Modernization of a City: Beijing


By Lee Min-Ju

Thesis Director: Alexander Ganse



I. Introduction


For around 10,000 years of Chinese history, Beijing wasn’t always the center of economy, culture and politics as it has become over recent centuries. I first visited Beijing when I was 11 years old. I remember I was surprised to see that the city was much more ‘modernized’ than what I’d been thinking or watching on television. My second visit to Beijing, in the following year, was filled with more shocks and exclamations, since although I stayed in the same building, the dormitory of Beijing University where my dad lived, the surroundings and the atmosphere of the streets were completely changed from before.

China is changing rapidly. And so is its capital, Beijing. This paper will try to access how China has gone through this modernization process.



II. What is Modernization?


Although we use the word ‘modernization’ a lot, it is hard actually trying to define the word. People usually use the word ‘modernization’ interchangeably with the word ‘industrialization’, whereas the latter more signifies only the development of the manufacturing sector. The word ‘westernization’ as well does not convey the wholesome meaning and implications of the word ‘modernization’.

Literally, modernization is a process of a society as a whole to enter the ‘modern’ era. Then what defines ‘modern’? Clarifying this would be very important, because doing so will affect what time or what should be dealt throughout this paper.

I view modernization as the process by which societies have been and are being transformed under the impact of the scientific and technological revolution. This, of course, has a close relationship with westernization and industrialization, since the three processes inter-influence each other and thus the periods that three of them cover quite often overlap.

There are other features, which, although don’t ‘define’ modernization, indicates the level of modernization. These include relative growth in nonagricultural production, especially manufactures and services; a movement from high birth and death rates to low ones; sustained economic growth; specialization and proliferation of organizations and skills; bureaucratization; mass political participation (democratic or not); and an expansion of education at all levels; and so on.

In any society, the period of modernization can’t be stated specifically, like we can state that the French Revolution started from 1789, because modernization is not a phenomenon happening from one part of the society, but a series of phenomena occurring throughout the society. Likewise, it is hard to say when the modernization of Beijing (or China) began, or if the process has been even completed yet.

This paper will cover the period starting from the mid 19th century to the late 20th century, because this period was when the rapid changes in many parts of China occurred.




III. Overview: Modernization of Chinese Urban Areas


Wherever in the world, modernization process included more or less increasing gaps between the urban areas and the rural areas. However, it is worth stating that in China’s case, this gap was unusually wide, partially because the wide landscape and the large population of the nation didn’t allow the rapid social, economic, and cultural changes throughout the whole nation. It is thus important to notice that the following contents are based on the changes and circumstances that occurred in China’s urban areas, or in the center.

Dividing the period between mid 19C and late 20C roughly into five phases and naming each of them weren’t to draw a clear line between the periods but to enjoy the convenience of looking at gradual changes throughout near two centuries of history.


Phase 1:: 1840s ~ 1900:: Ready to Wake Up

Opening of the first five Chinese ports in Shanghai, Ningbo, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Guangzhou (Canton) and the cession of the Hong Kong Islandto Great Britain were signed in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842, followed by the First Opium War. This was an unequal treaty that China was forced to sign, but it was true that the treaty opened up China’s big ports to the Western world, which was the starting point for the Westernization in China. Foreign merchants could officially trade in those cities, not only bringing lots and lots of Chinese goods to the Western world, but also introducing foreign goods and culture to conservative China.

Following the Taiping Rebellion, which showed the Chinese farmers starting to voice their demands, and the Second Opium War, which again opened more Chinese cities to the Western world, the tide of modernization was uprising. A Foreign Office in Beijing opened in 1861, and so the Self Strengthening Movement, which was consisted of a number of diplomatic and military modernization projects, marked the 1860s.

The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 leads to the siege of the legation in Beijing, and an international force was involved to lift the siege. Consequently, China was required to pay a large indemnity to the foreign power. 


Phase 2:: 1900 ~ 1930:: Breakdown of the Old Systems

In 1905, China’s long-lasted tradition of civil service examinations was abolished. Abolition of the examinations based on the Confucian classics led to the outflow of the students abroad, who played an important role in both the 1911 revolution and the May Fourth Movement later in that decade. At the same time, this event urged the reform of the education system. It shattered the existing hierarchy of the social status, and this made the boundaries between urban and rural more fixed.

This was somewhat similarto the process of modernization in other countries like Russia (freedom of serfdom) and Japan (Meiji Reformation). Realization of the weak military power gave all three countries fundamental questions of security problem. Eventually, emerging worries prohibited the old systems to function as smoothly as before.

Educational stimulus of the reform era provides China with profound changes. As classical studies ceased, education more geared up in modern schools beginning to use the vernacular language. To China it was more important than to any other countries, because civil examination system for a very long time stood for the fundamental respect towards the Confucian values and for the unshakable class structure that gave scholarly elites a higher position and the power to sustain that position. Abolition of this system provided opportunity to break away from the old ways, and to turn towards western education as a source of new knowledge and beliefs. In cities, especially, modern attitudes and organizations appeared.

In 1908, the Empress Dowager dies and the 2-year-old Puyi is proclaimed as the last emperor of Qing China. China holds the first elections for regional assemblies in the following year, and finally on January 1st of 1912, the Republic of China is declared with SunYat Sen as provincial president. Soon, Yuan Shikai, a Manchu general, takes over. China’s first constitution is proclaimed.

By 1930, China had a nationalist government and a fledgling modern industrial sector. The central government set up the centralizing control, diminishing the power of warlordism. The modern, industrial sector had begun to grow quite rapidly. Changing urban social organization, including the growth of business groups and workers’ associations, and changes in family structure reflected an era of intense urban transformation. The educational accomplishment of Chinese upper class had reached high levels in many areas of modern knowledge.

Its domestic disunity, however, along with the serious blow of Japanese occupation, set back China’s modernization. Also, the level of political modernization was still staggering in China then.


Phase 3:: 1930 ~ 1950:: Slight Hesitation

Between 1930 and 1950, the impact of Japanese occupation, World Wars, and the Chinese civil wars made China’s modernization process slower, or even recessive. Even in this time of confusion, however, China succeeded to make some progress towards the modernization.

 By the beginning of the 1950s, China had recovered full sovereignty in international relations and was demonstrating that it could make good use of a large number of modern enterprises built with outside assistance. Also, the heavy industry in China was growing at a very rapid rate, and the education and modern knowledge became available to rapidly increasing portions of people in the society, whereas the education reform in phase 2 was limited within certain politically or economically privileged groups. Furthermore, continuous need of army, and a strong army, due to the outbreaks of world wars and civil wars brought the modernization of army system and weapons in China, along with the firm base of the standing army.

Overall, although economically and culturally phase 3 wasn’t a time of modernization for China, it was somehow a time of political and military modernization.


Phase 4:: 1950 ~ 1980:: Bold Progress

After the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949 was Mao Zedong’s era. In that specific year, 1949, land reform was enforced throughout China, leading to the persecution of millions of landlords and wealthy peasants. This land reform was something that turned the Chinese society up and down.

The Five-Anti campaign of 1952 was against bribery, tax evasion, theft of state assets, cheating on labor and materials, and stealing state economic intelligence. This regulation was completely hospitable to this campaign, since it made the power of business so vulnerable in front of the state power.

From 1953 to 1957, the first five year plan was launched, and it seemed that this plan satisfied many of its economic goals.

 In 1956, Mao launches the Hundred Flowers movement. This was to encourage greater freedom of debate in political matters, and was carried out under the slogan ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.’ However in the following year, those who have spoken out during the movement were condemned and imprisoned by the Anti-Rightist movement.

Although Mao’s ambitious Great Leap Forward plan in 1958 failed to bring the economic prosperousness that was expected in China, years between 1950 and 1980 were certainly a period of visible economic growth.







Economic Indicators

GDP (billion 1933 yuan)





Population (millions)





GDP per capita (yuan)





Sectional Share of GDP (%)

















<Estimates of Chinese Economic Growth>


The chart shown above matter-of-factly shows what a drastic economic change there has been in China throughout this period. All three economic indicatorsshow a significant growth from 1950s to 1970s. During this period, the share of GDP in agriculture had significantly decreased, whereas that in manufacturingsector had increased sharply. All these are the important features of economic modernization.

 1960s was the time of Cultural Revolution. The time was brutal, but in some ways, the revolution can be stated to have helped the modernization process, since it boldly cleared up the legacies of the old generation.

Mao died in 1976. Deng Xiaoping rose as the successor of Mao and declared the Four Modernizations (agricultural; industrial; scientific and technological; and military modernizations). Whereas Mao’s time brought more ideology-based changes, Deng Xiaoping started to change China with his ‘open door policy’.


Phase 5:: 1980, thereafter

In 1978, Deng established something called Special Economic Zones (SEZs), along the eastern coast, as a gesture of openness towards the world. This economic reform resulted in the rapid growth of Chinese economy, and the rapid urbanization of the cities that opened up.

As the foreign firms came into the cities for the benefit of cheap labor and resources, and China reversely took the benefit of improved worker standard and bettered transportation and communication systems.



IV. Modernization of Beijing, the City


Beijing nowadays is the political, cultural and economical center of China. However, it wasn’t always the case throughout the long history of China. Beijing’s position as an important city of China has long been emphasized, but the building of the Forbidden City and being shaped as the current sense of ‘Beijing’ the capital were done at the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as the Emperor Yongle founded the palace and moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. When the dynasty collapsed and the next dynasty, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), was established, Beijing still remained as the capital and the dwelling place of the emperors.


Phase 1:: Beijing Before Modern China (under the Qing dynasty)

After Genghis Khan brutally destroyed the resisting city in 1215, Kublai Khan declared it as the Great Capital of his empire.

In the Forbidden City of Beijing, the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties dwelt. Thus the Beijing had long been recognized as the city of the emperors, the capital city. The size of the city Beijing was somewhat smaller than it is now. At the foundation period of Ming Dynasty, Beijing was only the size of its current 2nd Ring Road system. 

After the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, Civil War begins by numerous warlords and Kuomintang. During the time of confusion, Beijing suffered as much as other cities, if not was more victimized than others.

During the period of China as the Republic of China, the country’s capital was Nanjing. After further dispute, Nanjing became the official capital of the Republic of China in 1928, and Beijing was renamed Beiping in order to emphasize that it is not the rightful capital. (‘Bei’ meaning ‘north’, ‘Jing’ meaning ‘capital’, the name Beijing means ‘the capital in the North’.)

During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the city fell to Japan in 1937, and was again renamed Beijing. North China Executive Committee in Beijing ruled Japanese-occupied North China, reemphasizing the city’s role as the ‘Northern capital’. However, this couldn’t last long, since, eight years later, Japan surrendered in the Second World War. Beijing was again to be called as Beiping.


Phase 2:: Beijing as the Capital of People’s Republic of China

The communist force entered Beijing without a fight. Then to the mass gathered in the Tiananmen Square in 1949, Mao Zedong declared the creation of the new People’s Republic of China, and named Beijing to be its capital city. It was the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that was held just a few days earlier that decided the city’s name to be Beijing again.

It was then when the administrative size of the Beijing was expanded from its old nine gates of the inner city to the city covering a dozen new districts in the outer city. As several counties were incorporated into the city, the limits of Beijing were enlarged by many times and Beijing finally became its present shape. It was also then when the imperial residences, including the Forbidden City, provided open viewing.

New buildings such as the International Post Office and Bank of China were built along the Second Ring Road, which is the former line of the Inner City wall. City walls were demolished to found the new transportation system throughout the city. Additional to that, large-scale construction has been undertaken to build new main roads, such as the Fourth Ring Road. As a result of all these, Beijing developed a generally effective system of four concentric railroads that connect one place to another within the city.


Phase 3:: Beijing Under Reform

Beijing had grown and changed significantly during the reform era starting from 1979 in its own district pattern. Beijing has greatly expanded, not in the sense of size (its current size and shape had been acquired when People’s Republic of China set it up as the capital of the country), but in sense of its urban areas that formerly had been limited within the confines of the Second Ring Road. In other words, suburban and less developed parts of Beijing were changed into urban and modern parts of the city.

During the rule of People’s Republic of China, most people in Beijing lived and worked in the same place. There was a sense of ‘work units’, which included communal dining halls, offices, housings, and so on. Therefore, people could live within their unit without having to move across the city much. The reform era changed this. Although still housing is typically tied to a job, mostly the city is divided into residential, commercial, working areas and so on.

The number of bicycles in Beijing has been more than doubled since 1979, making up most of the congestion in the city.

During this time, many areas that were formerly farmland now developed into residential or commercial places. New commercial areas like the Guomao developed, whereas Wangfujing and Xidan have developed into flourishing shopping and traveling districts. Zhongguancun has become the major center of electronics in China.


Phase 4:: Beijing Today

In more recent years, Beijing has been the site of political turmoil, in events like Tiananment Square protests of 1989. However, except for these special events, Beijing nowadays is rapidly developing capital of Chinese politics, economy and culture.

The city plan, unlike those of most other parts of the world, limits the height of the buildings in the center of the city to be very low. Therefore, buildings in the heart of the city, within the sphere of Forbidden City, are the lowest, and the outer of the city it is, the higher the buildings get, which somehow gives the city unique and more organized outlook.

However, as rapid urbanization proceeds, there are also some problems facing the government and its people. Heavy traffic, air pollution, losing sense of historic ‘neighborhoods’, and a drastic influx of migrants from poorer regions of the country, especially among the young people, to earn better wages in the city and then to send some money back to home.

Having held the United Nations’ Conference on Women in 1995 and planning to hold the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing is growing as an international city as well.



V. Conclusion


Having had been the capital of Qing Dynasty and also of the People’s Republic of China after the Civil War, Beijing shared and endured the fate and pain of the Chinese modernization. Modernization of Beijing or China wasn’t a single, one-aspect process which was a characteristic of one specific period, but rather was a overall pattern that went through nineteenth and twentieth centuries.





[1] Anonymous. "Beijing’s History." Beijing International. 1994. Beijing Municipal Government. 4 July. 2005



[2] Martin, Tim. "Chronology of Modern Chinese History." 2003. Saint Martin’s College. 6 July. 2005 



[3] Moise, E. Edwin. Modern China: A History. New York: Longman, 1994.


[4] Rozman, Gilbert. Modernization of China. America: Free Press, 1982.

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