Reforming Beijing in The Shadow of Colonial Crisis: Urban Construction for Competing with The Foreign Powers, 1900‐1928


  • Xusheng Huang ETH Zurich



During the period from 1900 to 1928, Beijing, like other Chinese cities, experienced a dramatic alternation, through the invasion of Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900, the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the end of Beiyang government in 1928. For centuries Beijing had had no official city government. Until the twentieth century the Metropolitan Police Board and later the Municipal Council, promoted and founded by Zhu Qiqian, were established and became the leader of the program of urban construction. While the colonizers attempted to rebuild the Legation Quarter in a “modern” style in Beijing, to create the discrepancy between the Legation Quarter and the Chinese community in terms of the cityscape, civilization and power; the local government, from the Qing to Republican periods, constantly considered it as a great threat to sovereignty. 

With this background, the paper argues that urban improvement by the local government played a role in safeguarding the national sovereignty and promoting national dignity to be resilient to the colonial crisis. Building a “modern” Beijing was regarded as not merely a strategy to reduce the differences between the Chinese and the colonial cityscape, but also a demonstration that Beijing, the capital of China, should be recognized as the same kind of great, independent and civilized capital city as those of the West. It did not deserve to be seen as a “backward” or even a colonized city. To a certain extent, it was the comparison and competition with the “Western cityscape” in the Legation Quarter, or in other concessions in China, that promoted the reformation of urban space in Beijing.

Firstly, the paper considers the urban segregation strategy applied by the foreigner power between the Legation Quarter and the local neighborhood from both the foreigners’ and the Chinese government’s perspective. On one hand, it strengthened the image of colonial power by associating it with effective governance, an improved built environment, and richer, virtuous and stable life, in contrast to local Chinese society, and thus symbolized expressing the legitimacy of the colonizers. However, from the Chinese government’s viewpoint, this was one of the limited feasible approaches capable of minimizing colonial impact. 

Moreover, the paper explores the local government, especially the municipal council, paid specific attention to urban construction in order to modernize the old capital city, since the urban regeneration to improve the transport system and sanitary conditions, and create more convenient facilities for citizens, closely connected with the demands of the government and social elites to compete with the Western powers. Specifically, the government not only accepted and learned the “western modern” in both the technological and the ideological aspects, in order to reconstruct Beijing as the same kind of modern and civilized city as the Legation Quarter; the government also believed that the protection of the city’s ancient imperial legacy could be a means of representing the glories past, rendering Beijing different from the foreign capital cities to serve the purpose of containing the colonial power and challenging the invasion of colonial modernity in Beijing.


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