Tiananmen Square

To foreigners, Tiananmen Square has one meaning. To the people of Beijing, it has many: the fall of an empire, the rise of a revolution, the pride of a country, and the event so painful that they still speak of it only in whispers.

In the fifteenth century, the emperor Yongle had ordered his city planners to design the northern capital for his kingdom. They borrowed the shape of the god Nezha, who was understood to have defeated the Dragon King who lorded over China’s northern plains. Where Nezha’s heart would have been, the city planners placed the emperor’s most sacred dominion, the Forbidden City, protected and encircled by walls that were fifty feet thick. To the east and west, at the tips of Nezha’s outstretched arms, they built enormous stone gates. And to symbolize his brain, they called for a glorious passageway, topped with a pavilion, to separate the outer world from the inner sanctum. They called it “the gate of heavenly peace”—Tiananmen.

But by the mid-nineteenth century, many of China’s progressive thinkers had concluded that the devotion to tradition was a weakness. China had lost its lead in science and commerce and failed to keep pace with the West and Japan.When Chairman Mao took power in 1949, he climbed to the top of the Tiananmen gate, on the square’s northern border, and announced the founding of the Communist state. In his high voice, with the heavy accent of his native Hunan, he declared, “The Chinese people have stood up!”

Tiananmen Square became a symbol of unique political potency, and the students who flooded it on that spring day in 1989 felt an electrifying sense of potential.The movement had begun on April 15, 1989, when Chinese newscasters reported the death of Hu Yaobang, a popular, open-minded former Communist Party leader who had been driven from power by hardliners. The news of his death inspired fond memorials among students and liberal intellectuals. After four days, students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, China’s top art school, brought a portrait of Hu to Tiananmen Square. The mourners delivered impassioned speeches, and around six P.M., one of them climbed a plinth in the center of the square and declared that on this day they must do more than commemorate the dead; this, he said, was an occasion to consider China’s future. It was a fitting location for the sentiment; Tiananmen Square had been conceived as the grand symbol of all that China aspired to become—and as a rebuke to the ancient civilization that had come before.

On May 20, the government declared martial law, but the protests grew. At its peak, more than a million people were in and around the square. They carried placards with sentiments from the world over; they put the words of Patrick Henry beside those of Lu Xun, the great modernist. They danced to the Beatles and sang the old Party hymn, “The Internationale.” Art students, straddling East and West, built a figure of a woman holding a torch with both hands, a cultural mash-up of the Statue of Liberty and Chinese revolutionary realism, and they called it the Goddess of Democracy. The Party, unnerved, reminded the public that the square was “the heart of the People’s Republic and focus of the world’s attention.”

On the night of June 3—as loudspeakers blared, “This is not the West; it is China”—soldiers and tanks began a deadly march across the capital, firing at protesters and onlookers. It was never clear how many were killed; in the years afterward, estimates ranged from several hundred to two thousand citywide. The Party had resolved to end the challenge to its rule, even if it meant deploying its army on its own people. As years passed, the Party never publicly questioned that decision—and it prevented others from doing so as well. The Party expunged the history of the Tiananmen Square movement from the Chinese Internet, and it forbade its teaching in school. To the world, the events of that spring were enshrined in the image of a lone young man in a white shirt, standing motionless before a column of tanks.

Year by year, Tiananmen is becoming, once again, a symbol of the Party. In the fall of 2009,Tiananmen became the stage for China’s latest depiction of the future. Every ten years, on October 1—the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic—the Party held a National Day parade along the northern edge of the square. Under Mao, the parades had celebrated industrial and political might, with great tides of workers and soldiers and students carrying banners with messages like “Down with American Imperialists and Their Running Dogs.” But now, on the sixtieth anniversary, it had a subtler message to project: an image of China as a place of order, perfection, and cohesion.

When I visited Beijing for the first time, at age 12,  the emptiness of the square was jarring. As the winner of the History Prize every year in middle school, I had devoured so much about the events of 1989 that to me, the history felt near and vivid. Before visiting, I’d imagined that the drama of that spring had been so historic, such a powerful mix of exuberance and hope, militarism and suffering, that at least a trace of its energy would remain. But there was nothing.It was a space so large and austere that nothing short of a vast occupying crowd could make it feel full. It was not a place for rest or reflection: After the crackdown in 1989, the Party had made sure of that. There were no benches or shade trees.The overwhelming impression was of blankness.



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Tiananmen Square is an infrastructure catalyst. As a space and an idea, Tiananmen Square had existed for five hundred years. For most of that time, it was a more modest expanse. When Mao peered down from the gate in 1949, he saw a space large enough for just seventy thousand people. But in the People’s Republic that he was creating, the public square, the guangchang, had acquired a sudden new power: Every city and village, regardless of size, needed a public square for the promotion of politics. It served as a stage for celebrations and announcements of the Party’s instructions and, when necessary, the revelation and punishment of the people’s enemies. Tiananmen became the grandest of them all, and the model for every nook and cranny of China to aspire to.

As the centre of China, Tiananmen is naturally located in the heart of Beijing. But it is by no means an inviting space. The square is meant to be the ultimate mark of governmental power and control – there is no room for individual entrepreneurs, public art, or even loitering – the hallmarks of vibrant public square communities.

In terms of creating an atmosphere, Tiananmen does the opposite of a public square’s goals. It is a monolith of communism and autocracy – the antithesis of democracy,free speech and political participation. This muzzling is evident in the way locals talk (or don’t) about it, the way official tourist pamphlets portray the square.

But the square stand at odds with the fast moving, liberalizing China of today. As a physical space, the right angles and formality and emptiness feels at odds with the throbbing, growing country


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