His family's move to Beijing was the most significant event of Tsien's childhood. He would enter the city as a toddler and leave fifteen years later as a young man.
Beijing was and is the most political of China's cities. For three thousand years it had been the political center of the country and for the past five hundred its capital. In 1908, just a short while before Tsien's arrival, approximately one-third of Beijing's seven hundred thousand people belonged to the military and administrative bureaucracy of the Qing reign. When Tsien arrived, he likely found the streets filled with officials wearing the dignified uniform of China's elite: the blue cotton changpao gown, which were as commonplace in Beijing then as the gray pinstriped suits are in Washington, D.C., today
Fifteen years among Beijing's towers, stupas and gates, breathtaking in their bulk of marble, and among imperial courtyards that stretched unbroken for miles within crenelated walls gave Tsien the opportunity to absorb the thousand-year-old Beijing culture while witnessing firsthand China's turbulent transition into the modern age. This up-close exposure to Beijing's vast halls and palaces, gleaming with lacquered furniture and ceilings of pearl and gold, lav-