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Covering more than forty hectares, Tian’anmen Square (天安门, tiānānmén) must rank as the greatest public square on earth. It’s a modern creation, in a city that traditionally had no squares, as classical Chinese town planning did not allow for places where crowds could gather. Tian’anmen only came into being when imperial offices were cleared from either side of the great processional way that led south from the palace to Qianmen and the Temple of Heaven, and the broad east–west thoroughfare, Chang’an Jie, had the walls across its path removed. In the words of one of the architects: “The very map of Beijing was a reflection of the feudal society, it was meant to demonstrate the power of the emperor. We had to transform it, we had to make Beijing into the capital of socialist China.” The square was not enlarged to its present size until ten years after the Communist takeover, when the Party ordained the building of ten new Soviet-style official buildings in ten months. These included the two that dominate Tian’anmen to either side – the Great Hall of the People and the Museum of Chinese History. In 1976, a fourth was added in the centre – Mao’s mausoleum, constructed (again in ten months) by an estimated million volunteers. The square is lined with railings (for crowd control), and you can enter or leave only via underpasses.
Tian’anmen Square unquestionably makes a strong impression, but this concrete plain dotted with worthy statuary and bounded by monumental buildings can seem inhuman. Together with the bloody associations it has for many visitors, it often leaves people cold, especially Westerners unused to such magisterial representations of political power. For many Chinese tourists, though, the square is a place of pilgrimage. Crowds of peasants flock to see the corpse of Chairman Mao, others quietly bow their heads before the Monument to the Heroes, a 30m-high obelisk commemorating the victims of the revolutionary struggle. Among the visitors is the occasional monk, and the sight of robed Buddhists standing in front of the uniformed sentries outside the Great Hall of the People makes a striking juxtaposition. At dawn, the flag at the northern end of the square is raised in a military ceremony and lowered again at dusk, which is when most people come to see it, though foreigners complain that the regimentation of the crowds is oppressive and reminds them of school. After dark, the square is at its most appealing and, with its sternness softened by mellow lighting, it becomes the haunt of strolling families and lovers.
For an overview of the square, head to the south gate, Zhenyangmen (正阳门, zhèng yáng mén), similar to Tian’anmen (the north gate) and 40m high, which gives a good idea of how much more impressive the square would look if Mao’s mausoleum hadn’t been stuck in the middle of it.Read More
Dissent in Tian’anmen Square
Dissent in Tian’anmen Square
Blood debts must be repaid in kind – the longer the delay, the greater the interest.
- Lu Xun, writing after the massacre of 1926.
Chinese history is about to turn a new page. Tian’anmen Square is ours, the people’s, and we will not allow butchers to tread on it.
- Wuer Kaixi, student, May 1989.
It may have been designed as a space for mass declarations of loyalty, but in the twentieth century Tian’anmen Square was as often a venue for expressions of popular dissent; against foreign oppression at the beginning of the century, and, more recently, against its domestic form. The first mass protests occurred here on May 4, 1919, when three thousand students gathered in the square to protest at the disastrous terms of the Versailles Treaty, in which the victorious allies granted several former German concessions in China to the Japanese. The Chinese, who had sent more than a hundred thousand labourers to work in the supply lines of the British and French forces, were outraged. The protests of May 4, and the movement they spawned, marked the beginning of the painful struggle of Chinese modernization. In the turbulent years of the 1920s, the inhabitants of Beijing again occupied the square, first in 1925, to protest over the massacre in Shanghai of Chinese demonstrators by British troops, then in 1926, when the public protested after the weak government’s capitulation to the Japanese. Demonstrators marched on the government offices and were fired on by soldiers.
In 1976, after the death of popular premier Zhou Enlai, thousands of mourners assembled in Tian’anmen without government approval to voice their dissatisfaction with their leaders, and again in 1978 and 1979 groups assembled here to discuss new ideas of democracy and artistic freedom, triggered by writings posted along Democracy Wall on the edge of the Forbidden City. In 1986 and 1987, people gathered again to show solidarity for the students and others protesting at the Party’s refusal to allow elections.
But it was in 1989 that Tian’anmen Square became the venue for a massive expression of popular dissent, when, from April to June, nearly a million protesters demonstrated against the slowness of reform, lack of freedom and widespread corruption. The government, infuriated at being humiliated by their own people, declared martial law on May 20, and on June 4 the military moved in. The killing was indiscriminate; tanks ran over tents and machine guns strafed the avenues. No one knows how many died in the massacre – certainly thousands. Hundreds were arrested afterwards and many are still in jail. The event remains a taboo topic; look out for droves of undercover police on the massacre’s anniversary.