Beijing Attractions: Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square 天安门广场
If Beijing is the centre of the Chinese universe, then Tiananmen Square (天安门广场 - Tiānānmen Guăngchăng) is its heart.
It was in 1949 here that Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People's Republic of China to an audience of one million adoring revolutionaries and it was here in Tiananmen Square that he lead the mass rallies of Cultural Revolution.
It was here in Tiananmen Square again, that another million people gathered to mourn the Great Helmsman's death in 1976.
The events of 1989 saw Tiananmen become a household name, but whilst the terrible events of those torrid times live on the minds of Beijingers, many Chinese see them as a blip on the road to further economic progress rather than a dent on their true aspirations.
The square itself may be nothing more than a vast field of concrete, but if you read up in advance about all the events in China's history that have happened here, then finally arriving will awe you into silence and make your hairs stand on end.
At over 400,000 sq meters in area, Tiananmen Square is easily the largest urban square in the world. During the late Qing dynasty the Boxer Rebellion caused widespread destruction in Beijing - the area was cleared and the square was born, though it did not achieve its current size until the Mao era.
To north of Tiananmen Square is the famous portrait of Mao Zedong, on the gate from which the square takes its name, the Gate of Heavenly Peace - Tiananmen. At the other end of the square is another gate, Qianmen, or the Front Gate, once the front gate of the Imperial City.
At the centre of Tiananmen Square is the Monument to People's Heroes, a vast granite obelisk which commemorates people who have died in the revolutionary cause. The panels depict various revolutionary events, the inscription on the North face reads 'Eternal Glory to People's Heroes' in Mao's handwriting.
South of the Monument is Mao's Mausoleum (Chairman Mao Memorial Hall), where the millions of visitors per year take the opportunity to file past the father of the nation's waxy corpse. Queues are long but move fairly quickly. There's a little display before you get to the museum where you can leave flowers if that's your thing, and at the exit, stalls selling all the Mao souvenirs you could ever want.
West of the Square is the Great Hall of the People, home to the Chinese legislature and the venue for official ceremonial activities and Communist Party Meetings. You can get inside when meetings are not in session.
To the East of Tiananmen Square is the National Museum of Chinese History. At the Northern end of the Square is the National Flag. There are flag raising ceremonies at sunset and sunrise, if you can get up in time then the sunrise one is a better bet because the crowds are smaller. When important foreign guests are in town, the visitors' national flag is flown along with the Chinese one.
Gate of Heavenly Peace, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China
Tiananmen Square is filled with the most extravagant montages, fountains, billboards and flower displays during national holidays, but most of the time it's just a place to hang around and watch life go by. Beijingers of all ages come to fly their kites, and old men sit by the walls of the Forbidden City comparing pet grasshoppers (a popular pastime) and discussing the events of the day.
You'll probably be approached by people offering to take your photograph for a fee, but don't confuse them with the students and visitors who just want to have their photograph taken with the funny foreigners. Other people will try to sell you postcards and Beijing 2008 caps (they started doing this before Beijing even won the bid), but they're usually quite nice about it since strictly speaking they're not allowed to sell on the square.
Tiananmen Square can be accessed from Tiananmen Xi, Tiananmen Dong or Qianmen subway stations.
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