As far as cities go, Beijing is very much a planned one, ever since Kublai Khan defeated the last Song dynasty emperor and established a new capital, Dadu (大都, Grand Capital), in 1271. Of course, Beijing’s history dates back further than that, but much of its modern-day layout has its origins here. Kublai Khan wanted Dadu to be a showcase capital for the Yuan dynasty. Built along a north-south central axis, which still exists today, Kublai Khan gave the city its grid pattern, its central lakes and canals, and its famous hutongs. You can even still notice the symmetry of the city. For example, Dongcheng (东城), Dongsi (东四) and Dongdan (东单) — Eastern City, East Four and East Single — all have their counterparts on the west side of the axis: Xicheng (西城); Xisi (西四) and Xidan (西单), respectively.
After the first Ming emperor established his capital in Nanjing (南京, Southern Capital), he captured Dadu and renamed it Beiping (北平, Northern Peace). Then, at the beginning of the 15th century, the Ming emperor Yongle declared it as the seat of his rule and gave it the name we call it today — Beijing (北京, Northern Capital). Since then, throughout the rest of the Ming dynasty and subsequent Qing dynasty, Beijing has been made to be fit for a king. The Forbidden City, palace retreats and suburban gardens, and many of the landmark temples were constructed under the Yongle emperor or Qing dynasty emperors. The Yongle emperor also erected a city wall, which was razed in the 1960s under Mao Zedong. Today, it is known as the 2nd Ring Road. Portions of the ancient gates remain, which you can see as you drive around the road. Even though most of the gates are no longer there, their former locations now mark the main intersections: Dongzhimen (东直门), Chaoyangmen (朝阳门), Guangqumen (广渠门), Zuo’anmen (左安门), Yongdingmen (永定门), You’anmen (右安门), Guang’anmen (广安门), Fuchengmen (阜成门), Xizhimen (西直门), Deshengmen (德胜门) and Andingmen (安定门). Going further, the streets that intersect the 2nd Ring Road at these former gate points are usually divided into “inner” and “outer” portions — for example, Dongzhimennei (东直门内) and Dongzhimenwai (东直门外) — indicating whether the surrounding areas are either within the city proper or just outside it.
Outside the 2nd Ring Road, the city loses its symmetry. Neighborhoods become less defined and more just general areas, and a lot of their names have cun, zhuang or tun at the end. They all roughly mean “village” in English. As such, a lot of well-known places in Beijing — for example, Zhongguancun (中关村), Baijiazhuang (白家庄), and of course, Sanlitun (三里屯) — were all once villages outside the city. As Beijing grew, they got eaten up. These days they are very much urbanized, but their old names have stuck. It took me a long time to realize it, but Sanlitun literally means “village that is 3 li [from the city]”. Li is a unit of measure for distance. I live in Liulitun (六里屯); “liu” is the number six, so you can probably guess how far from the old city I am.
All of this to say, Beijing has a very rich history that is clearly reflected in the names of its neighborhoods, still in use today. The fact that place names usually refer to where they are located within the city also makes it hard to get lost if you know even just a little Chinese. For some people, a place’s name is just a name, like how a person’s name will connote his character, not his name’s actual meaning. But in Beijing, a lot of times, ignoring the meaning of a place’s name risks missing out on the history behind it. Sometimes I forget to stop and think about it. But when I do, I always discover something fascinating about this crazy town.