Introduction to the Imperial City and Tiān’ān Mén Square

Almost all visits to Běijīng start here at the heart of imperial power, once the centre of rings of walls within walls, and now the centre of the kind of power that grows out of the barrel of a gun in Máo Zédōng’s phrase, and of concentric ring roads hemming in a densely packed population of about 18 million and growing (perhaps to 21 million by 2020).

The wall of the Míng Imperial City was once 11km long, its north side running across the top of what’s now Běi Hǎi Park and about halfway between Jǐng Shān Park and the Drum and Bell Towers. It enclosed the imperial pleasure grounds around three lakes to the west of the Forbidden City built by earlier dynasties, the Běi (North), Zhōng (Middle), and Nán (South) Hǎi (Lakes), and on the east ran down modern Běi Hé Yán and Nán Hé Yán streets, halfway between the palace walls and the Wángfǔ Jǐng shopping street. The two sides met at the Tiān’ān Mén — the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This enclosure was the haunt of the emperor, his family, his servants and administrators, and at its heart lay the palace, surrounded by its own wall. The palace’s southern half was for imperial audiences and administration of the state, and the northern half for the emperor, his empresses and concubines, and the eunuchs who served them. To the communists this walling in of power was the physical expression of class animosity.

The area around the southern two lakes has become the Zhōng Nán Hǎi compound of the new government, and is as closed to the public today as it was for centuries of imperial rule. The space around the palace has been invaded by plebeian modern construction, and many of the ancient buildings have been pulled down. But the Palace Museum or Forbidden City remains the greatest complex of ancient buildings still surviving in China, and its neighbouring temples and administrative buildings, some as much as 600 years old, are still magnificent.

At the very heart of the city and well-served by the metro and buses, many of this area’s main sights are close together and can be visited in groups on foot. In addition to routes around the Forbidden City and circling Tiān’ān Mén Square, there are also glimpses of Běijīng’s past and future to be found by walking around the Legation Quarter and through areas of tottering and rebuilt traditional hútòng (alleys).


Palace Museum or ‘Forbidden City’, including Monumental Mismanagement, The Two Palace Museums, Where are They Now?, A Storm in a Coffee Cup, The End of the Emperors, The Last Occupant of the Forbidden City, Pride and a Fall, and The Ends of the Eunuchs
Tài Miào 太庙
Zhōngshān Park 中山公园
Forward to the Past (Walk) including Huáng Chéng Gēn Yízhǐ Gōngyuán 皇城根遗址公园, Mahakala Temple 普渡寺, Imperial Archive 皇史宬, Chāngpú Héyán Gōngyuán 菖蒲何岩公园, and Běijīng Imperial Art Museum 北京皇城艺术馆
Tiān’ān Mén Square, including Square of Heavenly Discord, Tiān’ān Mén Chénglóu 天安门城楼, Monument to the People’s Heroes 人民英雄纪念碑, Chairman Máo Memorial Hall 毛主席纪念堂, Miraculous Máo, National Museum of China 中国国家博物馆, Great Hall of the People 人民大会堂, The Shock of the New, Grand National Theatre 国家大剧院, China Numismatic Museum 中国钱币博物馆, and Zhèngyáng Mén 正阳门
Legation Quarter (Walk) including Běijīng Police Museum
China Railway Museum (Zhèngyáng Mén Branch) 中国铁道博物馆正阳门馆
Běijīng Planning Exhibition Hall 北京市规划展览馆
National Art Museum of China 中国美术馆
Běi Hǎi Park 北海公园
In Search of the Ice Houses (Walk)
Peking University Red Building 北京大学红楼