Today, Tian’anmen Square is a proverbial Mecca for many Chinese. To this day it serves as a pilgrimage for those journeying to the political heart of the nation, with the embalmed body of Mao Zedong as an emotive relic of near godly status. The vast expanse of stone and statues is stringently monitored with uniformed and plain-clothed guards and closed circuit cameras, reminding visitors to refrain from religious or political demonstrations or any unseemly behavior. Despite the dour security, Tian’anmen Square gives off a certain humanism, where friendly travelers, families and lovers peacefully gather to kick up their feet. Strolling along the busy yet serene patchwork of stones, or finding a place to people-watch, can be as nice as a walk in the park.
Before You Go
Tian’anmen Square itself can be a very relaxing place to lounge and stretch a leg, despite the security and crowds. The plaza does not necessarily require a long visit or thorough prep, but visiting one or more of the surrounding museums or monuments can easily take a full day, so make an itinerary before you go. Bringing water or snacks is always a good idea, but be aware that bags are not allowed in the Mao Memorial Hall or the Great Hall of the People. There is a place to deposit your bags on-site, so bringing them can still be worthwhile if you expect a long day out. Finally, any meaningful visit will include plenty of walking, so you better make sure those boots were made for walkin’!
Info & Cautions
Security, scammers, and harassment from map touting salespeople can really bother some people. Our suggestion is to count these things as part of the experience, prepare yourself for them, and smile at the idea that your adventurous spirit can be nurtured as you learn to field such inevitable challenges in a positive way.
Security is tight around Tian’anmen Square, and though it can feel overbearing, it shouldn’t affect you if you don’t intend to make trouble. Bags may be checked and guards will be present, but you won’t find anything that you haven’t experienced at other high profile or politically sensitive areas in the world. It goes without saying that political or religious demonstrations are big no-no’s, so keep the controversy at home. Unseemly behavior will be promptly visited by Segway-mounted guards, and a visa may be revoked. Meandering guests and lounging visitors, though, can expect a hassle free day.
Scammers take their business to this huge tourist destination. Please see page 312 in the Hot Topics section for more information on scams and how to avoid them.
Map sellers troll Tian’anmen Square. Unless you actually want a map, they can be annoying. Snubbing can be effective for some of them, others may require a stern rebuff. Try your best to chuckle to yourself at their futile determination, and don’t let them detract from your enjoyment.
While the site of Tian’anmen Square has a history as old as the Ming Dynasty, the plaza itself is only about 70 years old. In fact, the Forbidden City was at one time even more mammoth and commanding than it is today, and its front entrance expanded assertively into the space that is now Tian’anmen Square. The Tian’anmen Gate of the Forbidden City, facing the square from across Dongchang’an Jie, was built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty, and it was the northernmost point of a massively jutting section of the Imperial City (Forbidden City) and was then known as the Thousand Foot Corridor (Qiānbù Láng 千步廊).
The center of modern Tian’anmen Square was graced by the Great Ming Gate (Dàmíng Mén 大明门), the southern gate to the Imperial City, which was fittingly renamed Great Qing Gate (Dàqīng Mén 大清门) by the successive Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and finally the Gate of China (Zhōnghuá Mén 中华门) during the short-lived Republic of China. The gate was unique in that it was purely a ceremonial gateway and was flanked by the now-lost Chang’an Left Gate and Chang’an Right Gate. Together, these three gates created a T shape that hugely extended the imperial grounds, with the left and right gates sitting slightly north from the ceremonial gatehouse. The Great Ming Gate sported three upturned arches, complimented by three watchtowers, and guarded by two stone lions. For an idea of what this magnificent gate would have looked like, make a journey to the Ming Tombs (pg 138), which have ceremonial gateways erected in a similar style. The gate was only opened when the emperor passed through, and to avoid unnecessary executions of the common “rabble” (who were immediately executed upon viewing of the emperor), commoners were warned of the imperial approach with a system of bells and drums.
In characteristic fashion of the time, the feudalistic Gate of China was demolished in 1949 to make room for a grand enlargement of the stoic Tian’anmen Square. November 1958 made way for a major expansion of the grand plaza, which was completed after only 11 months, in August 1959. This followed Mao Zedong’s vision of making the square the largest and most spectacular in the world and it was intended to hold over 500,000 people. In that process, a large number of old residential buildings and other historical structures were sadly demolished in order to cater to the square as a massive metaphor for the enormity of Mao’s Communist Party. In stark relief, the socialist modernist obelisk – the Monument to the People’s Heroes – stands at the center of the grand plaza. The peripheries are authoritatively marked by the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China, part of the sternly Stalinistic Ten Great Buildings that were constructed from 1958-59 to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Tian’anmen square is spread over a north-south axis, and is flanked by monolithic buildings that look like they fell out of the Iron Curtain. The Gate of Heavenly Peace (aka Tian’anmen Tower) marks the northern end of the square and sits across the main road. To the south lies the Front Gate (Qián Mén 前门), which can be ascended and provides a wonderful view of the square and the surrounding areas. The plaza’s north is fittingly framed by the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall ( Máozhǔxí Jì’niàntáng 毛主席纪念堂), which houses the embalmed remains of the late communist leader who conceived the idea of Tian’anmen Square.
The site has long been a place of feng shui design that pays homage to Chinese traditions of cosmic geometrical design, and Tian’anmen Square continues to evidence the same practices that governed the layout of the Forbidden City. As you move around the square, keep in mind that you are standing at the symbolic center of the Chinese universe.