmen is Dazhalan, a narrow and crowded alley filled with old established shops and businesses of excellent reputation. Dazhalan still attracts crowds from the Beijing suburbs as well as other provinces. Not far away is Liulichang, a shopping street restored to its original style for tourists, selling almost everything that China can offer in antiques, art, and kitsch. The busiest shopping districts are Xidan and Wanfujing; both lined with fashionable boutiques and fast-food restaurants.


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