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Beijing is located in the northern part of the North China Plain, about 100 mile (160 kilometer) northwest of the Bohai Sea. As capital of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is the core of a special municipal district, giving the region political status equivalent to that of an entire province. For this reason, the city’s area (6,489 square mile or 16,808 square kilometer) is much greater than 1 might expect.
At the core of this "municipality” is the Beijing metropolitan area, which is surrounded by mountains on the west, north, and northeast, with flat plains extending to the south and southeast. Most of the remaining area beyond the metropolitan core is mountainous, with elevations ranging from 3,280 to 4,920 foot (1,000 to 1,500 meter) above sea level. The city’s highest point is 7,554 foot (2,303 meters) above sea level. Beijing has short springs; hot, humid summers; short, sunny autumns; and cold dry winters with 200 or so frost-free days annually. While the winters are long and cold, Beijing doesn’t get much snow.
Because of the city’s unique geography, with mountains to the west, north, and northeast, and onshore monsoon airflows, the weather is often punctuated by severe dust storms driven by very large high-pressure centers that form over northwestern China’s deserts. Annual rainfall has been relatively low recently (14 in or 36 cm in 2002), but the long-term average is around 16 to 18 inch (41 to 46 centimeter) per year, making the area suitable for agriculture.
Historically, the Yongding, Chaobai, and Juma rivers have provided important water resources as they flow through mountains and southeastern plains toward the Bohai Sea. In addition to the 3 rivers, the city has relied heavily on waters from 3 major reservoirs located in the shelter of the surrounding mountains. But unlike the city’s early years under the Yuan Dynasty, Beijing’s major limitation today is water.
As the urban area expands in both size and population, increasing pressure is being put on the region’s water resources, particularly groundwater resources. And because the surrounding lands provide most of the basic fruit and vegetable needs for the local population, farmers have had to resort to increased irrigation practices to maintain production levels. At the same time, the tremendous demand for land for industrial, commercial, and residential purposes, and the resulting expansion of the city proper, is leaving less and less land available for local agriculture and increasing the city’s reliance on outside sources of food production. This increasing need for water from all sectors has led to increased use of groundwater stored in the aquifers beneath the city. But this use has a tremendous cost, particularly from a sustainability standpoint, if not managed properly.
Evidence from the archaeological record suggests that the lands now occupied by Beijing have experienced human presence for a very long time (dating back some 5,000 years to "Peking Man”). In these early years preceding the Yuan Dynasty (13th century), the area’s geography was much different than what we see today, containing a rich and diverse wetland environment with numerous rivers, streams, and swamps. This rich wetland environment—with lush grasslands around its edges, surrounding mountains, and easy access to the high Mongolian Steppe and traditional homelands—was a factor for the Mongols in locating their capital (Dadu) at what is today Beijing.
Although serving off and on as China’s capital beginning with the Liao Dynasty in 927, it is under the Mongols and their Yuan Dynasty that the city began taking on its present character. The Mongols undertook major ecological engineering projects, expanding and reconstructing the city’s inner and outer walls, creating parks and gardens, and developing drainage projects to create local canals and waterways. It is also under the Mongols that the Grand Canal was extended to the north, creating a vital food and communication link between Beijing and the heavily populated agricultural lands in the lower and middle Yangtze Basin to the south.
Beijing has served off and on as China’s capital beginning in 927 with the Liao Dynasty, extending through the Jin, Yuan, and Ming dynasties until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. After the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Beijing passed into the hands of various warlords until 1928, when it once again became the capital of China under the Nationalists (Guomindang).
Between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese occupied Beijing following their invasion of China. With the founding of People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Beijing was once again designated as the capital, continuing its stature as the political and cultural center of China. However, when the communists established their rule in 1949, the government brought in more heavy industry (steelworks, textile factories, and machine factories) in an effort to make the city an industrial center as well.
The Forbidden City, now a museum in Beijing, was the secretive political capital of China for centuries.
The communists sought to make Beijing self-sufficient by expanding its territory to include outlying rural counties. After 1978, when the first economic liberalizations began, Beijing became a center of finance as well. In the period following the reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Beijing’s economic character has continued to grow and change. Today the interest is moving toward more high-tech industries with suburban office parks. There is exceptional growth in the insurance, real estate, and health care sectors of the economy, all fueling China’s growing middle-class population.
In addition to being a political and cultural center, Beijing also thrives as a center of international activity and tourism. Great changes have taken place since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The city walls that once dominated the landscape in what is today the central business district have been demolished to facilitate transportation and allow for the expansion of residential and business sectors. Plans for future development are to retain the symmetrical layout of the old city on its north-south axis, extending out into the suburban districts. The overall plan covers an area of about 386 square mile (1,000 square kilometer), with a traffic network of 5 concentric beltways, 28 radial roads, and underground and suburban railways to further link the city center with outlying areas and surrounding towns. With Tiananmen Square at the center, offices along Chang’an Boulevard (the city’s main east-west corridor) will concentrate on state, political and economic affairs. The areas around the Palace Museum (Imperial Palace or Forbidden City) and city gates as well as the lakes have been designated landmark districts. And with a look to the future, an increasing number of historical and cultural sites are being renovated as the city prepares to host the 2008 Olympics.
At the end of 2002, Beijing had a total population of 14.56 million residents, 11.49 million of whom were registered as permanent residents. The remaining 3 million people make up a floating workforce with official permission to stay in the city and work temporarily or attend 1 of the city’s 37 universities, most of which are in the Haidian District. The city’s population geography is diverse, with all 55 of the recognized ethnic minorities within the population. As with all world capitals, there is a large expatriate community (about 20,000 people) throughout the city’s core, giving the more frequented areas near tourist attractions, government offices, shopping districts, and university settings an interesting cosmopolitan feeling. Beijing is filled with major historic attractions. Some of the more familiar sites in Beijing, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Peking Man Relics, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and the Ming Tombs are World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites approved by the United Nations.
Brian Hook, ed., Beijing and Tianjin: Towards a Millennial Megalopolis (Oxford University Press, 1998); J.E. Hoare and Susan Pares, eds., Beijing (Clio Press 2000); Frederic Wakeman, Jr., The Fall of Imperial China (Free Press, 1975).
CHINA AGRICULTURAL UNIVERSITY