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).