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The pace of Beijing’s bid for a UNESCO listing of its Central Axis has picked up after more than a decade of efforts. NewsChina reports on the stories behind the process

By Wang Yan , Zhang Xinyu Updated Mar.1

Zhu Zuxi, an expert in historical geography, can still picture the layout of Beijing when he first arrived in 1955 as a student at Peking University. Setting off from his hometown in Zhejiang Province, he traveled for days before finally arriving at Qianmen Railway Station, right in the heart of the capital on the edge of Tiananmen Square. Stepping out of the station, the grand Zhengyang Gate left a lasting impression.  

Starting from Yongding Gate in the south, the Central Axis of Beijing passes through Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, then on to the Drum and Bell Towers in the north. The Central Axis is 7.8 kilometers long and includes some of the capital’s most famous landmarks, both old and new.  

On August 7, 2022, China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration announced its application to list the Central Axis as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2024.  

“The Central Axis of Beijing has reflected the spiritual pursuit of the Chinese nation and the profound history of Chinese civilization for over 700 years,” Chen Mingjie, director of Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, told NewsChina in November 2022. “Architecture is the physical manifestation of music, which makes the Central Axis, with its mix of architecture, like a grand symphony.” 

Tracing the Line 

During his first year at Peking University, Zhu attended a lecture by earth sciences department head Hou Renzhi titled “Beijing’s Origin and its Vicissitudes.” Talking about the planning and construction of ancient Beijing, Professor Hou quoted The Book of Zhou Rites, a significant Confucian text from the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), which described the ideal model for a capital city.  

The text proposes a square perimeter with each side measuring nearly 4 kilometers. City walls should have three gates on each side to accommodate a three-by-three grid design, where each section serves a different function. At the very center should be the imperial palace, and temples dedicated to ancestor worship and to pray for good harvests should flank it symmetrically. The north-south line bisecting the palace should serve as the city’s central axis, with the imperial palace toward the top and markets toward the bottom.  

Wang Gang, president of the Beijing Ancient Capital Society, told NewsChina the central axis concept influenced Chinese cities through the millennia. “In an ideal construction plan for a city, having a central axis was popular,” Wang said.  

Historians and archaeologists hold different views on which ancient city was the first to have a central axis. Some cite the city of Yecheng, which was located between Anyang and Handan in Hebei Province, in the short-lived Wei Dynasty (220-266) as the first capital with a central axis, while others say the earliest appeared 4,000 years ago. According to archaeologist Wang Wei at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, research shows that ruins of the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BC) palace in Yanshi, Henan Province, display a central axis with symmetrically placed structures.  

Ancient Chinese believed the geographical center to represent supremacy. One reason the city of Luoyang in today’s Henan Province served as the longest-running dynastic capital is because the ancients believed it was the center of the world.  

When Luoyang was the capital of two regional kingdoms during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (220-589), it already had an obvious central axis. After the demise of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the conquering Jin Dynasty (1115- 1234) moved the capital to Yanjing, a part of present day Beijing, and created a nine kilometer central axis.  

However, Wang Gang said Beijing’s present day axis was established during the subsequent Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The Yuan abandoned the Jin capital for a new site to its northeast – Yuan Dadu, the site of modern-day Beijing.  

For over 1,000 years through the Tang Dynasty (618-907), north was considered the most important cardinal direction, so city planners reserved the northernmost portions of capitals for the imperial court. Wang Gang pointed out that during the Song Dynasty, the city’s geometrical center became a symbol of power, and the imperial palace was moved to reflect that shift.  

However in Dadu, the Drum and Bell Towers occupied this spot, an unprecedented design for Chinese cities. “Instead of placing the imperial palace in the center of the city, the drum and bell towers took the most important position in the city,” Wang Gang said.  

The Drum and Bell Towers not only helped to mark time but also track the  
movement of the sun, moon and stars. According to Chinese timekeeping,  
each day is divided into 12 periods announced by sounding the drum or bell. Their central position reflected that the Yuan held the motion of the spheres – and therefore the laws of the universe – as most important.  

By the 14th century, Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644) reinforced the central axis by highlighting the central position of the Forbidden City (today’s Palace Museum). Most of the existing architecture along the Central Axis was built during the Ming.  

Zhu Zuxi recalled that while at the Peking University lecture, Professor Hou Renzhi told the story of a county magistrate summoned to the imperial palace complex.  

As he entered its southern Daming Gate, the official walked over 500 meters along the Thousand Step Corridor before reaching the Outer Jinshui Bridge. Immediately his view widened, and he thought he could see the emperor ahead at Chengtian Gate (known as Tiananmen Tower), where he often met with officials. However, the county magistrate still had to walk another 180 meters to Duan Gate, and then an additional 380 meters to Wu Gate. After he entered Wu Gate, he saw the Inner Jinshui Bridge, and walked another 180 meters before arriving at Fengtian Gate. Just ahead was Fengtian Hall, where the emperor was waiting. 
But the official – having already walked over 1.2 kilometers along the palace’s central axis in anxious anticipation – collapsed at Fengtian Gate from fatigue and fright.  

Zhu told NewsChina that city planners used the psychological impact of open spaces, long distances and imposing environments in their designs to inspire respect for the emperor among the populace.  

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) expanded the central axis of Beijing, with renovations and additions continuing during the reigns of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). 

Yongding Gate during the Republic of China era (1912-1949)

Remnants of the city wall of Dadu, the Yuan Dynasty capital, Haidian District

View of Zhengyang Gate and its Arrow Tower from within the city walls, 1870s (Photos by FOTOE)

Preservation Campaigns 

While the UNESCO application process formally began in 2011, campaigns to preserve the ancient city of Beijing started in 1949. Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), one of China’s most prestigious architects, advocated for officials to zone all central Beijing as a historic district. Mostly comprising architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties, Liang called Beijing “the most complete and greatest ancient capital in the world. It’s a complete design, symmetrical, and with grandeur, unparalleled in the world.”  

But Liang could not stop the wrecking balls. In the decades that followed, the city walls were demolished and ancient buildings destroyed. In the 1980s, scholars, including Hou Renzhi, Zheng Xiaoxie and Shan Shiyuan, proposed to protect the entirety of Beijing as a historic and cultural city.  

In December 1981, the then State Construction Commission, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the State Administration of Urban Construction submitted a report to the State Council to request instructions for protecting famous historical and cultural cities.  

In February 1982, China’s State Council named 24 cities including Beijing as national historical and cultural cities. In November the same year, the National People’s Congress passed the National Law on Protection of Cultural Relics, which clarified the protection of China’s historic and cultural cities.  

In 1990, Beijing designated 25 historical and cultural blocks, complete with protection plans. However, challenges emerged in the mid-1990s as urbanization expanded and cities repurposed their historic centers. An average of 600 hutongs – the narrow alleyways characteristic of Beijing – vanished every year. Yu Ping, former deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage, told NewsChina that in the 1990s, special funds for protecting cultural relics totaled only 1 million yuan (US$143,000).  

But enthusiasm for the historic preservation of Beijing got a bump thanks to the capital’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In May 2000, at the critical stage of the bid, Beijing Municipal Party Committee and the city government allocated 330 million yuan (US$47.2m) over three years to renovate over 100 cultural relic sites, many of which urgently needed repair. In 2003, the municipal government invested an additional 600 million yuan (US$85.86m) over five years to implement the “Cultural Olympic Cultural Relics Protection Plan.”  

The reconstruction of Yongding Gate was among its key projects. The gate, which was demolished in 1957, was rebuilt in 2004. Shan Jixiang, former director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and director of the Palace Museum, said the preservation efforts had two main objectives: move all large-scale construction and apartment blocks from outside central Beijing (within the Second Ring Road) to the vicinity of the Fourth Ring Road, and protect the area around the Central Axis and the Palace Museum, which includes restricting construction of tall buildings and protecting Beijing’s hutongs, courtyard homes and historical buildings.  

Yu Ping said that after the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing increased funding for the protection and repair of cultural relics, and requested that authorities propose long-term plans for protecting cultural relics.  

In 2011, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Cultural Heritage submitted its plan to apply for UNESCO World Heritage listing. In 2013, the UNESCO website listed Beijing’s Central Axis among China’s preparatory projects for world heritage status.  

The application went slowly at first. For quite some time, the project’s primary aim was to “ensure the realization of the application target by 2035.” However, the pace picked up in September 2017, when the Beijing City Overall Plan (2016-2035) included the line to “actively promote the Beijing Central Axis for the application of World Heritage status.” 

View of Di’anmenwai Street and the Drum Tower from Jingshan Park (Photo by VCG)

Influence on Urban Planning

There are already three UNESCO World Heritage sites along the Central Axis – the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Wanning Bridge. “What we are talking about is mainly the influence of the Central Axis of Beijing on urban planning. It reflects an idea in Chinese urban planning and is a physical example of the outstanding achievements of ancient Chinese urban planning,” Professor Lü Zhou, director of the National Heritage Center of Tsinghua University, told NewsChina. His team has undertaken the drafting of Beijing’s UNESCO application.  

So far, it includes 14 heritage sites along the Central Axis. These sites, together with historic roads and buffer zones, account for around 65 percent of Beijing’s ancient center.  

“With the combination of so many sites, we should tell the story of Chinese civilization, about the inheritance of 5,000 years of civilization, about the formation process of the diverse integration patterns of the Chinese nation, and about the traditional aesthetic concept of Chinese civilization, all of which are presented in the heritage value of the Central Axis of Beijing,” Lü said.  

A prerequisite for applying is to identify “outstanding universal value.” Jiang Bo, vice chairman of UNESCOsubsidiary the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), told NewsChina that the three values extracted from the Beijing Central Axis include a classical Eastern design concept that differs from many Western cities, artistic achievements of ancient Chinese architecture, and physical representations of the Confucian ritual system.  

Ye Nan, deputy director of the Historical and Cultural City Planning Institute of the Beijing Planning Institute, is leading Beijing’s UNESCO application. She told NewsChina that to restore the landscape of significant cultural heritage sites, modern buildings that blocked their views had to be transformed. 

A panorama of downtown Beijing. The Temple of Heaven is in the foreground, Zhengyang Gate and Tiananmen Square are visible above it (Photo by VCG)

View of Jingshan Park from the Drum Tower (Photo by VCG)

Final Stage 

On October 1, 2022, Beijing enacted its Central Axis Cultural Heritage Protection Regulations. Professor Qin Hongling from the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture told NewsChina that the regulations involve a lot of public participation and encourage residents along the Central Axis to carry out cultural activities. “Public participation is a trend... [that allows] more young people to know and understand cultural heritage through protection,” Qin said.  

Beijing will apply to the UNESCO World Heritage Center after February 1, 2023, which will pass it on to ICOMOS for written review. In the summer of 2023, an international expert team from ICOMOS will visit Beijing to conduct an on-site investigation, which includes evaluating the Central Axis project’s protection status, boundary divisions, risk factors and monitoring system. 

In November, UNESCO will hold a meeting with about 30 experts in Paris, which may request that China submit supplementary materials. By March 2024, based on the application materials, on-site evaluation and correction materials, ICOMOS will make recommendations and comments. Then, at the 2024 World Heritage Conference, the 21 member states of the World Heritage Committee will vote.  

There are some new trends in world cultural heritage evaluation. According to Jiang Bo, one feature of successful projects is a regional balance with global priorities on Africa, and an emphasis on integrating culture and nature, highlighting the importance of cultural biodiversity. 

“The Central Axis of Beijing is actually a demonstration of cultural diversity. In the context of world cultural heritage, the Central Axis represents a kind of Eastern cultural tradition different from European and American cultural traditions,” Jiang said. “We are not sure if all 21 member countries will vote for approval in the end, and there are some factors beyond our control that might contribute to the results,” Lü said.  

The application has had an obvious effect, such as raising awareness of the Central Axis and its significance in daily life among the public. “It’s like something handed down from our ancestors that has always been there, but no one cared. Now, as this treasure is taken out and dusted off, everyone realizes its value,” Lü said.