You can observe the people who lived in this area between 770,000 and 230,000 years ago if you go to the Peking Man World Heritage Site at Zhoukoudian cave in the Fangshan District. Most professional anthropologists think that the fossils discovered at Zhoukoudian in 1921 are not direct progenitors of modern humans. Still, some local experts believe that a little Peking Man DNA made its way into your neighborhood kuaidi driver somewhere, someway. Modern human communities dating to the Neolithic era (about 7000 years ago) with agriculture, pottery, and jade working have been discovered at Huairou, Pinggu, Changping, and other surrounding districts.
Nonetheless, while the narrative of Peking Man and these early settlers is fascinating, neither group constructed anything resembling a city.
By focusing on the past further, eschewing mythology, and going straight to the archaeologists’ desk, we can find evidence of city-states in the 11th century BCE. Ji and Yan were adversarial states that were nominally under the control of the Zhou emperors who ruled the Yellow River region from 1046 to 770 BCE.
The Zhou monarchs divided their authority among obedient nobility and their kin. King Wu, the founder of the Zhou, had a brother named the Duke of Shao. The King nominated the Duke of Shao to lead the State of Yan in 1045 BCE out of gratitude and admiration for his prowess both on the field of battle and in court.
Yan later acquired its smaller neighbor Ji, but then took the unprecedented step of establishing its own capital city in the former Ji capital city. Jicheng (City of Ji) appears to have been located in the southwestern area of present-day Beijing, just south of Guang’anmen, and overlapping the contemporary districts of Xicheng and Fengtai.
Even after the state of Yan was destroyed and the area fell to the Qin Empire in the 3rd century BCE, the city of Ji survived into the imperial period, albeit with occasional rebranding depending on who was in control of the area, and was known at various times as Jicheng, Youzhou, and Yanjing (Hence the name of Beijingers’ favorite cheap beer)
The city altered dramatically once non-Chinese groups began claiming sections of north China for themselves, first with the Khitan in the 10th century CE, followed by the Jurchens in the 12th century, and, perhaps most notably, the Mongols in the 13th century. Each of these invasion dynasties established a capital on the current location of Beijing, with the Khitan and Jin constructing walled towns roughly where prior versions of Beijing had been located, just southwest of the existing urban core.
It was Kublai Khan and the Mongols who shifted the city to the north and east, centering their capital along the axis which still runs through the heart of Beijing in the 21st century.
The city we live in today owes perhaps its greatest debt to the dynasty which replaced the Mongols. The Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty ordered his primary dynastic capital built on the ruins of the old Mongolian city starting in the early 15th century. It is the Yongle Emperor’s city, with its walls, gates, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and other famous sites that form the core of modern Beijing.
The Yongle Emperor is also generally credited with the name Beijing, distinguishing it from the demoted “secondary” Ming capital in the southern city of Nanjing. Although in the later imperial period, many people referred to Beijing as the “Capital City” (Jingshi) or by other nicknames rather than the official name.
So, how old is Beijing? It is safe to conclude that cities in this area have existed for at least 3000 years. While the majority of the previous urban units are simply fragmentary archeological remains, they served as a vital basis for modern Beijing.
If we ask the same question about Beijing today, in its current shape and location, we must acknowledge Kublai Khan and his capital Khanbaliq (known in Chinese as Dadu) almost 700 years ago.
Finally, if we narrow our answer to a city that would be as recognizable to its founder as to people visiting in the 20th century, then that would be the Ming capital built on orders of the Yongle Emperor a little over 600 years ago.
Even the most basic question, as with most things in Beijing, leads to a slew of additional inquiries and few answers.