Tiananmen Square

If the Forbidden City was the heart of imperial China, Tiananmen Square is the heart of modern China. This vast square – the largest of its kind in the world – was laid out in the early 1950s on the orders of Mao Zedong (1893–1976), following the victory of the Communists in the civil war (1946–9); it was designed to be big enough for parades of up to a million participants. This scale was said to be symbolic of the power of the Chinese people; but Tiananmen Square’s location on the edge of the old Imperial City, just to the south of the Forbidden City, was also symbolic.

At the southern end Tiananmen Square is the fortress-like Front Gate, one of the original Ming-dynasty city gates which – along with its companion further south, the Arrow Tower – controlled traffic through the city walls. At the northern end is the grand Gate of Heavenly Peace, with its seven ornate bridges and five entrances, which used to control traffic to the Forbidden City: the central entrance, once reserved for the emperor, is now hung with a portrait of Mao. (The Imperial City Museum, to the east of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, helps to make sense of the Imperial City's layout, and life within it.)

In the middle of the square is the towering monolith of the Monument to the People's Heroes, and to its south is the elaborate Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, fronted by groups of statues of Communist leaders, Red Army soldiers and workers in classic heroic poses. Inside, if you join the queues, you can file past Mao's embalmed body for a glimpse of this still-revered leader.

On the eastern side of the square is the didactic and predictable Museum of Chinese History and Museum of the Chinese Revolution. Facing this on the western flank is the Great Hall of the People, an imposing and bombastic construction built in just ten months in 1958–9; this is the legislative and ceremonial seat of the National People's Congress and Communist Party of China – effectively the government of China.

It was against this backdrop of intense national symbolism that the prolonged and ill-fated pro-democracy demonstration took place in 1989; brutally crushed by the authorities after 18 days, with scores of tanks and tens of thousands of troops, this act of rebellion made Tiananmen Square into an international symbol of repression.

Behind the Great Hall of the People is the new and controversial Chinese National Grand Theatre (also called the Beijing Opera House), one of Beijing's prestige projects designed to demonstrate the modern face of China – along with those built for the Beijing Olympics of 2008. The Chinese National Grand Theatre was conceived by the French architect Paul Andreu, whose credibility came under scrutiny when part of his terminal at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport collapsed in 2004. It is an impressive structure: an opera house, concert hall and theatre have been fitted into a space-age, titanium-wrapped, globular bubble, which has given rise to its nickname the 'Alien Egg'.

With its mixture of incredible scale, and imposing grandeur, combined with the stifled truth of the pro-democracy demonstrations, Tiananmen Square is another essential highlight of sightseeing in Beijing.

There are no comments yet - add yours below

This helps to discourage spam