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Notes on the Geography of China: The Grand Axis of Imperial Beijing: Photo 1

world pictures China: The Grand Axis of Imperial Beijing

Long before the rise of Beijing, the Chinese capital city had been understood by its builders as an instrument of persuasion, a form designed to make China's rulers seem invincible. To this end, the imperial palace was placed at the axis of the universe, where the emperor could both command his subjects and commune with the heavens.

Although the Chinese built many capital cities, Beijing is the best surviving example of this elaborate symbolism, put in its ultimate form after the third Ming emperor, the Yongle Emperor, moved his capital here from Nanjing in the early 1400s. Kublai Khan's capital, on the same site, had been a walled rectangle; so was Yongle's, though it occupied approximately the southern two-thirds of the earlier city. Both rectangles were oriented to the cardinal points, but the Ming city had symmetrical pairs of gates on all sides except the propitious south, where it had three.

The Ming city is often called the Inner City (Neicheng), even though today it's the outermost of a set of three nested rectangles enclosing not only the Ming City but the smaller Imperial City (Huangcheng) and the still smaller and innermost Pole Star Forbidden City (Zijencheng). It's confusing, to say the least, but the name Inner City arose during the succeeding Qing Dynasty, when in the early 1600s the Chinese were evicted from the Ming city, which was to become the home of the Manchu, the invaders whose rulers assumed the name Qing ("pure"). The dispossessed Chinese moved outside the southern gates to a new walled area, a flatter rectangle than the Ming City and one compressed against it. This new city became the Chinese or Outer City (Waicheng), while the former Ming city became the Manchu or Inner City. Got it?

Running through all four rectangles--three nested and one adjoining on the south--was an axis along which the city's monumental structures were arrayed in balanced pairs. (Symmetry, it will become evident, was carried here to extreme and arguably compulsive lengths. It was all part of the effort to accentuate the cosmic centrality of the place.) Official visitors of high rank would follow that axis as they approached an emperor so august that he was never referred to either by personal name, temple name, or reign name. Instead, he was named only periphrastically as the Highest Yellow One, where yellow signified wealth and honor.

The southernmost gate on the axis, the Gate of Perpetual Certainty (Yongdingmen), fell victim to Mao, along with so much and so many, but the second gate, more than two kilometers to its north and at the point where the Outer and Inner cities meet, almost survives. It's the so-called Front (Qian) or True South (Shengyang) Gate. Anyone granted an imperial audience would have passed here; for important visitors, the path would have been sprinkled for three miles with golden sand.

The gate here, however, merely hints at the Ming and Qing structures, which were designed with outworks, in other words enceintes or barbicans that were semicircular protuberances with front and side gates and an enclosed gate-yard. Early in the 20th century, the congestion in these gate-yards was so great that the republican government commissioned a German architect named Rothkegal to fix things. About 1916 he removed most of the Front Gate's barbican, leaving its central gate a detached fragment, no longer connected to the wall. That bit, shown here, was new in Rothkegal's time, because the gate had been burned in 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion. It had then been hastily rebuilt.

The tower now has one permanently open but non-functioning gate, namely the tunnel in the middle of the structure. Until 1900, the old side gates, now removed along with the barbican, used to close at night. This central gate, however, was always closed, except for the rare imperial processions, such as the emperor's annual visit to the Altar of Heaven, which is behind the camera and to the right or east. Perhaps the most authentic thing about this gate today is that the surrounding area is still intensely commercial. It has always been so, ever since the Chinese were evicted from the Ming city and the newcomer Manchus wanted to shop.

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