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.


Few cities have played as significant a role in the political culture of China as the capital cities of Beijing and Nanjing. Literally translated as the “northern capital” and “southern capital” respectively, these two cities are separated by some 560 miles—roughly the distance from New York City to Columbia, South Carolina—and have historically represented two very different Chinas. Between the two cities lies the Huai River-Qin Mountains line which is generally considered to be the geographical dividing line of northern and southern China and which also approximates the 0 degree January isotherm. While northern China is made up of mostly plains and deserts, the South is hillier with more rivers; warmer and wetter than the grain-producing North, southern China’s fertile river valleys are ideal for rice cultivation. In addition to agriculture, the geographical differences of northern and southern China are also manifest in various spheres of human activity, including architecture, economics, and military.

Since initial settlements were established near Beijing and Nanjing in the 11th and 5th centuries BCE respectively, the two cities have been razed by invaders and rebels time and time again. However, in the wake of each round of destruction, the victors have always rebuilt on these two uniquely advantageous geographic sites. Beijing, which sits on the northeastern tip of the North China Plain, enjoys access to a number of rivers for irrigation, transportation, and waste disposal as well as the protection of mountain ranges to its north and west. Historically, these mountains have helped shield northern China’s “breadbasket” from the encroaching desert steppes and also guarded against potential invasions from the steppes’ nomadic tribes. Similarly, Nanjing’s position along the Yangtze River, coupled with the protection offered by the nearby Ningzhen mountain range, has made the site appealing to rulers throughout history.


The history of Nanjing and Beijing from the Ming through the Qing and into the 20th and 21st centuries is variously marked with intrigue, prosperity and opulence, turmoil and tragedy, and imbued throughout with a rich sense of China’s pivotal position in global relations.


Often, historically significant persons become almost synonymous with a city, even if they were not born there. For the capitals Beijing and Nanjing, this section looks at four historical leaders who came to epitomize an era and significant shape the two cities: Zhu Yuanzhang (aka the Hongwu Emperor and Ming Taizu), Emperor Qianlong, Sun Yat-sen, and Mao Zedong.


Both Nanjing and Beijing are known throughout the country and the world for distinctive types of material culture: for Nanjing, a special “cloud pattern” brocade is highly valued; for Beijing, its immediately recognizable (but threatened) hutong street design and siheyuan architecture.


Americans visiting Washington, D.C. can easily identify the centers of political power in our nation’s capital. First and foremost in the national consciousness are the three buildings that represent the branches of our federal government—the White House, Capitol building, and Supreme Court—but places like the National Mall, which has hosted dozens of large-scale public protests and houses many of the nation’s memorials, and K Street, which was once the hub of the lobbying industry, are also important sites of political power. As the capital of China, where does political power lie in Beijing? What do these various sites represent in the political discourse of China, and how has the rise and fall of these sites reflected broader political change in China? The three most important political sites in Beijing, the ones which have variously shaped Chinese politics over the past seven centuries and continue to play varied roles in the country’s political life, happen to all lie adjacent to one another in the city center. They are the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and Zhongnanhai; and, speaking in loose symbolism, they represent the imperial past, the public, and the Communist Party respectively.

Historically, no site in Beijing has possessed as much political authority as the Forbidden City. Since its completion in 1420 under the Ming Emperor Yongle up until the collapse of the imperial system in 1911, the Forbidden City, as the residence of the ruling emperor and Son of Heaven, held an undisputed monopoly on political power in the empire. Despite its location at the heart of Beijing, the imperial palace was very much isolated from the rest of the city; no one could enter or leave the walled and moated compound without the emperor’s approval. Nowadays, however, the site has been opened to the general public, and some eight million tourists walk the once sacred grounds every year.

Directly south of the palace complex lies Tiananmen Square, an expansive space equivalent in size to over eighty football fields. In contrast to the labyrinthine inner court of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square is flat, open, and bare except for a monument to national heroes and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. Because of its layout and its proximity to various seats of government, the square has become a sort of forum for “dialogue” between the public and China’s governments throughout the socialist 20th century. A tradition of mass movements in the area the square occupies (the space was expanded and redesigned significantly in 1958-59) began in 1919 when students, frustrated by the government’s weak response to unjust provisions in the Treaty of Versailles that granted Shandong province to Japan, led large demonstrations there. other protests calling for stronger action against Japanese aggression overtook the space again in March 1926 and December 1935. Later, in 1978, another round of protests swept the square in the wake of the death of Zhou Enlai, a popular politician who many regarded as a moderating influence during the tumultuous era of the Cultural Revolution. A similar protest movement, and perhaps the one most familiar to Westerners, developed during the mourning period for another beloved, liberally-minded politician Hu Yaobang in 1989. As the protestors’ demands for democratic reforms grew, the government eventually ordered a brutal crackdown that left hundreds dead. In addition to popular demonstrations, the square has also served as a space for public displays of state power. When Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949—a sort of mass movement in its own right—it was from Tiananmen Square to a crowd of over 300,000 fervent followers, and, since then, military parades on the square have celebrated each anniversary of the state’s founding.

If Tiananmen Square represents the role of the Chinese public in politics, then Zhongnanhai—a restricted government compound that lies directly west of the Forbidden City and serves as the central headquarters of the CCP—is a symbol of the Party’s exclusive power. In imperial times the space was part of the royal park attached to the imperial palace and was prized by emperors for its beautiful lakes. After the last dynasty collapsed in 1911, the nascent republic established its government there because the site was so close to the historical center of power in the Forbidden City. Internal warring shifted the seat of government to Nanjing for several decades and Zhongnanhai was opened as a public park. However, after the Communists won the civil war in 1949, they established Zhongnanhai as their political headquarters, and today the term Zhongnanhai is practically synonymous with the Communist leadership.

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.