BEIJING — Legend has it that Beijing's symmetrical layout was conceived and handed down by the Chinese gods.
The blueprint for an eternal city was said to reflect a cosmic balance at a site that faced the constant danger of chaos and destruction from the nearby Gobi Desert.
But the juggernaut of progress, rather than the sands, now presents a sharper threat to Beijing's identity as it moves to take its place as one of the most cosmopolitan and unusual megacities of the 21st century.
A panoramic view of the capital - moving past ancient pagodas and satellite-dish antennas, Taoist temples and neon-lit nightclubs - shows the hybrid that Beijing is becoming as it reinvents itself.
At its heart stands the crimson-walled Forbidden City of former emperors, a complex that seems to pull visitors back into a past of imperial ritual, intrigue, and drama. To its south are the round-roofed structures of the Temple of Heaven, to the north the Temple of Earth, while the Temples of the Sun and the Moon mark out Beijing's east-west axis.
But armies of builders are shattering the legendary contours of the capital as they propel it into the future, residents say.
Nearly two decades of economic reform and opening of markets have unleashed an unparalleled era of dynamism, prosperity, and globalization in Beijing.
A cluster of karaoke bars now circle the time-worn walls of the Forbidden City; an outer orbit holds the three discos - NASA, JJ's, and Nightman - which in turn are surrounded by a constellation of new cafes. Upwardly mobile Chinese youths freely mix with their American, Russian, and European counterparts at JJ's as a state-of-the-art sound system blasts out hits by Madonna and the reggae group Apache Indian.
Red laser beams cut through dry-ice clouds as Chinese initiates form a semicircle around JJ's British DJ, parodying his every move.
"This club could be in Berlin, Stockholm, or New York, but until a couple of years ago, not in Beijing," says a German student who milled among the nightspot's thousand-strong crowd.
For millennia, China was noted for its xenophobia. Decades ago, during Chairman Mao Zedong's reign, contact with a foreigner could lead to arrest; 10 years ago, a type of reverse apartheid allowed only foreigners, and not Chinese, to enter most dance clubs and joint-venture hotels.
"Twenty years ago, could you imagine that today there would be so few restrictions on Chinese mixing with foreigners without fear of being branded a spy?" asks Igor Rogachev, the Russian ambassador to China.
The Great Wall, built to protect the kingdom from non-Chinese barbarians and change, has taken on an opposite function: attracting tourists, who infiltrate the country with Western culture and ideas.
Great disparities remain
Along the edges of the wall, however, time seems to have stood still. Here, farmers till their fields and thrash their grain much as their ancient forebears did, using primitive tools of iron and stone. Yet in Beijing and other major Chinese cities, the Communist Party leadership has accommodated rising expectations born of the reforms by cautiously lowering barriers on links with the global village.
Beijingers can now purchase Western newspapers and literature ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare to "The Catcher in the Rye"; American films "Waterworld" and "The Bridges of Madison County" played in sold-out theaters.
Sales of television sets and programming fare have exploded; up to 25 channels are available via cable.
Select universities, residential compounds, and state institutions receive satellite broadcasts, and those with the highest government clearance can tune in to the forbidden fruits of CNN and BBC-TV.
An educated elite in China has made initial forays into cyberspace even though they must register their internet connections with the police and some World Wide Web sites are banned.
Some Chinese yuppies regard computers as the ultimate status symbol. "When our son was born four years ago, we started saving for a piano," says an accountant. "But since then, we've decided that a computer is a much wiser investment in the future."
Beijing's first cybercafe stands near ancient Chinese houses, communist-era architecture, and more recently, Western-designed concrete-and-steel skyscrapers. "China has been tearing down its past to make way for the new, but in the process is losing its history," says a Western diplomat.
Restoring the city's character
Indeed, great stretches of the city's imperial walls, watchtowers, and courtyard houses have been leveled in the past 50 years. But a growing number of Beijingers are calling for the restoration of the city's ancient character to complement its move into the next millennium.
Since the early 1990s, traditional Chinese forms and colors have reemerged in some of the capital's major architectural works, parallel with a resurgent pride in being Chinese that has accompanied the country's dynamic economic growth.
In another reversal of history, China's nouveaux riches have begun entering the global art market to reclaim vast treasure troves of ancient scrolls, paintings, and sculptures, many of which were looted by invading Western or Japanese armies in the last two centuries.
"Only by reconstructing our culture and national identity can we prepare ourselves to enter the world and the future on an equal basis," says a professor in Beijing.