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Published:July 13th, 2008 17:26 EST
Mysteries of History: From Ji to Beijing  - the History of the Chinese Capital

Mysteries of History: From Ji to Beijing - the History of the Chinese Capital

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio by Kristin Marzec

With less than a month to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, all the tourist routes lead to the Chinese capital. But as hundreds of thousands of sports fans will rightly head for Beijing, the earlier generations of athletic enthusiasts may surely wonder what happened with good, old Peking. To say nothing of nosy historians who can recite at least four other names for the capital of the most populous country on earth.

No European city, save for Rome, can rival the Chinese capital in terms of history and tradition. Long before the primal jungle that covered the old continent gave way to what is now Paris, Madrid, or London, the first settlers moved to the area of present Beijing, a development dating back to approximately 700,000 years ago. Many more centuries had yet to pass, however, until a small village bearing a resemblance to modern towns was erected in the 11th century B.C., which went down in history under the name of Ji. By the beginning of the Christian era, the region witnessed numerous battles between China`s ruling dynasties, with the town remaining a strategic point for every military leader.

Ji rapidly grew, attracting both merchants and mercenaries. With the ascendancy of the Jin Dynasty in the first half of the 12th century AD, the town was renamed Zhongdu and assumed the position of the empire`s capital from Huining Fu, an ancient center in northern Manchuria. If the Jin Dynasty built the foundations for a future metropolis, the House of Yuan completed the project, turning Zhongdu into the hub of world trade. Marco Polo, who was among the first Europeans to visit China, said of the emperor`s palace: "The building is altogether so vast, so rich and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it."

The Venetian explorer spent seventeen years in Khanbaliq, as the ruling dynasty called the capital. He left it strong and blossoming, unaware of the upcoming menace from the north. Hunger and plagues swept through the vast empire, turning it into a fertile ground for a political upheaval. In 1368, Khanbaliq was conquered by the troops of the Ming Dynasty that introduced Emperor Hongwu to the throne of China and coined a new name for his residence - Beijing, which can be translated as Northern Capital. Despite violent domestic conflicts, the city would uphold its status into the 21st century, with the exception of the 1927-1937 decade when the country was ruled by the anti-Communist Kuomintang regime.

Most Americans first heard of Beijing, or rather Peking, in the 1940s during the so-called Second Red Scare. Disappointed with the outcome of the Chinese civil war, eventually won by the Communists, some right-wing Washington politicos slated the Truman Administration with a litany of accusations ranging from failing in providing the Kuomintang with sufficient military and financial aid to allowing Mao`s forces to plunder Peking. Although Dean Acheson, the then secretary of state, insisted that "the unfortunate but inescapable fact [was] that the ominous result of the civil war in China [had been] beyond the control of the United States," his tenure was widely blamed for turning Peking red.

Among those who attacked Acheson`s State Department for being too mild toward the Communist regime, was Richard Nixon. A staunch anti-Communist, he would win the presidential race in 1968 mainly due to his promise of a more forceful foreign policy. But once in the White House, Nixon turned his position upside-down, becoming the first American President to visit Peking. During his meeting with Chairman Mao on February 21, 1972, Nixon, with his typical wit, said: "I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least at this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about."

Contrary to President George W. Bush, who is scheduled to see Beijing this August, Richard Nixon and his entourage landed in the Chinese capital when it was still known as Peking. In fact, the thirty-seventh president had been long out of office when the Chinese capital became widely known as Beijing. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the change can be dated back to the end of the 1970s, when Pinyin, a "system of romanization of Chinese written characters, [was] approved in 1958 by the government of the People`s Republic of China and officially adopted by it in 1979." Together with the capital, the names of the country`s prominent figures acquired new spellings, as well.

Far from being dead, Peking exists in many languages, for example French and German. But in English-speaking countries what is left of the once omnipresent name are Peking Man and Peking Duck. The first term applies to the remains of a Homo erectus - a protoplast of the modern human - who lived some 500,000 years ago near the present Chinese capital. The second is the famous dish that was first prepared during the rule of the Yuan Dynasty in the thirteenth century. As it often happens, the best Peking duck is served far from where it originated. If we are to believe the common opinion of many chefs and customers, the gentlest meat and most crispy skin can be found not in Beijing, but in New York City restaurants.

After the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, the Chinese capital will be remembered as a place of breath-holding sports events and faultless organization. But the city is also worth remembering for its great past, which, throughout thousands of years, witnessed both beautiful and tragic moments in the history of the entire country. Perhaps the greatest emotions are sparked by an episode from June 4, 1989, when on Tiananmen Square one man tried to stop a cavalcade of tanks before they crushed a democratic protest. He failed, as hundreds of his colleagues were shot by the Communist forces, but his intransigent attitude saved the honor of  his city and nation.

That`s all for this week. Stay in touch and remember that you make history every day!

A column on the history of the Chinese capital and its names is a good occasion to rename our podcast. As Krzys and I have discovered, "Mysteries of History" is quite a cliché in the world of both online and traditional media. Ensuring that, contrary to its current title, our weekly articles are not simply worn-out recordings, we have decided it is high time for a change. Thus, we now introduce to you our new podcast title: History Cafe.  So sit back and relax while we serve you the exquisite taste of history.  Mmmm...fabulous!  Starting next week, it will be introduced as such. Thank you!

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