What comes to your mind when you think of Beijing? The Forbidden City? Tian’anmen Square? The Temple of Heaven?
These famous landmarks are all located along the central axis. As the best-preserved core area of the old city of Beijing, the central axis is now under consideration for UNESCO’s World Heritage status.
The central axis refers to the “line” that separates the eastern and western parts of Beijing. At 7.8 kilometers long, it runs from Yongding Gate in the south to the Bell Tower and Drum Tower in the north. Construction began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and continued during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The central axis is like the backbone of Beijing. It smartly organized the palaces, temples and altars, markets and streets in ancient times, UNESCO noted.
The central axis shows the traditional Chinese concept of “respecting the center”. This stressed the importance of imperial power, as the royal palace would be in the central spot. Other important buildings were placed around it. For example, the Imperial Ancestral Temple was to the east of the Forbidden City, while the Altar of Land and Grain lay to the west.
The central axis also shows traditional Chinese ideas like harmony between man and nature and following order. It runs from the south to the north, the same as the direction of a meridian. The ritual culture that started from the Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256 BC) stressed balance, symmetry and order. There are lots of symmetric buildings along the axis. The Forbidden City is the most well-known.
Beijing was not the first city to use a central axis. During the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), the city Yecheng had a street running from the east to the west. It separated the royal palaces from common people’s living and business areas. In Chang’an (now in Shaanxi province), the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), there was a wide street from the north to the south. It made the city symmetrical.
“The central axis is more than a material relic. It is also a continuation of the traditional Chinese city layout concept,” said Shan Jixiang, former director of the Palace Museum.