Viewing Chinese civilization through central axis of Beijing

By ZHANG BO / 06-16-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

An aerial view of part of the central axis of Beijing Photo: CFP

Dated to the initial planning and design of Dadu [Beijing was formerly known as Dadu in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)], the central axis of Beijing is 7.8 kilometers long, starting in the south of the city from the Yongding Gate, running across the Zhengyang Gate, Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Jingshan Hill, and ending with the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the north. The Beijing central axis displays the Chinese cosmology of the unity of nature and man, as well as the principles that have shaped the site and urban design of capitals in ancient China—a capital should occupy the center of tian-xia [also known as “under heaven,” a historical Chinese concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals], and be organized according to the traditional Chinese astronomical system.
Center-oriented principle and astronomical influence
The center-oriented principle posits that a capital should occupy the center under heaven. The Yuan, Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties all situated their capitals at present-day Beijing, and emphasized Beijing’s location as the center under heaven, a factor considered to validate the capital site. The Yuan people believed that Youzhou [a historical prefecture in northern China with modern Beijing at its center] was strategically situated and difficult to access, connecting the Jianghuai region in the south and Mongolian Plateau in the north. Based on the belief that the Yuan ruler should occupy the center so that all people within the Yuan territory could make pilgrimages to him, the Yuan people considered Youzhou a perfect place for establishing their capital. The center-oriented principle was applied not only to the capital’s siting, but also to urban planning and design. For example, a long central axis passes through the palace complex from north to south, forming a giant Chinese character “中” [meaning center] which is a typical symbol of the center under heaven.
Another principle was to design the capital city according to the traditional Chinese astronomical system. To better understand stars and observe celestial phenomena, the ancient Chinese categorized stars and named them respectively, gradually forming an astronomical system with the North Star as the center, and further including the Three Enclosures [San Yuan], Four Symbols, and the Twenty-Eight Mansions. 
The North Star is the closest to the north celestial pole, and is stationary relative to other stars. It is also called the Emperor Star as it symbolizes the Emperor of Heaven. The Three Enclosures are the Purple Forbidden Enclosure [Ziwei Yuan, stars of this group are visible all year from temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere], the Supreme Palace Enclosure [Taiwei Yuan, stars of this group are visible during spring in the Northern Hemisphere], and the Heavenly Market Enclosure [Tianshi Yuan, stars of this group are visible during late summer and early autumn in the Northern Hemisphere]. The Purple Forbidden Enclosure occupies the northernmost area of the night sky, with the Emperor Star at its center, representing the palace of the Emperor of Heaven. The Supreme Palace Enclosure is located in the northeast under the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, which symbolizes the court of heaven. The Heavenly Market Enclosure is located in the southeast below the Purple Forbidden Enclosure, representing the marketplace of heaven. The rest of the sky contains  equatorial constellations grouped in the four directions, each associated with an animal—the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise [also called Black Warrior] of the North—collectively known as the Four Symbols. Each of the four directions, or the Four Symbols, contains seven of the Twenty-Eight Mansions. The Four Symbols represent the four directions of the earth [according to the ancient Chinese].
The capital layout of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties all took the central axis as the baseline. The palace complex was built in the center, a practice inspired by the arrangement of the Three Enclosures. Moreover, during the Ming and Qing periods, the palace complex was named the Forbidden City [which was derived from the Purple Forbidden Enclosure]. In addition, the Meridian Gate is the southern entrance of the Forbidden City, the walls of which are painted red, so as to symbolize the Vermilion Bird of the South. To the north is the Gate of Divine Might, which is the symbol of the Black Tortoise of the North.
Past and future
The central axis of Beijing not only witnesses the long history of Chinese civilization, but also witnesses its advancement with the times. In the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE), the principle of designing a capital according to the astronomical system focused on constructing a strict copy of the astronomical layout, with the purpose of recreating the scene of heaven in the mortal world. Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE) people started to reveal the similarities between urban layout and astronomical arrangement through symbolic representations. More symbolic techniques were used when the Sui Dynasty (581–618) designed its capital city, Daxing City [in today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province]: the city was built in the form of a square with architecture systematically arranged in relation to a central axis, expressing the architectural idea of imitating the layout of heaven, which had been followed since the Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) and Qin dynasties. This design was highly abstract and flexible. Chang’an [present-day Xi’an], the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), with neat arrangement and an atmosphere of majesty, has been imitated by China’s neighboring countries.
It can be seen that although different dynasties followed the same urban design principle, they applied it in different ways and degrees. Those dynasties applied the principle according to their local conditions and continued to develop beyond old designs, which became an evolving cultural tradition. The central axis of Beijing itself is also a typical example of the timelessness of Chinese civilization.
Zhongdu [in present-day Beijing], the capital of the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234), adopted the “triple city format”—the inner city [the political platform for the control and administration of the state], the palace city [in which the ruling house is located], and the outer city [a space in which the various functions of the capital are coordinated]—a pattern derived from the layout of Dongjing City [present-day Kaifeng, Henan Province], the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). A single straight line was drawn north to south through the inner city and the palace city. Unfortunately, this central axis has been lost to history.
The Yuan Dynasty constructed its capital according to the ideal capital city described in Kaogong Ji [Book of Diverse Crafts, a classic work on science and technology in Ancient China]: “The ancestral temple of the ruling house is to the left of the palace, the temple to God of Soil is to the right. The palace faces the court in front and the market is behind it.” Different from previous dynasties, the Yuan Dynasty placed the Ball and Drum Towers on the north side of the central axis for the first time in a capital city. The Drum Tower was used for telling the time, keeping a regular schedule for the nation.
The central axis of Beijing during the Ming Dynasty was based on the central axis drawn in the Yuan Dynasty, but there were innovations in construction and layout. The names of structures were the first innovation. Many buildings symmetrically distributed along the central axis were named with words of symmetry, such as left and right, east and west, civil and military. The second innovation was reflected by the arrangement of the ancestral temple of the ruling house and the temple to the God of Soil, as well as the imperial government buildings. In the Ming capital, the Temple of the Imperial Ancestors [now in the People’s Cultural Park] and the Altar of Earth and Harvests [now in Zhongshan Park] were placed within the inner city and in front of the palace city, close to the central axis. Concerning the imperial government buildings, the administrations of civil affairs on the east side of the axis were balanced by the ones for military affairs on the west. This design further enhanced the strikingly symmetrical layout of the city to the east and west of the central axis.
The Qing Dynasty also made contributions to the construction of Beijing’s central axis, especially the construction around Jingshan Hill, such as building the Qiwang Tower in front of the hill, creatively placing the statue of Confucius on the central axis.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Tian’anmen Square was rebuilt, with the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People on the left and right sides, representing a new example of “ancestral temple to the left and the temple to the God of Soil to the right.” This design shows the respect for history.
Zhang Bo is a research fellow from the Institute of Beijing Studies at Beijing Union University.