Application for world heritage status promotes the protection of Beijing's ancient urban space
By Li Qing  ·  2021-11-08  ·   Source: NO.45 NOVEMBER 11, 2021
A high-speed train passes by Yongding Gate, the southern end of the Beijing Central Axis in Beijing on November 2 (CNSPHOTO)

On September 24, local reports emerged of the discovery of ancient cultural relics close to Zhengyang Gate at the southern end of central Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Reports centered on the discovery of a 3-meter-tall stone beast, which was unearthed to the southeast of the gate where the nearby Zhengyang Bridge once stood.

The stone beast that was unearthed by the bridge was one of the sons of the mythical dragon, placed there due to the belief he could monitor the water that flowed under the bridge and prevent flooding. Based on the excavation project, experts suggested restoring part of the bridge and the ancient moat it crossed in order to restore the past appearance of Zhengyang Gate and revive the city's ancient urban landscape.

Zhengyang Gate, also known as Qianmen Gate, was built as part of Beijing's city wall during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and has stood on the site for over 600 years. Used as the southern gate to Beijing's inner city during ancient times, the gate has witnessed the ups and downs of history. To its south lay the flourishing Ming mercantile hub of Qianmen Street, which continues to attract shoppers to this day; to its north lie Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, the seat of Chinese power for centuries.

Zhengyang Gate is significant not only for its position as gateway to the inner realms of Old Beijing, but also for its position on Beijing's central axis.

The renovation and excavation of Zhengyang Gate, launched in January, is part of efforts to apply for the Beijing Central Axis to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, which began in 2011. The axis has been included on the UNESCO's Tentative List for World Cultural Heritage Sites since 2013.

"In addition to the excavation, efforts to have the axis listed include the increased protection of existing cultural relics and protection of the surrounding natural environment," Lu Zhou, a professor at Tsinghua University's Architectural Design and Research Institute, said at the Asian Dialogue for Cultural Heritage Conservation, held in Beijing in October. The documentation required as part of UNESCO's application process are also being developed.

"The central axis of Beijing was laid out according to concepts of an ideal capital that were developed 3,000 years ago in China. Becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site can better present Chinese culture to the world by showcasing the urban style from the past to today," he said, hoping local residents can enjoy a better life through changes brought on by the application.

A city's backbone

Whether they're aware of the term or not, all travelers to Beijing are familiar with the city's central axis. Whether exploring the Forbidden City, watching pigeons fly over the Drum and Bell towers, or sampling traditional snacks along Qianmen Street, no itinerary can be followed without tracing the line of the central axis.

The old city of Beijing began to take its present form during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Known then as Dadu or Khanbaliq, the city founded by Kublai Khan was planned around its network of lakes and laid out along the axis.

The axis and buildings along it have changed over the past century and today cover 60 percent of the area defined as Old Beijing. The evolution, driven by social, economic and other development, has given full respect to the spatial features of the axis, and has been inclusive enough to support social changes.

"I have seen many central axes or famous areas of other cities, and Beijing's is the most colorful one," Shan Jixiang, former Curator of the Palace Museum, told Beijing Review at a lecture on the central axis protection on September 26. Stretching 7.8 km, the axis passes through three urban landscape areas, from Yongding Gate in the south to the Bell Tower in the north, making up a full picture scroll of the historical urban landscape.

"The southern sections of the axis, between Yongding Gate and Zhengyang Gate were originally home to places of worship, with the middle sections, between Zhengyang Gate and Jingshan Park devoted to venues of governance, such as the Forbidden City. The Drum and Bell towers, located approximately 1.5 km north of Jingshan Park, were devoted to commerce," Shan said.

"You can understand the economic, political, social, cultural and even ecological development of Beijing, and even China at large, by examining the axis, as it combines knowledge of architecture, philosophy, ritual culture and lifestyle," he said.

Keeping up with the times

Shan began working on Beijing's urban planning in 2000. One of the main challenges he has encountered has been ensuring the massive scale of Beijing's metropolitan construction does not interrupt the flow of the Beijing Central Axis or overshadow its buildings.

Over the years, plans for many industrial parks, office buildings and even venues for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games have been adjusted based on recommendations made by Shan and experts like him. Instead of increased construction, more grasslands and public green zones have appeared along the central line.

Olympic venues such as the Water Cube are now just north of the central axis as a modern interpretation of this urban plan. Today, the axis is more than just a physical representation of traditional urban life. It is also a modern and functional landscape full of vigor.

"What we should focus on is preserving the achievements made through urban planning and the natural features that exist along the axis," he said.

For instance, to ensure people along the axis can see the beautiful skyline and surrounding mountains, it is necessary to limit the height of new buildings in the center of Beijing.

"The protection of cultural relics that have lost their practical functions today must continue without restriction. More effort should go into historical neighborhoods and streets, which not only have cultural significance but are also home to the people of the capital."

"What composes Beijing's history is not only historical relics but also architecture built in modern times. As an important part of the city, they enrich its stories and make it more attractive," Shan said. Relevant departments should also pay attention to intangible cultural heritage, time-honored brands and other elements. They are an important chapter in many people's memories as well as a carrier of nostalgia, he added.

"The successful nomination of the Beijing Central Axis will add a new category to the World Heritage List as the world currently does not have any similar central axes like the one in Beijing," Lu told Global Times.

He said the philosophy of ancient urban construction in China—planning the layout of cities before beginning the actual building—is very different from that of Western countries in ancient times. Yet the protection plan for Beijing can be used as a model for other cities to follow to preserve and maintain their own historical landscapes.

"The protection of the Beijing Central Axis includes all of the old city, which will promote urban environmental quality and improve the living standards of many citizens," Lu said.

(Print Edition Tittle: Tracing Time)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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