Beijing and Nanjing: China’s Capital Cities Resources

All Grades, Geography, Government, History, Resource Collection
  • Main Stage of Forbidden City Map

  • A Sketch of Nanjing City-wall in the Ming Dynasty

  • Beijing map

  • Capital Beijing and Nanjing

Beijing & Nanjing – China’s Late Imperial and Modern Capitals

For over five centuries, Beijing was the imperial capital for both the Ming (1368 – 1644 CE) and the Qing (1644 – 1911 CE) dynasties. Not only an imperial capital but a sacred site for many of the state rituals associated with the imperial order, at the heart of Beijing stands the Forbidden City – an imposingly walled complex of resplendent wooden architectural marvels that served as both the political center for the imperial system as well as a place of residence for the imperial household (see top image at left). Throughout the rest of Beijing one can find important sites and buildings associated with imperial state functions such as the Temple of Heaven, the Temple of Confucius, and the Yonghe Lamasery. These and other sites associated with the imperial era are a well-preserved reminder of the splendor and majesty of China’s dynastic past. Equally impressive throughout Beijing stand 20th and 21st century buildings and sites that attest to the vibrant and dramatic history of a revolutionary age that has transitioned into a breathtaking era of economic prosperity. Today, many Chinese citizens as well as foreigners flock to this capital to gain an appreciation of China’s marvelous past, its turbulent modern era, and to take the pulse of where China is today and may be headed in the future.

Initially, however, Beijing was not the capital city of the Ming Dynasty; that privilege fell to an older city to the south, Nanjing (view a map of Nanjing’s city walls during the early Ming at left). Zhu Yuanzhang, the former Buddhist monk and peasant who founded the Ming Dynasty, originated from the southern region and so set up his capital in this area at Nanjing (much of the magnificent walls that fortified the city still stand today.) Since the Emperor’s eldest son died before him, Zhu Yuanshang’s grandson succeeded him upon his death which greatly displeased the new Emperor’s uncle, Zhu Di, who was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang and the titled Prince of Yan (an ancient name for the Beijing area.) Zhu Di (aka the Yongle Emperor) eventually waged a civil war and usurped the title of Emperor from his nephew. He moved the capital north to Beijing in 1407 CE where his stronghold was and many of the buildings and sites now associated with late imperial China originate from this time period. In the fifteenth century, when the Ming dynasty fell and conquering Manchus entered Beijing to establish the Qing dynasty, they mercifully did not destroy the capital and instead expanded upon the Ming layout of the city (for an aerial view and map of the city, see left).

During the 19th century, both Beijing and Nanjing suffered considerable damage from devastating internal civil rebellions as well as foreign incursions. After the Qing fell in 1911 and a weak republic was established, the subsequent power struggles for control of China witnessed a volleying back-and-forth over which city was the national capital. Again, both cities endured many calamities during this time period, perhaps the most notorious being the Rape of Nanjing by invading Japanese troops in 1937-38. At the conclusion of the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War, the People’s Republic of China was established in Beijing and the city has remained the capital since.

In the summer of 2012, the Teach China program led a group of fourteen educators from New York and Virginia to trace the history of China’s late imperial capitals and their transition into modern capitals during the 20th century. This online resource collection about the two cities developed out of that tour and looks at these capital cities from the perspectives of geography, history, socio-culture, material culture, and appreciation. China Institute’s dedicated educational website,, strives to provide interesting information and innovative lesson plans that we think will help integrate the history and culture of these two important Chinese metropolises into U.S. K-12 classrooms–please explore these two cities with us.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Geography, Government, History, Resource Collection


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.