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Old meets new on Beijing's historic axis

By Liu Xin, Kong Xiangxin (China Features)

China’s ancient capital has a historic north-south Zhongzhouxian, or central axis, which has been extended and rejuvenated.

Begun in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the original Zhongzhouxian was 3.7 kilometers. The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties extended the length to 7.8 kilometers from Yongdingmen in the south to the Drum and Bell Towers in the north.

Photo taken on Aug. 3, 2008 shows the Bell Tower in Beijing, capital of China. Bells and Drums were used by the ancient Chinese to tell times. The Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing, built in 1272 and rebuilt twice after fires, tolled the hours during the ancient China's Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties.  (Xinhua/Du Huaju)

Chinese architect Liang Sicheng, a pioneer of heritage preservation, described the Zhongzhouxian as possibly the world’s longest and greatest south-north central axis across a city. “The unique beauty of Beijing’s design is due to the Zhongzhouxian.”

Photo taken on Feb. 13, 2011 shows the scene of the Yongdingmen Gate covered by snow in Beijing, capital of China.  (Xinhua/Wang Ying)

The axis was extended again in 2003 when the city prepared for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The current Zhongzhouxian extension reaches the Yanshan Mountain Range to the north and Beijing’s new international airport to the south.

The Olympic Green is considered as one of the most important areas within the Zhongzhouxian extension.

Here the China Science and Technology Museum has been open to the public since 2009. Next door, the new National Sinology of China building has been completed. And construction of the headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) began in September 2016.

With 57 signatories at its establishment in 2015, the AIIB aims to help finance the daunting infrastructure needs of Asia.

Zhao Jin, operations director of Beijing Inno-Olympic Group Co., Ltd., which is leading the Olympic Green property management, says the China Intangible Cultural Heritage Hall and the National Art Museum of China will be built along the extension of Zhongzhouxian.

“Together with the Bird’s Nest, Water Cube, and China National Convention Center, the north extension is expected to be a national hub for culture, sports, technology, and finance,” he says.

The National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest, and Beijing National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube, are more spectacular at night in Beijing. (Xinhua/Yin Gang)

The Olympic Green received a total of 410 million people including tourists and visitors from 2008 to 2016, according to Zhao.

The extension is not separated from the original axis. On a clear day, from the top of Yangshan, the main peak of the Olympic Green, it is possible to see the 8 km south to Jingshan, the highest point of the original Zhongzhouxian.

Tourists look at the Palace Museum at the Jingshan Park in Beijing, capitial of China, May 30, 2017.  (Xinhua/Zhang Chenlin)

The Zhongzhouxian is situated right at the city’s center. The districts of Dongcheng and Xicheng are divided according to the Zhongzhouxian. “It is like the backbone of Beijing’s urban spacial structure,” says Beijing historian Li Jianping.

Li thinks it reflects Chinese culture, in which the central location is viewed as the focus.

Along it are the historic buildings of Qianmen, the Forbidden City, the Jingshan Park, and the Drum and Bell Towers.

The political monuments of the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, the Monument to the People’s Heroes and Tian’anmen Square line up along the axis. “This reflects the Chinese idea of ‘center worship’,” says Li.

The aesthetic of symmetry is found along the Zhongzhouxian. The Great Hall of the People and Beijing Zhongshan Park, or the Park of Sun Yat-sen, are on the west side, while the National Museum of China and Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace are on the east.

Beijing Zhongshan Park used to be the Hall of Worshipping the Altar of Land and Grain, which was built in 1425. The Beijing Working People’s Cultural Palace was the royal ancestral temple before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

A ceremony is held to present flowers to the people's heroes at the Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 30, 2016, to honor and remember deceased national heroes on the Martyrs' Day. China's legislature approved Sept. 30 as the Martyrs' Day in 2014, to commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for national causes. (Xinhua/Wang Ye)

In 1949, the founding ceremony was held in Tian’anmen Square, which was transformed into a place of the people rather than royalty.

With the construction of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube on each side of the Zhongzhouxian north extension, the aesthetic of symmetry was followed.

“Beijing has been built according to a ‘checker-board’ planning system since the Yuan Dynasty,” explains Wang Shiren, of the city’s history and culture preservation committee, “while many capitals of other countries had ‘divergent’ structures influenced by the Renaissance.”

Children practise roller-skating on a square in front of Zhengyangmen (the Front Gate) in Beijing, capital of China, June 11, 2011.  (Xinhua/Hu Qingming)

The Beijing Municipal government officially kicked off its campaign to have main historic sites along the city's central north-south axis on the world cultural heritage list in 2011.

Wang says the Zhongzhouxian used to have 42 historic sites, and 36 of them have been preserved or rebuilt.

But there have also been criticisms of excessive repairs along the Zhongzhouxian. Its original south end at Yongdingmen Tower was rebuilt in 2004.

Feng Feifei, director of the Urban Design Department of Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design, says the city experienced different historical periods with different value orientations. “The urban functions also differ,” she says.

For this reason, various cultures are on display along the axis, including the culture of old Beijing from Yongdingmen to Qianmen, the culture of New China from Mao Zedong Memorial Hall to Tian’anmen, and the imperial culture of the Ming and Qing dynasties from Duanmen to Jingshan Park, Li Jianping says.

The city is aiming to make progress in becoming a top international capital over the next five years, according to the city’s new development goals unveiled in June.

The capital is striving to improve as the country's political, cultural, international and innovation center. “A long history means a rich cultural heritage,” Feng says.

(Ji Xiang and Zhang Lili contributed to the story.)

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