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Beijing's First Ring Road

Some possible First Ring Roads.

Danwei's fourth-anniversary contest asked our readers to explain why there is no First Ring Road in Beijing (scroll to the bottom of this post if you want to see the winners).

It's not a trick question - we really wanted to know. Info on the web provides a number of competing explanations with no clear front-runner.

A confusing article on Wikipedia says this:

Currently, there is the lack of a 1st Ring Road. In the 1920s, one of Beijing's first tram lines had a ring shape. It ran clockwise through Tiananmen - Xidan - Xisi - Pinganli - Dianmen - Gulou - Jiaodaokou - Beixinqiao - Dongsi - Dongdan - Tiananmen, with a total length of 17 kilometers. This route was known as the "Ring Road" (环形路). After the tramlines were removed in the 1950s, this name lost its meaning as it was simply a collection of surface streets (in contrast, each of the other ring roads today is a single expressway). Most maps in Beijing do not actually show the 1st Ring Road as such; only very few maps give a faint yellow highlight of a possible variant of it.

The notion of "1st Ring Road" briefly appeared after the end of the Cultural Revolution, during which the original names of the roads described above were changed to names with strong political propaganda meaning that eulogized and advocated the ideologies of the Cultural Revolution, and when the political turmoil had ended, the names obviously had to be changed again. One suggestion was to completely rename those roads as "1st Ring Road" to symbolize the new start in the era of reform, as well as to reflect the willingness of China to embrace modernness and globalization, but this suggestion was quickly turned down because most people favored the original names of the roads and believed in their historical meaning and cultural heritage, and more importantly, they felt that returning the original names also had more symbolic meaning of denouncing Cultural Revolution. Therefore, the original names of the roads were adopted once again, and the phrase "1st Ring Road" is seldom heard again.

You can read more about Beijing's changing street names in this Danwei post.

Baidu's user-editable encyclopedia also notes the streetcar explanation (though it neglects to mention the Cultural Revolution connection). It also adds a
few alternative theories

· A second theory identifies the third ring road as the #1 Road surrounding the Forbidden City.

The theory says that in the early Ming, a ring road appeared around the Forbidden City as it was being constructed. The road surrounding the Forbidden City was known as "#1 Road," and also "First Ring Road"....The Ming Emperor constructed a "First Ring Road" along the moat surrounding the Forbidden City; this actually served to provide a place for the Emperor, his officials, and his concubines to amuse themselves.

· A third theory says that the Third and Second Ring Roads came first, and that there is no First Ring Road.

Looking at the construction of Beijing, the Third Ring Road appeared first, in the late 1950s. The only section at the time ran east from Renmin University to Niuwang Temple (today's Sanyuan Bridge), then south past Dabeiyao to Fenzhong Temple, where ran west to Muxiyuan. The three segments were called the North Ring Road, East Ring Road, and South Ring Road, respectively, and the Three Ring Roads as a group (this is the source of the Third Ring Road name).

The West Ring Road and the west section of the South Ring Road, from Muxiyuan past Yuquanying and Gongzhufen back to Renmin University was completed in the late 70s but had no elevated interchanges. The highway was completed with all bridges built by September, 1994.

...there has never been an authoritative explanation for the First Ring Road, and it does not show up in the city plan. Perhaps because the earliest ring road was called "Three Ring Roads," the ring road subsequently built inside was called the Second Ring Road, while the ring roads built outside were called Fourth and Fifth Ring Roads. Inside the Second Ring Road, however, it would be hard to build a limited-access urban expressway with elevated interchanges; hence Beijing has no First Ring Road.

The Baidu piece continues with a quote from an article by Guo Quanzhan with the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning & Design. Guo describes an "Inner Ring" (内环) that appears on the city's master plan. The circuit would follow Ping'an Avenue in the north and Guang'an Avenue in the south, and would go through Dongdan and Xidan on the east and west. In the early era of the People's Republic there were even plans for bridges and elevated sections, but those were later scrubbed when it became apparent that massive cloverleafs at Dongdan and Xidan would ruin the aesthetic of Chang'an Avenue.

How should a winner be chosen in light of all of these competiting theories? For an authoritative answer, Danwei called up Zhang Jinqi, a historian and preservationist who curates, a website that collects historical materials about Chinese buildings and cities. Zhang appeared in an episode of Danwei TV in which he discussed the Carnal History of the Eight Big Hutongs.

Zhang casts his vote for the Forbidden City theory, so we're going to go with that.

Competition winners

Congratulations to smiles for being the first commenter to provide Zhang's answer!

SL wins a t-shirt for this gem:

The elusive First Ring Road of Beijing, sometimes referred to as the "Sting Ring Road", can only be found the morning after a night of 麻辣 hot pot and Er Guo Tou.

T.'s winning entry references someone near and dear to all of us: the Net Nanny:

Oh there is a first ring road alright . . . it's just published on Blogspot, which is why you can't find it. You can find it if you use a VPN.

And we couldn't resist the linguistic play in Big silly cat's entry:

The pinyin for first ring road (一环-- yihuan) is the same as the one for 遗患 (calamity) or 贻患 (sowing the seeds of disaster). It would make for countless jokes and seriously bad fengshui if Zhongnanhai would be located within 'yihuan'...

Honorable mentions for steen, whose entry summarized a number of competing theories, Lao She, who provided a believable answer based on traffic patterns, 西东, who wants a bullseye at the center of Beijing (badabing!) and ulyssestone, because references to classic primary-school English textbooks are always welcome. We'd probably have chosen one of the LotR-inspired entries if one had included the Nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, but alas, none did.

Winners will be given instructions for collecting their T-shirts by email. Thank you to everyone who participated, and a big shout out to Plastered for sponsoring the prizes.

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