The Ming dynasty, who overthrew the Yuan, chose Nanjing as their first capital, and the controversial move to Beijing required a great deal of rebuilding to take place. The Yongle Emperor who made the decision was quite convinced about the city’s location, deeming it to be ‘strong and secure. The mountains and rivers protect it well, and ten thousand nations lie on its four sides. It is a place favoured for sound reasons, by the mind of heaven and by exact divination.’
At the heart of the Yongle Emperor’s vision lay the vast palace complex known to all as the Forbidden City, connected by an avenue to a majestic complex gate structure at the south called Zhengyangmen (the gate that faces directly to the sun) or Qianmen. During the 16th century an outer wall was added, and when the Qing dynasty took over Beijing, with no destruction of its architecture, this subdivision of the city provided the basis for a concentration of Manchu people within the inner city, known to European visitors as the ‘Tartar city’, and the banishment of Han Chinese to the ‘Chinese city’ outside.
From AD 1533 onwards a visitor approaching Beijing from the south would first encounter the Yongdingmen in the southern wall of the Outer City. Passing through he would head north along an avenue that separated the walled Temple of Heaven in the east from the Temple of Mountains and Rivers to the west. After crossing the Tianqiao (Heavenly Bridge) the road narrowed as it approached the complex fortified structure of the Zhengyangmen. Nowadays it presents the appearance of two unconnected towers, but once a semicircular wall like a barbican, through which were three passages, joined the two together. The central entrance was used only by the emperor, and it was from Zhengyangmen that the Ghongzhen Emperor bade farewell to Li Jiantai, the Secretary of the Grand Council who set out with an army to quell the uprising of the rebel leader Li Zicheng. Two months later Li Zicheng conquered Beijing and overthrew the Ming dynasty, and thus unintentionally left the way open for the Manchu conquest.
Today’s tourist then passes through the Qianmen complex and walks round the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall into the vast and bleak Tian’anmen Square. Until quite recently in history this was a more restricted area crossed by the imperial way as it passed north to the Tian’anmen (gate of heavenly peace) which originally dates from AD 1420 and towers 33.7m above the entrance to the Forbidden City. But there are still two gates to cross, the Duanmen and the Wumen, before the Forbidden City is reached.