This is the world’s largest square and is seen as the heart of Beijing and thus China. In dynastic times the square was a mere avenue between ministerial buildings, but was geographically significant as it represented the divide between the privilege of royalty and the poverty of the masses.
When the nationalists came to power in 1911 they immediately cleared the square and with it the inequality which it represented, although it didn’t take on its current form until after the arrival of the Communists.
||The square served as a focus of dissent as early as 1919 when demonstrators in the May 4th Movement protested against China’s humiliation in the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. |
It has continued to perform this function ever since, ranging from the expressions of discontent posted here during the ill-conceived Hundred Flowers campaign to the 1989 protests, which ended with tanks rolling into the square, untold numbers of fatalities and worldwide condemnation.
In the 1950s the Communists enlarged the square to its current massive proportions and the flanking Great Hall of the People and museums of Chinese History and Revolution (now known as the National Museum) were built.
Even after the construction of Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum in its center,
Tian’anmen Square still feels overwhelmingly huge and it takes a good 15 minutes to walk from end to end.
The square also retains a menacing and autocratic air and you can’t help but feel you’re being watched (not just by the amazed out-of-town Chinese visitors).
In the late 1990s, I witnessed a group of seated Falung Gong (a quasi-Buddhist religious doctrine banned in mainland China) protesters being forcibly removed from the square only minutes after they had sat down.
Tien’anmen Square & the Forbidden City
Yet somehow, in spite of its recent history and all of this control, today Tian’anmen Square manages to function as a relaxing place for a stroll, especially in the evenings (until 9 pm). You’ll see locals flying kites and tourists from near and far meandering between the historic monuments. It’s difficult to imagine the events of 1989 taking place here.
Visiting the Square
If you want to visit Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, you need to get here in the morning, unless it’s a Tuesday or Thursday outside of July and August (see below). It’s easy to combine a visit to Tian’anmen Square with the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park, in which case it makes sense to get the subway or a taxi to Qianmen.
Zhengyang Gate & Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum
Use the underpass to cross into the square and the first structure you’ll see is the imposing Zhengyang Gate (daily , ¥10) which marks its southern limits.
You can ascend the 130-foot gate, which gives a good overview of the square and some idea of its original magnitude before Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum was built in the middle of it. From here, proceeding north will shortly bring you to the mausoleum (Tues-Sun , Tues & Thurs , July & August mornings only, free, no bags or cameras) where you’ll have to leave your bag with your guide or a friend to go inside.
Every morning you’ll see lengthy lines waiting for their glimpse of the Chairman, who is refrigerated overnight and then rises again in the morning! There is something very surreal in a visit to the mausoleum – from Mao’s perfectly plasticated appearance to the fake flowers that people buy to offer, which are then quickly collected and returned for re-sale.
There have been suggestions that the body on display is as false as the flowers but we’re unlikely to ascertain the truth on that one for some time. What is striking is the adulation still shown to Chairman Mao.
As the bigger picture of what happened under the Great Helmsman becomes more apparent, there is dissention within the younger generation, but the sheer numbers of serious faced visitors to the mausoleum are testimony to Mao’s enduring popularity.
The Monument to the People’s Heroes
A little north of the mausoleum and in the center of the square, the Monument to the People’s Heroes is a 125-foot-tall marble obelisk to commemorate the martyrs who lost their lives in China’s revolutionary struggle.
On the obelisk itself both Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai have inscribed mottos, while at its base you’ll see scenes glorifying the country’s efforts to free itself from both domestic and foreign imperialism between 1840 and 1949.
The Great Hall of the People
(Daily , but closed during government meetings) From the obelisk you’ll see two grand buildings on the square’s flanks. To your left the Great Hall of the People is an enormous, daunting building,
designed to awe, hosting parliamentary meetings and state functions.
You can visit and see a selection of its manifold rooms, including the purported 10,000-seat banquet hall (it’s big, but not that big…). Just to the north of the Great Hall, Zhongnanhai, the state residences, are not open to the public –all you’ll see are a wealth of black Audis bringing the big men of Chinese politics to and from their offices.
The National Museum
(Daily ; ¥30) Across the square from the Great Hall, the former Museums of Chinese History and Revolution finally received a long overdue re-branding and became the new National Museum in 2003. The museum is currently undergoing renovation and is predictably scheduled to re-open in time for the 2008 Olympics.
It will showcase some of the nation’s greatest treasures displayed in state-of-the-art fashion. In the meantime the museum houses a selection of Shang dynasty bronzes, ceramics and jade work, as well as a waxworks display of some of the latest and greatest from Chinese history.
At the far northern end of the square there’s a guarded flagpole where daily sunrise flag raising and sunset lowering performances are held, replete with plenty of pomp and ceremony.
To the north the burgundy walls of the Forbidden City dominate, although even this bastion of Chinese imperialism is replete with an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao, who was left with egg on his face when protesters from his home province threw paintfilled egg-shells at the picture during the 1989 demonstrations.
See also Beijing pictures
To step out of the modern concrete forest of skyscrapers and get a flavor of old Beijing, a trip to the hutong is a must. Hutong are the alleyways that run between the Ming and Qing dynasty low courtyard houses – still the backbone of Beijing’s residential housing.
To the north and south of the Forbidden City the hutong houses are crude and simple, while many of those to the east and west were formerly grand residences belonging to one family, though after the revolution they were transformed into zayuan or shared courtyards for the masses.
Although individual houses vary significantly, they all follow the basic siheyuan courtyard form and typically face south in order to maximize light. In spite of much redevelopment, substantial hutong districts still exist around the Forbidden City and are the antidote to Beijing’s inhumanly vast modern streets and flyovers.
Stepping into a hutong you are immediately confronted with Beijing’s human side and will see kids playing and old folk watching bicycles casually drifting by – nobody seems to be in a hurry here. There are small shops and restaurants and these days some of the hutong have become trendy places to dine and drink
(Nanluoguxiang for example).
Some expats have even moved in and restored them to their original splendor. There are also plenty of budget and a few boutique hotel options within the hutong and it’s definitely worth staying here to get a taste of old Beijing. All the more so now, while there are still some hutong left – many have been demolished over the years in the name of progress and, although some areas are now protected, many more are slated for redevelopment.
My favorite way to explore the hutong is simply to strike out into a promising area and get lost in the maze of alleyways. It’s fairly easy to maintain a rough idea of which direction you’re heading in and, when you’ve had enough, head along one of the major east-west hutong and sooner or later you’ll emerge onto a road from where you can get a taxi (or subway).
But if you want more direction or purpose you can go on an organized bike trip with Cycle China or hire a cycle rickshaw.
Getting to Beijing, Getting around Beijing
The Forbidden City
The Temple of Heaven
The Summer Palace
Jingshan Park, Shichahai, & Tibetan Lama Temple
Other places of interest in Beijing
Around Beijing : The Ming Tombs
The Great Wall
The Western Hills
Zhoukoudian & Peking Man Site
The Qing Tombs
Chengde , Bishu Shanzhuang
Shopping in Beijing
Beijing Opera, Shows, and Nightlife
Beijing Travel Guide homepage
China Travel guide homepage