The old city of Beijing was first built in the Yuan Dynasty (mid-13th Century, formerly known as "Dadu"), and further developed and perfected in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (early 14th Century to early 20th Century). With eight hundred years’ history of urban development, it is now the largest imperial capital city still existing in China and a classic model of ancient Chinese urban planning. As an outstanding example of feudal China’s capital, the old city of Beijing enjoys a prominent position in the world history of urban planning and development.
The Central Axis is the best preserved core area of the old city of Beijing. The Central Axis of Beijing is 7.8 kilometers long starting in the south of the city from the Yongding Gate, running across the Zhengyang Gate, Tian'anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Jingshan Hill, and ending with the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the north. Most of the essential buildings in the old city of Beijing are constructed along the axis. The Central Axis ingeniously organizes the imperial palaces, the imperial city, temples and altars, markets, streets from feudal times and the Tian’anmen square complex built after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. As the most representative and important section of the old city of Beijing, it is the core of old Beijing’s spatial pattern and demonstrates the magnificent spatial order of the urban space.
"The Central Axis of Beijing" has its root dated back to the planning and design of the Dadu City in the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan Dynasty initially determined the location of the Central Axis based on the water system with imperial grain transport capacity (today’s Six Lakes). Along with the natural conditions, the Central Axis was designed and constructed to realize the ideal city plan in traditional Chinese culture. The Ming Dynasty built the Forbidden City on the basis of the Yuan palaces, and erected the symbolic Jingshan Hill in the north, and the new Bell Tower and Drum Tower, Imperial Ancestral Temple, and Altar of the Land and Grain. As the outer city expanded and the new Temple of Heaven and Temple of Agriculture built on both sides, the Central Axis extended further to Yongding Gate in the south, marking the completion of the Central Axis system. The overall layout of Beijing city remained intact throughout the Qing Dynasty. The Central Axis has undergone functional renovation and spatial re-organization during the Republic of China and People's Republic of China. In particular, the renovation and expansion of Tian'anmen Square shifted the spatial and symbolic focus of the Central Axis from the Forbidden City to Tian'anmen Square in the south.
During centuries’ evolution, changes of political regimes as well as social, economic and urban development influenced the architectures and spatial pattern of the Central Axis. However, as the most essential feature and the basis of urban planning, the Central Axis has been given full respect in historical periods and exhibits the capacity of inclusiveness of the ingeniously designed spatial order for social changes, demonstrated by its own evolution. Today, "the Central Axis of Beijing" is not only a representative physical carrier of recalling the traditional urban life, but an urban landscape still in full vigor.
In the context of history, spatial structure and cultural significance, "the Central Axis of Beijing", stretching 7.8 km from Yongding Gate in the south to the Bell Tower in the north, can be divided into the following urban landscape areas: the place of worship in the Outer City between Yongding Gate and Zhengyang Gate; the area from Zhengyang Gate to Tian'anmen Square; the "Halls and Palaces" from Forbidden City to Jingshan Hill; the "Market" area around the Drum Tower and Bell Tower; and the "Six Lakes" water area. These areas make up a full picture scroll of "the Central Axis of Beijing" and reflect the evolution and accumulation of the historic urban landscape.
Important elements include: Yongding Gate, Temple of Heaven, Temple of Agriculture, Tian'anmen Square complex, Imperial Ancestral Temple, Altar of the Land and Grain, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Hill, Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Nanluoguxiang, Yandai Bystreet historic area, and the Beihai water system.
As the core of old Beijing city, the Central Axis of Beijing demonstrates the ingenious urban planning in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the People's Republic of China. Its location and design not only represent the “value of the center” in traditional Chinese culture, but also highlight Chinese philosophy's respect to the nature and its appreciation of mutual existence between man and nature. Following the urban planning principles for capital cities recorded in Zhouli • Kaogongji (Rites of Zhou: Records of Construction), the Central Axis of Beijing is the physical carrier of the ancient Chinese ritual system, emphasizes well-organized social orders and stands as a creative practice and typical example of traditional Chinese social governance applied to urban planning.
"The Central Axis of Beijing" witnesses the major changes in Chinese society and values in the last eight centuries. Dadu City of the Yuan Dynasty set a model to control urban development and linked up important public buildings through the central axis. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, a number of halls and palaces, royal gardens, altars and temples were added to build up the Central Axis as the center and symbol of Beijing city and enriched its cultural context. Chinese governments since the Republic of China carried out renovations in the area around the Front Gate and Tian'anmen Square in order to adapt to modernization and new ideology. As a result, the spatially isolated area has been set free and vitalized, while the symmetrical pattern was observed. Although some historic remains along it have been altered or vanished due to renovations in modern and contemporary times, the Axis as one entity adapts to the social needs in different periods and plays an important role in the development of Beijing city. The "Central Axis of Beijing" also reflects the evolution and accumulation of the historic urban landscape during the last eight centuries.
In summary, the Central Axis of Beijing demonstrates great significance to Chinese and other cultures. It provides a considerable inspiration for current and future societies, and therefore exhibits outstanding universal value.
Criterion (i): The Central Axis of Beijing was constructed with careful urban planning and design and went through constant evolution of almost eight centuries. Organized according to specific design principles, it is a uniform spatial entity centering historical remains including imperial palaces, imperial gardens, modern and contemporary public architectures and city square and is composed of imperial temples and altars, residential houses and neighborhoods, landscape gardens, historic streets, hydraulic projects, defensive systems as well as important symbolic architectures and urban landscapes. As the core of the spatially symmetrical old Beijing city, the Central Axis and surrounding areas form a masterpiece of ancient and contemporary urban planning. Its planning and evolution reveal how the Chinese people applied science, aesthetics and ancient philosophy into the design of a capital city, and how they established social order and regulated social life through urban planning. The Central Axis of Beijing demonstrates great ingenuity of human in urban planning.
Criterion (iii): The Central Axis of Beijing and surrounding areas witness an orderly distribution of important architectures such as the palaces, governmental offices, temples and altars, mansions, residential houses and city gates that constitute a rich and magnificent spatial order with profound symbolism. The spatial order, architecture form and their colors are arranged in an orderly and uniform manner yet present great diversity to provide special evidences for the Chinese ritual system, imperial culture, folk customs and fengshui. The Central Axis not only witnessed the already vanished social life of ancient China, but also functions as living carrier of the ever-lasting traditional Chinese culture and value system.
Criterion (iv): Traditional Chinese urban planning, especially the capital planning, is mainly influenced by three ideologies. One is “observing heaven and earth” to express Chinese traditional theories of “harmony between man and nature” and the “divine rights of emperors”; the second is the so-called “ritual system” in “Zhouli • Kaogongji” to plan city according to the ranks of governors in the city; the third is the principle put forward by Guanzi to rationally plan cities in accordance with natural environment and urban population.
Beijing, as the location of the capital, is exactly under the Polaris, where the imperial palace is strictly under the Heavenly Palace in the myths. This reflects the “observing heaven and earth”; the pattern of courts in the front and markets behind, ancestral shrines on the left and altar of land and grain on the right along the central axis shows the traditional ritual system and the influence of “Zhouli • Kaogongji”; the identification of Beijing’s central axis, and the spatial relation between the central axis and the Six Lakes water system, Yongding River and Chaobai River reflect the rationality and the planning principle of “harmony with natural environment” in “Guanzi”.
The Central Axis of Beijing explains the traditional Chinese philosophy of the relation between man, city, heaven and nature, and is a typical and well preserved epitome of the thousand years’ development of Chinese capital planning. It represents the summit of capital design and construction in the Ming and Qing dynasties and is an outstanding example of urban planning in the oriental civilization.
Criterion (vi): When the Mongols started the Yuan Dynasty and conquered the entire China, the Yuan emperors could view China's geography from a wider perspective. Combined with the viewpoint of Neo-Confucianism master Zhu Xi in the Southern Song Dynasty that “Hebei’s capital (Beijing) is exactly at the center of heaven and earth”, Beijing was regarded as the center of the world at that time. Beijing's central axis was not only the axis of the capital city, but a central line to control the whole country. It linked up Yanshan Mountains, the Yellow River, Mount Taishan, Huai River, Huainan mountains, the Yangtze River, and Jiangnan mountains with the Central Axis of Beijing as its core.
The central axis of the country and the city as well as natural conditions and traditional ritual system were integrated into the urban planning and development of Beijing, making Beijing the best model combining the Neo- Confucianism since the Song Dynasty and the ideal city planning in Zhouli • Kaogongji. Such a design exhibits distinctive cultural value, the essence of traditional Chinese philosophy and the interpretation of Chinese tradition that pays widespread attention to the relationship between man and nature, urban construction and natural environment throughout human history.
The Central Axis of Beijing was developed on the basis of the previous dynasty’s capital cities’ construction experience. It is the summit and the most typical design of central axis among ancient capital cities of China. The Central Axis of Beijing is the most important basis and component of Beijing's urban pattern and urban development. With significant cultural value, it has exerted profound and long-lasting influence in Beijing's urban evolution for centuries.
This process truthfully demonstrates the significant influence of the ancient urban planning philosophy stated in Zhouli • Kaogongji and the city's evolution centering the central axis. Meanwhile, the central axis is admired by local people who believe it the icon of the city. As described by the famous architect Liang Sicheng: “The unique sublime and magnificent spatial order of Beijing was generated by this central axis.” The Central Axis of Beijing also has spiritual and emotional authenticity.
Over centuries of urban evolution, some architectures along the Central Axis of Beijing underwent demolition or reconstruction (for example, the Yongding Gate and Di’an Gate), and the spatial pattern has been partially altered (for example, Tian’anmen Square). However, the Central Axis as a whole has always been the major axis and the fundamental basis of Beijing’s urban planning and enjoys full respect. Partial changes have generally been associated with important historical events and reflect the social development and value systems in specific periods of time. Reconstruction of vital components for the integrity(for example, the Yongding Gate) were undertaken strictly pursuant to historical documents, pictures and surveying drawings by using traditional materials and techniques.
The “Central Axis of Beijing” as an urban landscape ensemble has complete components and clear association, and includes all necessary elements to present its Outstanding Universal Value. The integrity of the Central Axis of Beijing in terms of time and space exhibits the ritual system in Chinese culture applied to urban planning and demonstrates the great achievements of ancient Chinese urban planning philosophy.
The Central Axis of Beijing has time integrity. Its planning and evolution progressed throughthe Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Republic of China and People's Republic of China, totaling eight hundred years. In each time period, it received full respect as the most important component of Beijing's urban pattern and planning and completely showcases the important evolution milestones.
The Central Axis of Beijing has spatial integrity: the north-south axis rhythmically and continuously runs through the entire old city of Beijing, and has sufficient scale to demonstrate old Beijing’s spatial pattern and magnificent spatial order. The cultural values of the Central Axis urban landscape can be fully demonstrated in this area.
Located in the center of old Beijing, the Central Axis is under overall protection ensured by the conservation master plan and a carefully defined buffer zone.
Comparison is made with urban heritages inscribed on the World Heritage List or the Tentative List, and major cities not inscribed on the World Heritage List or the Tentative List but comparable to Beijing. They are:
1. Historic cities of China:
Historic capital cities built earlier than Beijing: Xi'an, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Nanjing
Historic capital cities built approximately at the same time with Beijing: Xanadu (Upper Capital) and Zhongdu (Middle Capital) of the Yuan Dynasty
2. Historic cities in Asia influenced by China: Heijo-kyo and Heian-kyo, Japan
3. Historic cites/capital cities of other countries with typical axis: Rome, Paris, Washington, Canberra, Brasilia, St. Petersburg.
Following conclusions can be drawn through the comparison:
Comparison with other historic capital cities of China: When compared with historic capital cities Xi'an, Luoyang, Kaifeng, and Nanjing built earlier than Beijing, only old Beijing city remains its overall pattern and central axis that exhibits the ritual system emphasizing “the value of the center”. When compared with historic capital cities Xanadu and Zhongdu of the Yuan Dynasty built approximately at the same time with Beijing, Beijing has the largest axis system that cost the longest time to form, is of the most significance in ancient Chinese urban planning. Therefore the Central Axis of Beijing has more outstanding values than those of other historic capital cities of China.
Comparison with historical monarchical capital cities in other countries: When compared with ancient capital cities Heijo-kyo and Heian-kyo of Japan influenced by China's urban planning concept, Central Axis of Beijing shows stronger symmetry implying feudal imperial ideology, still declaring its strong sense of existence, and still meets requirements for the authenticity and integrity. When compared with historic cities Rome, Paris and St. Petersburg with typical axis, the "value of the center" represented by the Central Axis of Beijing is more than a geometrical symmetry; it showcases the unique hierarchy and symmetry of ancient Chinese urban planning, the efforts to harmonize with natural surroundings, and the distinctive ritual system and the "harmony between man and nature" philosophy of Chinese culture.
Comparison with contemporary capital cities of other countries: When compared with , Washington (U.S.), Canberra (Australia) and Brasilia (Brazil) with central axis, the distinctive Central Axis of Beijing is a result of constant supplementation, accumulation, superposition and transformation of urban landscapes since the Dadu city of the Yuan Dynasty 800 years ago. It is the adaptation of urban space to social changes and development. The age, size and form of the Central Axis of Beijing reflect unique Chinese culture and the response of ancient Chinese urban planning concept to social order.