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.