First settled in the 11th century B.C., the region of China that we now know as Beijing has effectively served as the political and cultural center of the Middle Kingdom since the city became a capital in 1421. Since then, Beijing has survived the rise and fall of dynasties, revolutions, and civil war.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, imperial Beijing hit a low point. Defeat in the Opium Wars had forced China to open up to foreign powers. Diplomats, merchants, and missionaries from Europe, the United States, and Japan filled the city, competing for power and influence over the struggling empire. The influx of Westerners brought new technologies, but it also highlighted tensions in Chinese society and the weaknesses of the ruling Qing Dynasty. These tensions would eventually culminate in the short-lived Boxer Rebellion; the fall of the Qing and the end of Imperial China came soon after.
These photos, drawn from the Library of Congress, paint a picture of a traditional society just beginning to grapple with the influence of the West; the spectacular transformations of the 20th century that would shape the country we know today had yet to arrive.
Here, we see Qianmen Gate, one of the main entrances to the once-walled city of Beijing, in 1901.
Library of Congress