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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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