Changing Beijing

By Gaubatz, Piper | The Geographical Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview
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Changing Beijing

Gaubatz, Piper, The Geographical Review

Since the economic reforms of 1979 the physical representation of socialist ideology and state power imposed on Beijing during the Mao era has been transformed by ideological, economic, and social changes. Focusing on the rapid transformation of the urban landscape after 1979, this article examines urban-planning strategy and the effect of changes in industry, housing, commerce, and transportation on urban form. Traditional Chinese urban form and socialist urban structure continue to shape the city, despite rapid change that is bringing Beijing closer in form to cities in other developing countries. The data presented in this article were collected during fieldwork in 1992, 1993, and 1994 as part of a study of recent urban planning and development in Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, and Guangzhou.


Beijing is a venerable city steeped in the grandest of northern and imperial traditions. It has served as the national capital for much of the time since the founding of the Liao dynasty in the tenth century A.D. It has been a major regional political center from as early as the Warring States period (453-221 B.C.). City form in 1949 retained many patterns dating to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) (Hou 1983). The street network and all monumental architecture were aligned with the cardinal directions to conform with Chinese geomancy, and massive crenellated walls bounded most of the site. The stone-faced walls enclosed two adjoining areas: a square imperial city on the north, which contained the walled palace complex as well as the homes and temples of the city's political elites; and a rectangular area on the south, which contained the commercial and common residential districts. Between the few monumental axis roads that traversed the city, residential neighborhoods of courtyard houses were threaded by hutongs - narrow alleyways separating the high, blank walls of the courtyards. The imperial palace, a few monumental structures such as temples and the bell-and-drum towers, and hundreds of hutongs and old neighborhoods still survive.

Pre-1949 Beijing had several distinctive districts that serve similar functions today. Two of these districts - the imperial city and the Qianmen-Dazhalan market - date to the Ming dynasty. Two late-nineteenth-century districts also survive: the Wangfujing Street shopping area east of the palace complex, which served as the commercial district for the foreign community, and the university district on the northwest, which developed around the Harvard-Yenching Institute.

Traditional Beijing, like most Chinese cities, was characterized by a high degree of neighborhood specialization. Members of craft guilds plied their trades as groups in specific neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods specialized in activities ranging from the academic nurturing of the next generation of bureaucrats to the provision of services for foreign legations. Present-day street names often recall past functions.


During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Mao Zedong's socialism reshaped the city. New development was structured around large walled work-unit compounds, where people lived as small communities centered on the workplace. The compounds consisted of three-to-five-story blocklike buildings that accommodated varied enterprises such as housing, production facilities, dining halls, and infirmaries. In the work-unit-based city, neighborhoods were relatively undifferentiated by function (Pannell 1980). Chinese cities in the 1949-1978 era were planned on the assumption that most residents would rarely need to travel beyond their compounds. There were no private cars and few taxis. Wide monumental streets that ran between the high compound walls were traversed primarily by buses, trucks, and bicycles, but traffic was sparse.

Although the Maoist urban structure was realized in newly developed areas, preexisting structures - specifically the complex maze of courtyard housing and winding hutongs - constrained development in the old districts.

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