Tian’anmen Square- or Chairman Mao’s take on public spaces

Tian’anmen Square in its unimaginable- and unphotographable!- vastness remains what it has always been: the political heart of China. It is nothing more and nothing less than the symbolic representation of the State, and for all its seeming starkness and austerity, that stands in such contrast to the riotous colour and the wonderfully quirky sense of lines and movement that mark the Gugong, the Forbidden City, that opens from Tian’anmen Square, one cannot be without the other in 21st century Beijing. And this is really what this blog post is about: the need for Tian’anmen Square to exist at all.


So, maybe best to take a virtual look around first, and get a sense of what this space is all about and significantly, where it actually is. The square, apparently the fourth-largest city square in the world, is bordered by two gates, Tian’anmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the North, and Zhengyangmen to the South, the gate that marked the original boundaries of the ceremonial space outside the Forbidden City and the space occupied by the commoners outside the imperial walls. Tian’anmen Square therefore used to be a transitional space, a ceremonial space used by the Emperor on the very rare occasions when he left the Gugong to visit, for example, the Temple of Heaven for the Annual Winter Solstice Ceremony to pray for plentiful harvests. The imperial way, through the Zhengyangmen and Qianmen Gates and along the beautiful Qianmen Dajie towards Tiantan Park crossed over Tian’anmen Square, a 17th century square bordered by walls, with gates to the North, East, South and West, and symbolic of the Middle Kingdom, as expressed through the presence of the (destroyed) Great Ming Gate, or the Gate of China, that remained in the middle of Tian’anmen Square until 1954 when it was destroyed to make way for Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. In other words, ceremonially,there were few places like Tian’anmen Square to symbolise rule, stability and authority. The square was an Imperial propaganda showpiece, and every aspect of it served to foreground, exalt and highlight the rule of the emperor, tucked away the walls of the Gugong and therefore both symbolically and actually present on the square at all times.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhich brings us neatly to the theme of this blog, Mao’s celebration of a new China as visually expressed through the altered  iconography of Tian’anmen Square. So, from a square that played an integral part in the lavish ceremonial surrounding the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, with all its emphasis on colour, variety, and simultaneously an emphasis on seclusion and display, the very same square becomes cleared of its imperial buildings (literally!) and becomes accessible and open and visible to everybody. Mao removed the gates restricting access to Tian’anmen Square and opened the square to large numbers of onlookers. The square had been impressive under the Emperors, but with the demolition of the Gate of China, formerly occupying a central location in the old Imperial Square, the size of Tian’anmen Square enlarged dramatically to the point of now being able to accommodate close on 500,000 visitors. Where once the emperor’s Gate of China marked the political heart of the Middle Kingdom, the scale and message altered dramatically. Ultimately, the Gate of China was just yet another Gateway on the Imperial Way, and leading towards the Tian’anmen and Wumen Gates of the Forbidden City, thresholds that led eventually, for the very few, to the presence of the Emperor. Mao had different ideas, and at the heart of his vision of China now stands a Mausoleum that permanently preserves- and displays!- the remains of the Father of New China, Chairman Mao Zedong (and before you ask, no, I did not go to see that). Anybody can see Mao anytime (OK, depending on the Mausoleum’s Opening times and your ability to pay the (modest) entrance fee), so his perpetual visibility is in very start contrast to the inaccessibility of the Emperor. There is also an issue of scale: Mao’s China is big, no, correct this, to huge. Beijing, the old Northern Capital, has become the shiny, strident, confident and architecturally ambitious capital of a new World Power, and that requires scaling up from imperial conceptions of a city fit for the Son of Heaven.  Tian’anmen Square is not at all about a denial of China’s Imperial History, no, far from it. Tian’anmen Square is the canvas on which the vision of a progressive, modern, strident and confident China is painted, and that vision of the new is steeped in references to the old. So, if one looks towards Tian’anmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the gateway to the Forbidden City that lies beyond, that entrance is open and no longer ‘Forbidden’, and the gate, furthermore, acts as the backdrop to a truly monumental portrait of Mao, painstakingly touched up every year and kept in pristine condition. Where Imperial China was about exclusivity and secrecy, with the privileges reserved for the few, Mao’s New China is about openness and transparency, and democratic access to resources and spaces for all. THAT is the message of the square, and for that message to work, it needs to be visited together with its foil, the enchanting, the dazzling, the exclusive and bewitching Gugong which is all about what once made China great, but would have led it to ruin if Chairman Mao’s new vision had not opened it all up for everybody. Tian’anmen Square and the Gugong are statements about history and destiny, and what makes the square so fascinating of course is that history continues to be written on it. Mao deliberately turned Tian’anmen Square into a monument about the political destiny of China and the success of the Square in becoming this political symbol speaks for itself- even if just occasionally, the next few pages in its history seem to be written less through official sources and more by appropriation through a back channel. Surely this is what the events of 1989 have shown most clearly. So, lets keep an eye on Tian’anmen Square and see what happens next to this most historic and most symbolic of spaces.

Some bibliography:

Neil Taylor, Tiananmen Square,  History Today Volume: 57 Issue: 6 2007





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