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China’s Zero Point

This rather ornate brass marker – China’s Ground Zero – marks the beginning of China’s highways or the point in Beijing from which all distances by road in China are measured. One might imagine that such a marker might in itself have some age – no, not at all, it was set into the ground in 2006.

Of course, China is not unique in having such a marker. Just to mention a few others – one can be seen in President’s Park in Washington (a stone post), one in Macquarie Place, Sydney (a sandstone obelisk) and a number in London with a small brass plaque at the original Charing Cross (on the south side of Trafalgar Square) being the best known.

Beijing’s marker is located on the north-south axis of Beijing just outside the Qianmen (Zhengyangmen) Gate, on the south side Tiananmen Square, the symbolic center of China and formerly part of the original royal complex in the city.

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Zhengyangmen

The Zero Point marker takes the form of a large wheel with spokes, or roads, radiating out across China in all directions, north and south, east and west and all directions in between, from the hub, a large “0”.

Surrounding the zero, in addition to Chinese text, one finds English text proclaiming “Zero Point of Highways, China”. For me, this is a sad reflection of how homogeneous the world is becoming. Ignore this one western intrusion and look more closely and quickly you will see that the maker is steeped in Chinese symbolism.

The depiction of the four cardinal compass points (north, south, east and west) is a simplification of the twenty-four “cardinal” directions of the Chinese Zodiac. Each of the four directions is depicted on the marker by its related beast – one of the four mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations – each of which has a human name and is associated with a season and an element from the five element system.

The fifth element, Earth, is represented by the Yellow Dragon of the Center and would have been depicted in the centre of the ‘wheel’ were it not necessary to have the “0” here.

This all sounds very complicated so let me summarise the links:

North is the Black Turtle – human name Zhi Ming. It is associated with the element water and Winter.

South is the Vermilion (Pheonix) Bird – human name is Ling Guang. It is associated with the element Fire and Summer.

East is the Green (Azure) Dragon – human name Meng Zhang. It is associated with the element Wood and Spring.

West is the White Tiger – human name Jian Bing. It is associated with the element Metal and Autumn.

If that is not enough symbolism for you, the marker is based on the concept of Tianyuandifang such that the square shaped outline represents the earth and the circle symbolises the sky. While the radiating lines represent highways the 64 dots represent the 64 directions in traditional Chinese culture.

Just for the information of train buffs, like myself, China Railways’ 0 km is located at the entrance to the Fengtai Yard on the Jingguang Line just outside of Beijing. You will be glad to hear that, as far as I know, the simple plaque there with a ‘0’ on it lacks any symbolic significance!


This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on a number of trips to Beijing.  I suggest you continue with my next entry –  National Museum of China – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my Beijing Introduction.


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