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Beijing History

China’s capital for the best part of 800 years, Beijing has been at the centre of empires and harsh political ideology, and is emerging as a fast-modernising metropolis.

Beijing became China's capital in 1421, a few decades after the Mongol dynasty had been ejected and the Ming Dynasty established. The city withstood incursions and fire, and held onto its capital billing throughout the subsequent Qing dynasty.

But after the imperial regime collapsed in 1911, Beijing suffered, as did the rest of China, from destructive factionalism. The Japanese invasion in 1931 was followed by civil war. In 1949, Mao Zedong's communists prevailed and the People's Republic of China was founded with Beijing regaining capital city status.

The first decade or so of Mao's rule stabilised a fearful, humiliated nation, and strong advances were made in industry, agriculture, education and health care. Beijing’s Old Town suffered though, as most of its walls, gateways and decorative arches were levelled to make way for new roads.

From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, it was the turn of the people to suffer as Beijing's ill-fated political programmes, most infamously the Cultural Revolution, saw persecution, violence and famine spread like wildfire.

Many Chinese art forms struggled to survive. Travelling theatre, music and dance groups were created to project the party's message. Plays written before the 1950s, films with human interest and the Beijing Opera were suppressed, and their creators persecuted.

Mao's death in 1976 saw the first shoots of nascent political freedom, but they culminated in the tragic events at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Any hint of political freedoms were swiftly curtailed, but new leader Deng Xiaoping continued in his quest to open China up to the world economy until his death in 1997.

Today China's economy (now the world's second largest) continues to grow at an incredible rate. Beijing is home to an increasingly affluent middle class and a rapidly changing (if smog-ridden) skyline.

Did you know?
• At one point, around 9,000 eunuchs lived in the Forbidden City.
• Beijing has had numerous other names over the last few millennia and was known as Peking before Beijing. Its famous Peking University still uses the former name though.
• Beijing means ‘northern capital’.

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Double Happiness Beijing Courtyard Hotel

Most guests agree with the name when they stay at this low-key but friendly hotel in the lanes near the Lama Temple. The small, simple rooms come with Chinese-style furniture, TVs and a computer for checking your email, plus an extra serving of homespun charm, but it can get a little cold here in winter.

Red Capital Residence

Located in a 200-year-old courtyard residence, this boutique hotel moves the historic theme forward to the Liberation era, with rooms and communal spaces decked out with Communist antiques and Mao memorabilia. The five suites are fit for a Communist Party bigwig, with some of Beijing’s most unique interior design, and the bar is set in a converted underground bomb shelter.

The Orchid

Hip and perfectly located in a lane just a short stroll from the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, the Orchid is a slice of wood-floored, design magazine modernism in the heart of old Beijing. Rooms are compact but calming, with contemporary designer furnishings. There’s even a roof terrace with views over the hutongs.

Jingshan Garden Hotel

A cute budget hotel with calm, comfy rooms set around a similarly serene courtyard, Jingshan Garden Hotel is in easy striking distance of the Forbidden City. It feels just like you'd imagine a Chinese hotel to feel, down to the odd piece of old-fashioned lacquered furniture in the rooms. It has a decent restaurant too.

Temple Hotel

This former Tibetan Buddhist temple from the Qing Dynasty was saved for posterity by a UNESCO-endorsed restoration project. Buildings at the hotel have been standing for 250 years and they still swim with the air of times past. There are just eight well-appointed rooms, each with traces of the building's former life, firstly as a temple, then as a television factory after the Cultural Revolution.

Park Hyatt Beijing

Beijing’s highest hotel towers over the new central business district, and many guests come specifically for the panoramic views, particularly from the 66th-floor China Grill and the 65rd-floor bar. Undeniably one of the most opulent international hotels in Beijing, the Park Hyatt has 246 sleekly modern rooms and suites, with rainforest showers and spa-style tubs, plasma TVs, espresso machines and air purification systems.