China’s fourth-largest city is an architect’s dream. As Shanghai, Tianjin opened to the world in the 1850s. Fortunately, some structures from that period have survived to this day. However, Tianjin is more low-key than its counterparts. Perhaps this is due to its proximity to Beijing. No city can compete with the glory of the imperial capital. Nevertheless, Tianjin is a fantastic city on its own accord. Western-style palaces and elegant commercial towers line the lovely Hay River, which meanders through the city center. Besides, the city boasts a small area with Chinese heritage, European style neighborhoods, and fantastic contemporary architecture. To us, the following are the 10 most interesting facts about Tianjin city.
01 Tianjin Is China’s Fourth Largest City
Tianjin is China’s fourth-largest city after Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing. According to the last census, the urban population of Tianjin stood at 9.6 million in 2010. At the same time, the population within Tianjin’s administrative borders was 11.1 million. In the last decade, the urban population never stopped growing and is estimated to be 13.6 million in 2020. The city’s ethnic composition is overwhelmingly homogenous, with Han Chinese making about 97.3% of all inhabitants. Among the different ethnic minorities that call Tianjin home, we find Hui, Manchu, Mongols, and Koreans.
02 Its Name Means Heavenly Ford
Tianjin started to flourish after the construction of the Grand Canal of China in the 6th and 7th centuries. At the time, it was known as Zhigu, meaning Straight Trade. In 1404, the Third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty renamed the city Tianjin, which means Heavenly Ford. Apparently, he crossed the river through the city, on his way to overthrow his nephew, occupy Imperial Nanjing, and become Emperor. Other sources claim that poet Qu Yuan was the first to mention the city as a heavenly ford in one of his poems. Finally, to some, the name comes from a constellation of stars officially recognized by the Sui Dynasty.
03 Tianjin Was an Important Treaty Port
Tianjin has a long and convoluted history. In 1856, the Chinese army imprisoned 12 British and French citizens that were allegedly selling opium. In retaliation, the British and the French sent an army in 1858 to capture the Taku forts near Tianjin. They won and signed with China the Treaty of Tientsin, opening the city to foreign trade. Initially, only France and Britain were trading partners. By the end of the 19th century, Japan, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Belgium had established their concessions in Tianjin. These operated until the end of World War II. Each concession had its own church, school, and hospital. Fortunately, several buildings from that period have survived to this day.
04 The City Center Is a Mixture of the Old and the New
The old and the new blend seamlessly in Tianjin. Countless neoclassical and art deco palaces dot Tianjin’s city center with super tall contemporary skyscrapers in between. Though the former Italian concession was rather small, it had a privileged location, in the heart of Tianjin. Today, people flock to pedestrian Ziyou Road and Marco Polo Square, lined with historic buildings. Another area with both historic and contemporary architecture is the former French Concession, across the river, in front of the Italian one. Especially interesting are pedestrian Heping and Binjiang Roads. Nearby Jiefang Road is arguably the city’s most elegant street. Some of Tianjin’s best western palaces are here.
05 Tianjin Hosts Several European Neighborhoods
Tianjin’s city center covers the former Italian, French, and Japanese concessions. Thus, huge buildings tower above historic ones. On the other hand, the former British concession, in front of the French one, remains intact. Once you cross the Chengdu Road, you will feel in Europe. Streets are leafy and quaint. The residential neighborhood surrounds an area known as the Five Avenues or Wudadao, five parallel streets full of mansions. Since the British were the first ones to establish a concession in 1860, it was the biggest, 400 Hectares (988 acres). The grandest mansions line fabulous Minyuan Square.
06 There Is Chinese Heritage
Tianjin’s old town used to be to the north of the Japanese and west of the Austro-Hungarian concessions. Between 2000 and 2004, most of the old houses were demolished to make room for new modern city blocks. However, not all was lost. Some old structures survived and can be seen today in the so-called Ancient Culture Street. The Temple of the Queen from the 14th Century is the oldest building in the city. Today, it homes the Tianjin Folklore Museum. On the other hand, the large Drum Tower looks old but it is a reconstruction, and it hosts a bell, rather than a drum.
07 Fabulous Modern Architecture Is Everywhere
Without a doubt, Tianjin excels in modern and contemporary architecture. Celebrated architects such as MVRDV, Kohn Pedersen Fox and Bernard Tschumi have fantastic projects in the city. The best buildings in the city are in Binhai, on the coast by Bohai Bay. No other project crystallizes Tianjin’s love affair with contemporary architecture better than the Binhai Cultural Center. We are talking about a massive compound with 5 main buildings, including a museum, art galleries, and the world-famous Binhai Library. Regarding Tianjin’s city center, the sleek high tech Riverside 66 Shopping Center stands out.
08 Tianjin Has Wonderful Museums
Tianjin is home to some of China’s best museums. Three museums preside over the enormous Yinhe Square. The biggest is the Tianjin Museum, dedicated to the city’s history. Its jade, porcelain, calligraphy, and painting collections are especially interesting. The Natural History Museum is next doors. Apart from several dinosaur skeletons, it has expositions about ancient and modern worlds and earth’s ecology. Finally, the giant building that looks like a bridge is the Science and Technology Museum. Its planetarium is amongst the best in the world. All three museums are outstanding contemporary buildings, attractions on their own.
09 There’s a Unique Porcelain House
The Porcelain House is not like any other building in Tianjin. More than 5000 ancient vases, 4000 plates, and 400 million porcelain fragments and natural crystals, cover the building. In 2003, art collector Zhang Lianzhi bought the 100-year-old French mansion. It took him 4 years to revamp and redecorate it. Its highlight, the red star on the roof, is made of pieces of rare Ji Hong porcelain. Four 200 meter long Chinese dragons made with thousands of ceramic pieces decorate the outer wall. They represent the power of Old China. On the inside, ceramic pieces only cover ceilings, handrails, and doors.
10 Tianjin Metro Is China’s Second Oldest
Before the 1990s, China only had two metro systems, one in Beijing (opened in 1969) and the one in Tianjin (opened in 1984). The first line of Tianjin’s Metro was set over an old unused water canal, making it the shallowest metro in the world at the time. Interestingly enough, this line number 1 and its 8 stations closed for refurbishment in 2001 and reopened in 2006. In 2004 they opened a 52.8 km (32.8 miles) long line connecting the city center with coastal Binhai. Today, Tianjin’s metro is among the longest in China, with 6 lines and 159 stations.