For a millennium, the city of Beijing has served as the capital several empires and dynasties.
At the beginning of the 15th Century, however, it was a comparatively unimportant “backwater,” and one which had fallen into ignoble disrepair. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, known as the Hongwu Emperor, had made his capital at Nanjing – a city situated on the Yangtze River, a little further south. When Zhu Yuanzhang’s fourth son, Zhu Di, began his reign as the Yongle Emperor in 1403, he did so in Nanjing. However, Zhu Di had spent many years in the plains of northern China and had therefore built his power there; having instigated a civil war in order to take control of the empire from his nephew, it is perhaps unsurprising that he sought to center his government in a region more comfortably in his grasp. At the time, his chosen capital was named Beiping (“Northern Peace”); under Zhu Di, the city would, for the first time in its history, be named Beijing (“Northern Capital”).
The new name was only the beginning of Zhu Di’s grand vision for Beijing. Starting in August of 1406, Zhu Di ordered a massive collection of building materials from across his empire to be brought to the capital: some of his envoys oversaw the harvesting of timber and stone, while others supervised the production of bricks and tiles. The palace he had in mind would require enormous logs and vast amounts of marble, the former of which were delivered from forests 1,500 kilometers away from Beijing. All other materials, from clay to gold, were sourced from virtually every province in China. From 1417 to 1420, 100,000 craftsmen would produce the elements which over a million laborers—many of whom were convicted criminals or conscripted workers—would assemble into the glorious capital envisioned by their emperor.
The new Beijing was to be a city of districts within districts. Approximately twelve square miles (thirty square kilometers) in area, the Inner City was a rectangular area enclosed by walls standing forty feet (12 meters) high. At its center, covering only two square miles (roughly five square kilometers) and surrounded by another wall, was the Imperial City – a district comprising the homes of the Emperor’s relatives, the offices of the Imperial bureaucracy, two temples, and a spacious pleasure park decorated with artificial lakes. At the heart of the Imperial City, surrounded by a moat and a third set of walls, lay the Forbidden City itself.