The forgotten history of Beijing’s first Forbidden City – and the dynasty that founded it

No go zone. Image: pixelflake/Flickr/creative commons.

An ancient site rooted in the heart of modern Beijing, the Forbidden City is one of China’s most famous attractions. Completed in 1420, the city served as the palace of Ming Dynasty emperor, Yongle. Its walls surrounded an area large enough to contain more than 50 Buckingham Palaces, creating a private sanctuary which none but the emperor’s family and eunuchs were permitted to enter.

The Forbidden City became the seat of imperial power in China for almost five centuries and remains an important part of modern China’s cultural heritage today. But it is seldom mentioned that Yongle was not the first emperor to build in that location. In fact, underneath the streets of modern Beijing lie the remains of a much earlier palace.

More than 300 years before the Ming came to power, a walled city was built on the site of present-day Beijing. Entering that city’s gates, you would have been greeted by another, much taller, walled complex; it was within this city within a city, that you might have found the emperors of the long-forgotten Liao Dynasty.

I say “might have” for good reason, as the Liao had not one capital city, but five. The Liao maintained a capital in each of the four cardinal points of their empire and still had the resources to establish another one in the middle for good measure. The emperor and his court would travel between the cities throughout the year.

The name Beijing itself – literally translated as “Northern Capital” – is a reflection of its position within the Ming Empire. To the Liao, however, this same city was known as Nanjing, the “Southern Capital”, revealing a very different world order.

The Liao Dynasty depicted in green. Image: >玖巧仔/Wikimedia commons.

With lands stretching from Inner-Asia in the west, into Mongolia in the north, and to the Korean peninsula in the east, the Liao Dynasty was one of the major political powers in East Asia from 907 to 1125. Yet this geopolitical influence is the least of the Liao’s achievements.

The Liao have left us some of the finest examples of Buddhist art and architecture in all of Asia. The 65-metre Yingxian Pagoda – the oldest surviving wooden Buddhist pagoda in China – remains one of the tallest timber structures in the world. The dynasty also established administrative structures that were used throughout China’s later imperial history. The precedent for the “one country, two systems” policy – whereby different laws and codes are applied to different regions of the country – which can be seen in Hong Kong and Macau today, could arguably be dated back to the Liao administration.


Missing from history

Despite these lasting legacies, if you were to pick up a book on Chinese history at random, the Liao Dynasty may not even get a mention. Timelines of China’s ruling dynasties frequently omit the Liao in favour of one of their contemporaries – the Song Dynasty. Yet records from the time demonstrate that the Liao and Song were political equals. A clue as to why the Liao are often lost from these historical accounts can be found by peering over those inner walls and into the palaces of the Liao’s five imperial capitals.

Rather than the imposing timber-framed halls of Yongle’s Forbidden City, the Liao imperial family would instead be found living in a series of grand tents. The people who formed the Liao Dynasty originally came from the steppes of north-east Asia and lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They were known as the Kitan and, like most nomadic groups, history has not treated them well.

Despite having their own written language, only a small number of Kitan texts survive today, and translating them is often difficult because there are no surviving languages similar enough to help linguists fully decipher the characters. As a result, finding the Kitan or the Liao voice in the historical record proves to be a challenge.

Most of the primary sources that modern historians have for the Liao period were written under the Song Dynasty. As the Liao’s direct political rivals, the Song sources are often less than flattering about the Liao Dynasty, and its Kitan leaders.

Unfortunately, this attitude towards the Liao has worked its way into later sources, keeping the dynasty in the shadows. This began to change when archaeological discoveries of the late 20th century generated new interest in Liao sites. For instance, the finds at the excavation of the tomb of Princess Chen, changed the way people viewed Liao elite culture.

The Liao-period Tianning Temple Pagoda in Beijing, with industrial chimney in background. Image: author provided.

Gold and other precious metal artefacts from Liao tombs have become a major draw in public exhibitions around the world. Interest among private collectors is also rising. A small, gilt-bronze, Liao Buddhist statue recently broke the record for an Asian art auction at Christie’s in France, selling for €13.6m.

With all of this renewed interest, academic studies of the Liao are reassessing the dynasty’s position in Chinese and wider Asian history. Historical texts are being challenged and progress is being made on the translation of the Kitan writing system.

The ConversationIf you visit Beijing today, just about the only evidence you will find of the Liao city is a single pagoda. An ancient monument – once the tallest building in the city – it is now dwarfed by the industrial chimneys that surround it. The history of the Liao Dynasty, in contrast, has never been more visible.

Jonathan Dugdale is taking a PhD in medieval history at the University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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