Tiananmen Square (central Beijing) has been called "China's ultimate political reference point." The largest public square in the world, it is a gathering place for cultural and political events as well as simply a place to stroll around and hang out. Marking the southern entrance to the Forbidden City and located right at the center of Beijing’s north-south axis, it is covered with paving stones, is free of cars, and can accommodate 160 football fields within its 400,000 square meters. So important is it to China’s national identity, Tiananmen Square is pictured on every note of Chinese currency.
Tian'anmen Square measures 500 meters (0.31 miles) from east to west and 880 meters (0.55 miles) from north to south. Covering an area of 44 hectares, the square is big enough to hold half a million people. It was named after the Tian'anmen (literally, Gate of Heavenly Peace) which stands on its north side. Tian'anmen is the front gate of the Forbidden City, the gate leading to the supreme power in imperial times. The tower over the gate was used for grand ceremonies in the Ming (1638-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, for instance, issuing imperial edicts.
Tian’anmen was built in 1417 and renovated in 1981. In modern China, it became a symbol of power and New China. From the tower of Tian'anmen, on October 1, 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China. Located in the center of Beijing, it covers an area of 122 acres and is big enough to hold a half million people. Tian’anmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) was the front gateway to the imperial palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties. A picture of Tian’anmen is at the center of the Chinese national emblem.
Places at Tiananmen Square
The 38-meter high Monument to the People's Heroes completed in 1958, stands in Tiananmen Square. The square lies between two ancient, massive gates: the Tian'anmen to the north and the Zhengyangmen, better known as Qianmen, to the south.
On the north side of Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, the Working People's Cultural Palace, the Giant Portrait of Mao, Sun Yat-Sen Park, the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the Avenue of Eternal Peace (Changan Avenue). To the east is the National History Museum. To the south is the Chairman Mao Mausoleum and Qianmen (front gate). To the west is Great Hall of the People. In last decade or so, these places have been joined by Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbruck's Coffee shops and other symbols of western "spiritual pollution." An enormous tron (large-screen television) is sometimes set up in Tiananmen Square
Changan Avenue (between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City) runs through the main downtown area. Along it are bike lanes, hotels, office complexes, modern shopping malls, Stalinesque monstrosities, embassies and lots of construction cranes. There used to be some nice old neighborhoods around it but they are mostly gone. In the their places are new streets and buildings with New York City names like the Park Avenue and Soho apartment complexes. You can also find Central Park, Time Square, Little Italy and even Forest Hills.
Chang'an Avenue is a major thoroughfare in Beijing and showcase of Chinese Stalinist architecture and some modern architecture.Known as the east-west central axis of the city, the historic avenue extends nearly 45 kilometers from Tongzhou District in the east to Shijingshan District in the west while undergoin several name changes. The core section of Chang'an Avenue stretches 6.7 kilometers from Fuxingmen on the Western 2nd Ring Road to Jianguomen on the Eastern 2nd Ring Road. Along this section, there are more than 50 important and internationally renowned structures.
Monument of the People's Heroes
Near the middle of Tiananmen square is the Monument of the People's Heroes, a 118-foot-high granite obelisk with bas-reliefs of important revolutionary and historical events such as the destruction of opium in Canton in 1839. In 1989, it was a rallying point for the pro-democracy demonstrators. Today the monument is a good place to hang out, relax and watch local people fly kites, stroll around with their children and drift by on their bicycles. Joining them is scattered contingent of plainclothes policemen whose job is to rough up protesters, thwart gatherings, prevent reporters from interviewing people and investigate suspicious activity.
The Monument to the People’ Heroes was designed by Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), regarded as Beijing’s original preservationists. Liang wrote “ The History of Chinese Architecture “ . After the Communists came to power Liang and Lin helped design the new national emblem and were asked to invent a new style of Chinese architecture. In the end Liang’s ideas where incompatible with those of the Communists.
Liang tried by persuade Mao Zedong to save Beijing’s towering walls, which encircles the capital. The request was rejected and the walls were torn down and replaced with a quasi ring road. Liang’s idea of establishing a new capital outside of Beijing so Beijing’s architecture could be preserved was also rejected. In February 2012, under the cover of night and the Chinese New Year, a team armed only with hand tools demolished the sprawling 400-square-meter courtyard house at No. 24 Bei Zong Bu Alley, where Laing and his wife lived from 1930 to 1937, to make way for modern development.
Flag Raising Ceremony at Tiananmen Square
Many people gather in the early morning and at sunset to watch the daily flag raising ceremony performed by soldiers who take exactly 108 steps a minute and cover 75 centimeters with each step and carefully fold and unfold the flag. The ceremony takes place at the flagpole on the north side of Tiananmen Square across from the Forbidden City.
Describing the flag raising ceremony John Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The square suddenly becomes quiet as two columns of white-gloved soldiers, ceremonial white rifles raised, goose-step the perimeter of the towering flagpole...Rush hour traffic on the adjacent Avenue of Eternal Peace halts as many soldiers then place their hands on their hearts. Then with precise jerks, two soldiers lower the wavering banner. They don’t fold it, but wrap it around a staff...As quickly as they appeared, the soldiers march away. Traffic resumes.”
Before the 2008 Olympics a 15-meter-tall clock over the National Museum in Tiananmen Square counted down the days, hours , minutes and seconds until the Opening Ceremonies. In preparation for the games the square was decorated with one million potted plants, dozens of nighttime colored light displays and a 55-foot-high “Beijing 2008" sign revolving at the center of the square. The torch relay and the marathon began at the square.
Portrait of Mao Zedong
Portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs over Tiananmen Square stands nearly three stories high and is regarded as more than a painting. It is considered a representation Mao himself and an object of adoration and worship. The portrait first hung in 1949 showed Mao wearing an octagonal army hat and course uniform. The next year he appeared without the hat in a Mao jacket. The image today is basically unchanged from the one in 1950.
On May 23, 1989, an auto mechanic from Hunan named Lu Decheng and two other men threw 30 paint-filled balloons at the portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Square. Lu came over 1,000 kilometers to take part in the demonstrations but was spurned by the student leaders. He was imprisoned for over a decade for the stunt and lost his wife and daughter and eventually emigrated to Canada. The incident is the centerpiece of the 2009 book “Egg on Mao” by Denise Chong. In May 2007, a 35-year-old unemployed man from Xinjiang hurled a burning object at the portrait and damaged it. Authorities cleared Tiananmen Square and the man was arrested.
Exposure to weather also damages the painting. Every year, usually in the middle of the night in late September, the portrait is taken down and replaced. Two paintings are used. The one that is taken down is fixed up or painted over in a workshop in a quiet corner of the Forbidden City, encased in metal for protection and prepared for the next year. The name of the painter who makes the portrait is a carefully guarded secret.
History at Tiananmen Square
During the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) a space was cleared in what is now Tiananmen Square for a courtyard leading to the imperial family's home. Although the imperial family didn't live in Beijing, they kept a home there. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the Emperor Zhu Di constructed the Gate of Heavenly Succession from which Ming rulers declared new laws. In 1651 the gate was rebuilt and renamed Tiananmen (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”). What is now Tiananmen Square was walled off and only the emperor and his court were allowed to enter until early in the 20th century.
Mao in October 1949
On May 4, 1919, students protesting the loss of territory to Japan after World War I, launching the famous the May 4th movement in Tiananmen Square. On October 1, 1949, Mao announced the creation of People's Republic of China to hundred of thousands of supporters in the square and told the world "The Chinese people have stood up." In 1958 the size of the square was quadrupled to its present dimensions.
Under he Communists, marching armies, rows of weapons and huge communist banners have been paraded through the square to celebrate major national holidays. Mao and other Chinese leaders gave famous speeches and made major announcements there. During the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 more than a million people used to gather in the square to chant slogans and wave their little red books and catch a glimpse of Mao when he showed up. In 1976 riots broke out after wreaths commemorating the death of Zhou Enlai were removed.
In 1986 and 1987, students staged massive protest demanding democratic reforms. In the summer of 1989, at least 2,000 people were killed when Chinese army crushed pro-democracy demonstrations with tanks and automatic weapons (See History, After Mao). Since then Tiananmen Square has become equated in Western minds with repression and the dark side of Communist rule.
Tiananmen Square Demonstrations and Massacre 1989
In 1989, broad political and economic discontent combined with inspiration from dramatic change in the former Soviet Union and other parts of eastern Europe sparked student-led protests in Beijing that were crushed, but only after setting off heated debate at the top of the party about whether it should introduce serious political reform.
Some Chinese call it “the June 4th Incident.” At 2:00am on June 4th 1989, People's Liberation Army tanks and 300,000 soldiers moved into Tiananmen Square in Beijing to crush a large pro-democracy demonstration that had been going on for seven weeks. Hundreds of students and supporters were killed. The tanks rolled over people that got in their way and soldiers opened fire on groups of protesters. There is little mention of it now in China. When it is mentioned it is called a ‘sensitive topic.” The protests were seen by the Communist Party elite as a direct threat to their rule. Preserving economic development was given as a reason to justify suppressing the Tiananmen protests and maintaining One-party rule.
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In 1989, China’s reforms seemed to have turned sour. The economy was in a downturn. Inflation reduced the buying power of workers’ and intellectuals’ fixed state salaries. Corruption from the lowest to the highest levels of the Communist Party, and the spectacle of “princelings” (children of high-ranking Party leaders) using their connections to amass business fortunes sickened idealistic intellectuals and ordinary people. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]
“Former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang (b. 1915) died on April 15, 1989. Hu had a reputation for honesty and integrity. Also, his somewhat sympathetic attitude toward intellectuals and student protesters had lost him the Party Secretary position after the student demonstrations of 1986. Thus, the occasion of public mourning for Hu Yaobang quickly turned into an occasion for students and citizens of Beijing to protest against corruption and in favor of democracy. The fact that the world press was in Beijing to cover the historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev provided further incentive for the protesters.
“As protesters took over Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city during the latter part of April, the government attempted to bring the situation under control and published an editorial in the Party newspaper, People’s Daily, which labeled the protesters as counter-revolutionary conspirators. The editorial inflamed the students’ passions and simply brought more people into the demonstrators’ ranks. The government was unable to respond clearly in any way to the students at this time: divisions had appeared within the Party leadership, with Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005) arguing for a more conciliatory approach and dialogue with the students, while Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and other Party leaders favored taking a hard line.”
Tiananmen (south of Tiananmen Square) is the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Built in 1651 and renovated in 1984, it is main entrance point to the Forbidden City. It replaces a gate called Chengtiamen that was built in 1417 as the front gate for the Imperial Palace. In imperial times a ceremony called “the golden phoenix issues an edict” was held here in which a court minister read an edict aloud while standing under a yellow umbrella and then placed the edict in the mouth of gold statues of phoenixes that were as lowered by rope to a cloud-shaped atrium while officials of the court looked on. On October 1, 1949 and Mao declared the People's republic here. The huge portrait of Mao that hangs from the gate commemorates the event.
The gate itself is a four-story red stone structure with five doorways, a double-eaved roof and nine columns. In front of it are seven bridges, one of which was reserved for the Emperor. On the balustrades are carved dragons, phoenixes and clouds. The five-star arrangement on the gate has been adopted for the Chinese flag.
A pathway that leads from the Tiananmen to the Imperial Palace which is surrounded by a moat and a 30 foot high red wall. For a fee one can climb to the main terrace of the gate for view of Tiananmen Square to the south and the Forbidden City to the north. At the front and the back of Tiananmen are two totem-pole-like marble columns called “hubiaos”. Originally made of wood, they were constructed for ordinary people to voice their criticism of imperial rule. The mythical animal at the top is called a “hou.”
Great Hall of the People
Great Hall of the People (west side of Tiananmen Square) is the meeting place of the National People's Congress (NPC). Purported to be the democratically elected equivalent to Congress in the United States, the NPC in truth has little power and is little more than rubber stamp legislature made of members selected the Central Committee who essentially follow decisions made by the Politburo.
Occupying almost the entire western side of Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall is a Stalinist monolith with 300 rooms and 170,000 meters of floor space and was built in only 10 months in 1958 and 1959. Some of the rooms are quite large and lavish. Other look like lobbies in shabby Chinese hotels with all the chairs lined against the walls. Each year in March the NPC meets in the "The Ten Thousand People's Meeting Hall," which seats 10,052 people.
The Great Hall of the People was built to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. The hall is larger than the Forbidden City and is used mainly for the Chinese Communist Party's legislative and political conferences, as well as ceremonial events and concerts. It’s open to the public when there are no political conferences or events. The hall includes the central, northern and southern sections. The central section mostly consists of the 10,000-seat Great Auditorium, the Main Auditorium, the Congress Hall, the Central Hall and other main halls. The State Banquet Hall lies in the northern section while the southern section houses the office building of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China
Important overseas dignitaries are greeted in a banquet hall large enough to accommodate a feast for 5000 people or a cocktail party for 10,000 people. In 1972, before a television audience of millions, Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai toasted one another three times each with glasses of maotai in the banquet hall. George Bush ate there. Bill Clinton was received there. The Great Hall is open to the public when the Congress is not in session. Tours of the hall are expensive. Admission: 30 yuan for adults, 15 yuan for students Getting There: Take Subway Line 1 to Tian’anmen West Station, or Subway Line 2 to Qianmen Station
Mao Zedong Mausoleum
Mao Zedong Mausoleum (south side of Tiananmen Square at Qian Men Gate) is where Mao's embalmed corpse is displayed in a glass case like the body of Lenin in Moscow. Even though Mao said that he wanted to be cremated, after his death in September 1976 his body was injected with 22 liters of formaldehyde — six liters more than was recommended by a medical book found by a researcher in a library — and then draped with a red Communist party flag, placed in a vacuum-sealed crystal casket and put on display for a week. During that time the body reportedly swelled and an ear fell off and had to be stitched back on.
While the mausoleum was built in 10 months in 1976 and 1977 — reportedly by a million workers — a wax dummy of Mao was constructed, and doctors responsible for embalming Ho Chi Min's body in Vietnam were contacted for advise on how to preserve Mao's corpse properly. In 1977, Mao's corpse, the dummy and several jars containing his vital organs in formaldehyde were brought to the mausoleum for display. Occasionally the two Maos are switched and even Mao's doctor has said that even he is not sure which one is the real Mao and which is the wax effigy. The mausoleum itself is drab, ugly collonaded stone cube with a red-tile roof. About as inspiring as a bowl of watery noodles, it throws off Beijing’s feng shui — reportedly on purpose — by interrupting the north south axis between Qiamen and the Forbidden City.
On busy days, tens of thousands of visitors file past the crystal casket to pay their respects to the late Chinese leader. Many Chinese still regard Mao with deep reverence. Foreigners are urged to show respect by keeping quiet and refraining from making any jokes or rude remarks. The mausoleum also contains a large marble statue of a seated Mao, exhibits on other Chinese leaders and a souvenir shop with Mao watches, Mao lighters that play “The East is Red” and other memorabilia.
Visiting Mao Zedong Mausoleum
More that 120 million have viewed Mao's embalmed body. In the old days up to 8 million a year visited the mausoleum. Today it is often closed. When it is not it is open from 8:30am to 11:30am and some days also from 1:00pm to 3:30pm. Visitors are required to leave their bag’s in the mausoleum office. The line moves quite rapidly as visitors are only allowed to view the body for only a short time It is always closed on Monday.
When Mao’s Tomb is open the lines are made up largely of bussed in Chinese tourists and student groups in casual clothes. Visitors have to go through metal detectors and police scanners. After clearing these there is a place to buy flowers to leave at the tomb and a short walk brings you face to face with a seated Mao statue that appears to be modeled after the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Leslie Nguyen-Okwu wrote in Ozy: “The 5-foot-tall warning sign in front of the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong in Beijing is thorough: no instant noodles, no cameras, no soda cans, no handbags, no cigarette lighters, no meandering cats, no electric bikes, no wayward scooters, no open-toed shoes, no this, no that.” The “multistory cinder-block building” is “kept under lock and key. All I have to do first is pass through three security checkpoints, a few pat-downs and a wall of stone-faced guards. [Source: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu, Ozy, May 15, 2016]
The room with Mao’s body is reached after a long walk down a corridor, lined with guards urging people not to dawdle. The room with the body is wide and tall with red and white walls. The case with Mao’s body is surrounded by velvet ropes. Mao appears to be wearing a standard olive-green army uniform but is it hard to tell for sure as he is covered by a red flag. It is difficult ro get a good look because guards keep people moving along and gently nudge anyone who tries to stop. For some people the visit seems like just another tourist stop. Fort others it seem like a reminder of the past. As an act of reverence many people lay flowers. After leaving the room you walk down a short corridor, and before you know you it you are outside the building. Web Sites: Wikipedia ; Oriental Architecture .
People Watching at Mao's Mausoleum
Leslie Nguyen-Okwu wrote in Ozy: ““While a mausoleum may not sound like a lively attraction, this particular one is a people-watching paradise. The embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao lies within a crystal coffin in the heart of Tiananmen Square, but I’m not here to ogle his sunken cheeks or his stygian aura. I’m here to observe his flock of fanatics, all elbowing to get into Mao’s final resting place.[Source: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu, Ozy, May 15, 2016]
“Every day, thousands of visitors — mostly Chinese — come to pay their respects in a cross-country pilgrimage of sorts. They spend 60 minutes somberly shuffling forward in a miles-long queue just to get a 60-second glimpse of the Great Leader. Stately security personnel are stationed every few feet, reminding me that this is no laughing matter. Yet I can’t help but gawk at the the group of gung-ho grandmas who shove me aside to get a closer look at the casket surrounded by glass. Then, like the flip of a switch, they keel over, sobbing — and I mean a sudden downpour — at the sight of Mao in the flesh. Others around me bow down, clutching bouquets of fresh-cut white flowers to be laid at the base of Mao’s statue. Once we reach the end, they take a minute to regain their composure before hightailing it to get back in line and do it all over again.
Outside the mausoleum, I perch near the stairs and watch crowds of mourners go from gloom to glee beneath the sunny sky. I start to ask one teary-eyed woman who has dropped to her knees if she needs help getting up. But before I can open my mouth, she leaps up, a smuggled selfie stick in one hand, and snaps a quick pic of herself in front of Mao’s mausoleum.
Image Sources: 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site.
Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), UNESCO, Rough Guide for Beijing, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in May 2020