Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square
Across the more than 440,000 square metres (100 acres) of cement expanse and among the monumental edifices of Chinese socialist neuesattlichkeit, hundreds of tourists and city residents saunter; three-wheeled bicycle pedlars hawk their wares; anticipatory lines of spectators are seated around the northern core of the square for the start of the evening flag ceremony; friends jostle to have their photographs taken against the backdrop of Chairman Mao’s portrait; multicoloured dragon and fish kites extend upward above the yellow glazed tile double-eaves of the rostrum at the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen). This is where on 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic and on 18 August 1966 reviewed more than a million Red Guards, and, urging them on with chants of ‘zaofan youyi’ (to rebel is justified), launched the ten-year civil war against the Chinese Communist Party known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. It is the close of another day at Tiananmen guangchang, or more simply guangchang, ‘the Square’. This is Tiananmen Square today, once a strategically constructed public space designed for the celebration of the Party and its revolution, as well as the southern entrance to the former locus of the imperial cult of China’s ‘galactic polity’.
The gate itself (Tian’an) is a ubiquitous national symbol, its bright-gold image emblazoned on the red lapel pins worn by each of the Party’s 65 million members. The entire complex of gate and square is physically imposing. A cursory glance at any map reveals that it has long been the central frame of the Beijing urban landscape, a vast space at the foot of the Ming Imperial Palace (Gugong) that has been the site for mass rallies, parades, political campaigns and the popular anti-government protests (against an array of changing governments, all autocratic) of 4 May 1919 (May Fourth Movement); 10 June 1925 (Shameen Massacre Protest); 18 March 1926 (protest against the acceptance of Japanese imperialist demands by the northern warlord, Zhang Zuolin); 9 December 1935 (December Ninth Movement); 5 April 1976 (Tiananmen Incident); December 1978-March 1979 (Democracy Wall Movement); 1 January 1987 (Student Democracy Protests); and April through June of 1989 (Democracy Movement). The Tiananmen of tourists and petty capitalists is at the same time the seismic centre of the nation’s political geology, the history of which breathes popular protest as well as public acclaim for the legitimacy of the People’s Republic. However, following two decades of hypergrowth, politics has yielded to commerce; now the tourist guide is the reference tool for situating Tiananmen. According to any of the Baedekkers carried by the site’s 10,000 daily visitors, Tiananmen’s proximity to both the Imperial Palace—with its mazes of walls, gates and halls—and adjacent Beihai makes it the preferred site for beginning the adventitious exploration of the xiang and hutong (residential alleys and courtyards) of the great northern capital.
Tiananmen is an artifact of modern nationhood and bears the traces of each of the upheavals from which China was forged. Mao’s oft-quoted Cultural Revolution dictum, ‘without destruction there can be no construction’, is exemplified in every inch of the Square’s 14 hectares, carved out of the bricks and mortar of old imperial Beijing to create a modern democratic plaza that dwarfed the Red Square of China’s competitive international socialist ally. Successively built and rebuilt from the fifteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, Tiananmen was, until Mao’s colossal choreographed remaking of it, a gate and not a square; in fact, for most of its pre twentieth-century history, it was not even known as Tiananmen but as Chengtianmen (Conforming with Heaven Gate). Tiananmen remained, but the inner and outer walls of the original Imperial City (huangcheng) were the casualties of urban renewal.
Since the third Ming emperor Yongle (r. 1403–24) moved the imperial capital from Nanjing on the Yangtze River to Beijing, the ‘Gate of Heavenly Peace’ has marked the southern entrance to the dynastic family’s compound known as the Forbidden City (Zijincheng) and it has been a stage of diverse dramaturgy, the ritual pivot of the imperial kingdom. The gate mysteriously marked the outer limit of the Ming dynastic compound and beckoned family members, consorts, advisers and selected officials in through one of the four passageways to the Forbidden City on either side of the central gate. But for the last six decades the gate has opened out onto the massive parade ground and the broad Avenue of Eternal Peace (Chang’anjie) that were made by the voluntary labour of thousands in the early years of People’s Republic.
Revolutionary banners proclaim ‘Long Live the People’s Republic of China’ (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo wansui) and ‘Long Live the Great Unity of the Peoples of the World’ (Shijie renmin datuanjie wansui) to either side of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, through which one proceeds towards the Meridian Gate (Wumen) and the labyrinth of halls, gates and rooms of the Imperial Palace. The massive painted image of a vacant, implacable Mao has long hung above the Gate, at the north end of the Square, following a practice begun in the 1920s when an enlarged portrait of Sun Yat-sen was suspended from the same site. Given that in imperial times only the emperor himself could pass through this barrel-vaulted passage on his way to the Temple of Heaven at the southern reach of the old outer city, the hanging of revolutionary leaders’ portraits indicates the curious commingling of the authoritarian and popular significances of the Square, something also conveyed by the rhetorical axes of the two revolutionary banners. At Tiananmen Square these meanings are inextricably, if undecidably, linked, a product of the history of this iconic site and of the revolutionary redesign of the capital that followed from the founding of the Chinese nation.
The architecture of the Square has not been modified since 1977 when the Mao Zedong mausoleum was constructed just to the south of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, but an architectural plan for a new national construction project adjacent to the Great Hall of the People has been approved, if not yet implemented. The French architect Paul Andreu (designer of the Shanghai International Airport) forwarded a controversial proposal to build a National Grand Theatre on 120,000 square metres of land that will resemble ‘an otherworldly giant bubble made of titanium and glass’. If and when this postmodern monument is completed, its 2,500-seat opera house, 2,000-seat music hall, 1,200-seat theatre, 500-seat auditorium will dwarf the revolutionary monuments that have long punctuated the Square and broadcast the legacy of China’s reform generation.
Located virtually in the heart of central Beijing, at the base of a vertical axis linking heaven to earth, Tiananmen Square has long been the site for grand orchestrated revolutionary display. From its reviewing stand, thousands of Party luminaries have conferred favour on the drilled armies and the latest farming equipment and mobile weapons, regarded the numberless and often contradictory political banners, and received many an exalted state guest. It is the public architectural product of careful planning: a space self-consciously re-functioned so that the imperial presence of China’s last native dynasty serves as the stage for the revolutionary production of the people’s republic. After liberation, the city’s walls that shielded the inner compound from the aleatory effects of the winds of the four directions were removed, as were the symbolic gates of the cardinal points. Its architecture is ineluctably a strange hybrid of the demotic and the despotic with its wide, flat, cement parade ground and the imposing imperial roof tiles of the Forbidden City.
The conception of the Square since the revolution was horizontal, in contravention of the geomantic and theocratic principles of imperial architecture’s requisite verticality. For the founders of the People’s Republic the overweening impulse of the redesign was to defy the imperial conception by building out, not up—by constructing a counter-axis to the vertical north-south orientation of the Forbidden City. As if to violate the geomancy (see fengshui) of the cruciform ya-shaped construction of the imperial palace buildings, gardens and arteries explicitly attested to in pre-revolutionary maps of the city, the remade Square concentrates mass movement and visual attention within its vast space of horizontal flatness and obscures perception of the theologically inspired vertical architecture of the Imperial Palace. Indeed, as Rudolf Wagner has noted, Mao’s mausoleum furthered this subversive architectural realignment through its conscious confutation of the Square’s north/south symmetry: the memorial hall, like its symbolic ally the Monument to the People’s Heroes, faces north towards the Gate.
Today’s touristic and entrepreneurial square is a far cry from the heady days of peaceful democratic protest and celebration in 1989. Then, for more than six weeks as the world watched, Tiananmen Square obtained a revolutionary significance outside the reach of the Party-state. Millions—city-dwellers, peasants, students and workers—filled the Square and its adjoining arterial streets, yet were violently cast out by the despotic belch of tanks, trucks, jeeps and personnel carriers, leaving the ‘broad field’ empty of people but filled with shell casings, burning hulks, twisted wrecks of bicycles, and the scattered detritus of tents, make-do shelters, personal effects and the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ (Minzhu zhi shen).
In the minds of some, perhaps many, who drift along the avenues of today’s state-sponsored nostalgia, the Square remains synonymous with those days of joy and sorrow, but this Tiananmen is a memory or a murmur barely audible beneath the din of tour-guide patter breathlessly reciting the documented data of the size of the space, the years and hundreds of thousands of workers it required to construct it, the physical dimensions of the Great Hall of the People (Renmin dahuitang), the Museum of Chinese History and the Chinese Revolution (Zhongguo geming lishi bowuguan), the Mao Zedong (the Sq uare’s only permanent resident) Mausoleum (Mao zhuxi jiniantang), and the tons of Qingdao marble sculpted to form the 36-metre tall obelisk of the Monument to the People’s Heroes (Renmin yingxiong jinianbei), and the 9,600 rooms, pavilions, offices, that housed the families, servants and officials of the last two imperial dynasties, Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911).
Yet because the powerful pageantry of its past is embedded in its stone, the Square has a risky polysemousness that cannot be overcome by the escalating volume of commercial pulp produced in honour of its capacity to generate revenue for the nation’s most successful growth industry. Soldiers are always in evidence and agents of the Public Security Bureau are never far away, appearing suddenly when banners bearing the incendiary words ‘zhen-shan-ren’ (truth-goodness-forbearance) are unfurled or visitors begin to perform the first movements of the singular callisthenics of Falun gong, as has occurred periodically since the spiritual practice was deemed an ‘evil cult’ in the summer of 1999.
Today, the physical evidence of the massacre (most of which occurred offsite along Chang’an Avenue, just south of the gate and the parade grounds) has been expunged, the shell casings collected and bullets removed from their lodgings in the stone of monument and museum, and the space beckons numberless tourists scurrying towards the Forbidden City. It is a compelling, grandiose, apparently empty space peopled by tourists, guards, schoolchildren, but which for the 2008 Olympics will become the historically significant venue for beach volleyball. For the history that has been lived there, etched into its rough cement paving stones whose numberless blood-stains have long been scrubbed clean, and the myth that reaches far beyond it, Tiananmen frames the architecture of modern Chinese political life. For this alone the Square will always resonate with the triumph and tragedy of the nation’s struggle with itself as if the vertical and horizontal planes of its hybrid architectural history meet in an unstable fault that runs the full length of its 14 hectares.
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Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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