Beijing’s metro system offers a story at every stop, both above and below ground: NPR


For our summer travel series, our correspondent in Beijing takes the city’s metro system and explores the history of each stop – above and below ground.


For our Summer Travel series, NPR correspondents around the world send audio postcards from the countries they cover. And today we are going to Beijing, China. There, our correspondent Emily Feng takes us for a ride on line 2 of the Beijing subway, which tells an unexpected story.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Beijing Metro Line 2 is a circle, not a line, actually. And any visitor to Beijing will take the opportunity at least once to visit historic sites, like the Confucian Temple and maybe even the Beijing NPR office.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Most of the stops on line 2 contain the word men. It is Chinese for door.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: For example, I’m in Chaoyang Gate – or Chaoyangmen – right now, heading to Jianguomen. Then there are Chongwenmen, Qianmen, Hepingmen and so on. This is because Beijing Metro Line 2 almost exactly traces the loop where the Ming Dynasty city walls once stood. The history of Beijing is literally retraced by the underground footprint of Line 2.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese). We now come to Jianguomen.

FENG: To learn more about the wall and the subway below, I head above ground to find Matthew Hu, a Beijing-born historian.

I find Hu in this quiet, leafy Beijing courtyard in the center of the city. He explains what the wall looked like.

MATTHEW HU: Around town we have nine downtown gates. The city gate – it’s like a mini-city itself, so it can easily accommodate a few hundred people.

FENG: Most cities in northern China had formidable 15th century ramparts, like those in Beijing, or even older. And each of the doors also has a back story. For example, Andingmen – or the Gate to Peaceful Stability – faces north towards what was then the greatest threat to Beijing.

HU: All the nomads came from the grasslands of northern Mongolia, and they came down to Beijing.

FENG: Thus, Beijing’s military generals have always led their troops out of the city through Andingmen, riding northwards in the hope of maintaining the city’s peaceful stability. Next, I make my way to the Qianmen stop of Line 2 to understand how the wall once shaped the lives of the people around it.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Qianmen meaning, literally, gateway in Chinese, is actually a nickname for the Zhengyangmen, the main gate to Beijing. It housed a lively neighborhood of alleys or hutongs. Unfortunately, many of these hutongs were demolished before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But the restored door still remains outside the entrance to the metro.

So we go out, and on the right is this big ornate red door. It’s still quite beautiful – red at the bottom, blue at the top. And right next to Qianmen lives Shi Zhiguang. He is an antique collector born and raised in Beijing.

SHI ZHIGUANG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: My family has been here for 700 years since the Yuan Dynasty, Shi says proudly, and he doesn’t budge. For five centuries, the wall has regulated the rhythms of Beijing life. Shi remembers her mother saying this.

SHI: (Via an interpreter) Go and come with the Beijing city walls. The doors opened at 4 a.m. sharp, with people lining up to exit. And at 5 p.m., they quickly closed.

FENG: A lot of pedestrians passed through Qianmen, so many of the city’s best shops were packed. The artistic talent of the city too. Shi shakes up all the Beijing opera stars who were born near the gate.

SHI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: In the spring, Shi remembers chasing crickets on the wall. And in winter, the wall also became a source of heat.

SHI: (Via interpreter) We would take the yellow clay that the wall was made of and roll it into a ball with charcoal. The loose coal and clay formed a mass that you could burn to heat.

FENG: Today, she still lives in her beloved neighborhood of Qianmen, although the wall is gone, and he refuses to take the subway.

SHI: (Via interpreter) Imagine what would happen if the subway collapsed. Good God. The spirits of heaven and earth must be truly angered by all of our tunnels.

FENG: The digging of the tunnel and the demise of Shi’s beloved wall began in the 1960s. It was then that the Chinese Communist Party’s relations with the neighboring Soviet Union became strained and China feared a invasion. The military leaders therefore began to plan a vast system of underground bunkers to house the Chinese leadership and residents of Beijing in the event of a Soviet attack. Zhang Guorui remembers this time. He also lives near where the city wall once stood.

ZHANG GUORUI: (Via interpreter) We dug our own bunker. We spent days just picking up the dirt. We never used the bunker, however.

FENG: The engineers quickly decided to reuse the bunkers for a subway, and they realized that the best place to dig more would be under the city walls. It was the only place not covered with buildings. But there was one problem – how to dismantle the walls. Zhang said they were huge.

ZHANG: (via interpreter) There were wild trees growing on top of the wall, where it was as wide as the road we’re sitting on now. The bricks were so big I took some home, hung one on each end of a pole, and used it as a dumbbell.

FENG: But the Communist Party quickly found a solution. They called on ordinary people to tear down the wall brick by brick to demonstrate their commitment to the socialist cause and to protect themselves against the Soviets. This is Hu, the historian.

HU: I think in a few months the city wall was taken down because people from all walks of life – they were encouraged to volunteer. Even elementary school students were encouraged to go.

FENG: Hu recovered some surviving clay bricks torn from the walls of the old city. They were recycled to build homes for people nearby. He sprays water on the bricks to highlight their inscriptions and colors. Each brick has a kiln mark telling you who made it.

HU: For example, this one also has a date. This one is from Jiajing 33. Jiajing is therefore a very famous Chinese emperor of the Ming dynasty. So 33rd year, which would be 1554.

FENG: And although the walls are no longer there, Hu says his memory lives underground, every time he goes up line 2.

HU: I don’t really have to look at the map. I know – if I know which direction I’m going, I know what’s the next stop. I know all the gates of the city by heart.

FENG: So if you ever take Beijing Metro Line 2, be aware that there is much more above the surface than it looks.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.


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