Suspended inside the Hall of Central Harmony at Beijing’s Forbidden City, a horizontally-inscribed board written by Qianlong Emperor says,“Devote to that of Neutrality and Impartiality”. This phrase originally came from The Book of Documents – Counsels of the Great Yu, and warns emperors that only by being neutral and impartial can one govern a nation.
When looking at Beijing from a bird’s eye view, one will discover that no matter how much the city expands, it’s central axis still runs from south to north, allowing Beijing to be completely symmetrical, left and right. This concept of urban planning is called“central-axis symmetry”; it has been in existence since the Pre-Qin Period. The basic form of the central axis we see in Beijing today took shape as early as Yuan Dynasty, and is still in use today.
Beijing’s central axis begins in the south at Yongding Gate and works its way north through the Front Gate, Zhengyang Gate, Tiananmen Square, Duan Gate, Wu Gate, and Taihe Gate. In addition, the axis spans over Taihe, Zhonghe and Baohe Halls, passes through Qianqing Palace, Jiaotai Hall, Qunning Palace and Shenwu Gate, runs across the Wanchun Pavilion inside Jing Mountain, the Drum Tower, and finally ends at the Bell Tower. It is7.8 kilometers long, and touches upon42 imperial buildings. The axis, which looks like the vertical stroke inside the Chinese character of“中 (Middle)”, is a passage that penetrates the outer, inner, and imperial cities. You can also say that the axis looks like a ruler that measures and labels the grounds of Beijing.
Confucius once said,“the mean is unbiased, unchanging is moderation.” In the past millennia leading up to today, the Doctrine of the Mean, promoting impartiality, has become a national awareness and innate personality of the Chinese. Moderation affects the behaviors of Chinese people, which permeates in many ways, from architectural layout and urban planning to human relations and moral order.
Beijing’s central axis is more than a passage through space; it is also a link in time. The reconstruction of the Yongding Gate Tower in2004 restored the starting point of the central axis. At the opening ceremonies of the2008 Beijing Olympics, giant firework footprints descended across the central axis. During the construction of the Olympic Green, Beijing continued to expand and extend the central axis northwards, symbolizing the exuberant vitality that this old historical city boasts in the new century.
“The Way of the Mean is the foundation of the world.” Central axes are the backbones of a city, penetrating the pulse of historical imperial power, witnessing the changes and ups and downs of the dynasties. Moreover, central axes are the essence of the millennia of Chinese culture and aesthetics, and reflect the cosmic and worldviews of Chinese people.
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