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From the series Cities of China

The first time I visited Tianjin (in 1992), it was a three-hour train ride from Beijing. Today, that’s a thirty-minute ride. While that new high-speed rail line is bringing the two cities closer together physically, they remain surprisingly different cities. Being the smaller of the two, and the one that is not the national capital, Tianjin has always lived in the shadow of Beijing. At the same time, Tianjin plays in important part in making Beijing the great city that it is by being its port city, thus providing it access to the outside world.

Like Beijing, Tianjin is one of China’s four municipal districts that are governed directly by the central government (the others are Shanghai and Chongqing). This means that it is not part of any province. The current population is close to 16 million. It is home to Nankai University, one of the country’s most prestigious universities. This video gives a glimpse of the city today.

Its location along the coast meant that, during the era of foreign imperialism, it was one of those Chinese cities that was essentially run by and for the foreign powers. Until 1949, there was a large and vibrant foreign community, with the city being divided into different sectors controlled by the different foreign powers. One of the things that makes the city so interesting today is that a fair amount of the architecture of the colonial era remains. It was also a center of missionary activity for northern China.

One of the city’s most famous foreign residents was Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympian whose story was told in the movie Chariots of Fire. Eric was born in Tianjin in 1902, the son of missionary parents, and lived there until he was five years old, at which time he and his brother were sent back to England for school. He returned to Tianjin in 1925 as a missionary himself, teaching at the Anglo-Chinese College, and married a Canadian woman in Tianjin in 1934. In 1943, he, along with the entire foreign community of north China were interred in a Japanese concentration camp in Shandong Province. He died there in 1945.

Another famous foreign resident was a young American geologist named Herbert Hoover, who lived in the city from 1899-1900 (during the Boxer Rebellion) and who would later go on to become the 31st President of the United States.

Because of its colonial past, there are some beautiful old churches left in the city, the most famous being the Xikai Catholic Church (originally St. Joseph’s), built by French Jesuits in 1913.

If you are planning to visit, you can worship at the Tianjin International Fellowship.  Their website also has helpful information about the local Three-self churches in the city.

Travel to and from Tianjin is quite convenient. With the new high-speed rail, it makes for an easy day trip from Beijing. It’s easily accessible by air as well, with direct flights from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Image credit: by 國煒 孫, via Flickr 
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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