Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square


Jonathan Spence

From Children of the Dragon , Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990.
Reproduced with permission of the author.

The night of June 3 I gave my last speech at Beijing Normal University. Before more than 20,000 people I said: "Today, every Chinese faces a choice. Chinese history is about to turn a new page. Tiananmen Square is ours, the people's, and we will not allow butchers to tread on it. We will defend Tiananmen Square, defend the students in the square, and defend the future of China." We asked them to sing the "Anti-Japanese March" - our national anthem since 1949 - which includes the lines, "The Chinese people have reached their most critical moment. Everyone must join the final rally. Arise! Arise!"

-- Wuer Kaixi, 1989 student leader from Beijing Normal University

Tiananmen Square, where so many of the impassioned events of the spring of 1989 unfolded, is the most emotionally and historically charged urban space in China. Tiananmen Gate itself - The Gate of Heavenly Peace - is at once the entryway into the inner vastness of the Forbidden City as well as the exit from that imperial and bureaucratic world into the zones of public space and revolutionary memory. In the ninety-acre square in front of it stand the massive monument to China's revolutionary martyrs, also known as the Monument to the People's Heroes, and the mausoleum containing the embalmed remains of Mao Zedong. On either side of the square are the huge buildings that house the National People's Congress and the museums of revolutionary history. To the east and west run some of Beijing's busiest boulevards, with their government offices and big hotels; off these arteries lies a maze of narrow streets and alleys filled with the hubbub of stores and small restaurants. To create a rough parallel in modern American life, one might think of the Mall in Washington, D.C., bordered by the White House on one side, the Lincoln Memorial on another, and running approximately from the Washington Monument to the Capitol.

The original version of the Tiananmen was built in the 1420s when an emperor of the ruling Ming Dynasty, which controlled China from 1368 to 1644, moved the capital from Nanjing on the Yangzi River to Beijing. The city, built on the orders of the Ming emperors, was in two segments. The inner segment, housing the emperor himself and his many consorts and children and the main audience halls-what is now called the Forbidden City-was protected by a wall twenty-two feet high, thirty feet thick, and two and a quarter miles long. This inner palace complex was itself completely surrounded by a second palace and temple complex-the Imperial City-where the emperor's more distant relatives were housed and the offices of many administrative bureaus were located.

The Imperial City covered almost two square miles and was enclosed within a wall eighteen feet high and describing a six-and-a-half mile circumference. Outside the Imperial City were the residences of the bureaucrats and their families, and then the shopkeepers and citizens of Beijing. This whole area of close to twelve square miles was protected in turn by a third set of walls; these were sixty-two feet thick at the base and forty-one feet high. It was a colossal concept beautifully executed.

The Tiananmen Gate itself, the central southern entrance to the Imperial City, was on a geometrically precise axis that led north between the main ancestral temples to the Women, or Meridian Gate, that guarded the Forbidden City, and south to the outer line of defense. According to the cosmological and geomantic descriptions offered to the Ming emperor by a Chinese scholar involved in the planning, the Imperial and Forbidden City structure was a macrocosm of the human body. The Forbidden City represented the viscera and intestines, and points on the outer defensive perimeter walls the heads, shoulders, hands, and feet. In this scheme the Tiananmen represented the protective tissue around the heart, and the avenue that led to the gate was the lungs.

Under the Ming emperors and their Qing successors (who ruled China from 1644 to 1912), Tiananmen played a significant role in the rituals of royal governance. Edicts issued by the emperor within his Forbidden City audience chambers were carried on elaborate trays, protected by yellow umbrellas, through the Meridian Gate and down the long avenue between the ancestral altars to the platform above the main arches of Tiananmen. There, as the officials of the relevant ministries knelt by the little stream that runs under the five marble bridges to the south of Tiananmen, a court official declaimed the edicts aloud. The edicts were then ceremoniously lowered to the waiting officials beneath for copying and distribution around the country.

Under the Ming and Qing rulers there was no open Tiananmen Square as there is today. Instead, the space was composed of an unusual T-shaped walled courtyard on each side of which were clustered the neatly aligned rows of offices assigned to various ministries, military bureaus, and other government agencies.

The symbolism of Tiananmen Gate and its role in central rule could be seen in many other elements: from the mythical animals decorating the roof, whose task was to protect the inner palaces from fire, to the great ornamental stone pillars that stand in front of and behind the gate, each topped by a mythical animal in a swirl of clouds. These animals watched over the rulers' conduct-those to the north observing their deportment in the palace, those to the south observing how the rulers treated their people. In their early original form, according to chronicles, such pillars had been made of wood, and any Chinese who wished to could carve his criticisms of his ruler into the wood, and the ruler was duty-bound to read it.

Tiananmen and its front courtyard were thus initially symbolic, ritualistic, and bureaucratic spaces. They became a public space only at moments of grave national crisis. One such moment occurred in 1644, when Li Zicheng, a peasant rebel from Shaanxi Province, seized the city of Beijing. During the heavy fighting that ensued, Tiananmen was badly damaged, perhaps almost destroyed. The gateway that we see today, with its five archways and elaborate superstructure, is a reconstructed version that was completed in 1651.

The next important intruders into the Forbidden City were foreigners. British and French troops, who fought their way to Beijing in 1860 in order to force the Qing emperor to allow residence in Beijing to their diplomatic personnel, bivouacked near the gate and briefly considered burning the whole Forbidden City to the ground in retaliation for the murder of some of their negotiators by the Qing. Deciding to preserve the city, they marched to the northwest suburbs of Beijing instead and burned the emperor's exquisite summer palace complex.

Once the Qing emperor capitulated to their demands, the foreign powers established a "legation quarter" for their diplomatic staffs just to the southeast of Tiananmen, on an area of land stretching one mile from east to west, and about half a mile north to south. When the antiforeign and anti-Christian society known as the Boxers rebelled in 1900, it was in this area of the city that they besieged the foreigners for a tense seven weeks of heavy fighting; the siege, actively encouraged by the Qing's redoubtable Empress Dowager Cixi, was only lifted when a joint expeditionary force of foreign troops fought its way through to Beijing from the coast at Tianjin. There was heavy damage to the office complex south of Tiananmen, and several of the ministries were burned down. The Qing court fled the city for the northwest as the allied armies entered the city. This time the Western troops forced their way through Tiananmen into the Forbidden City, which was used for a time as the headquarters of the Western armies. The space in front of Tiananmen became an assembly area for foreign troops and their horses.

The Qing dynasty collapsed in 1912, fatally weakened by a series of provincial rebellions, and China became a republic, albeit a weak and troubled one. Sun Yat-sen, who had been fighting the Qing since the late 1890s in the hopes of establishing a constitutional republic, was named the provisional president in January 1912. He tried to establish Nanjing as China's new capital, as it had been in the early Ming, but he was outmaneuvered by the tough and politically astute former Qing general Yuan Shikai, who insisted that Beijing-where the bulk of troops loyal to Yuan were stationed-remain the capital. Yuan was so much more powerful militarily, that Sun agreed to have Yuan named provisional president in his place. Realizing the symbolic importance of Tiananmen as the focus of central power, Yuan ordered his troops massed in front of the gate and received them there in huge parades at the time of his inauguration.

The boy emperor Puyi - who had been forced to abdicate in early 1912 - was allowed to remain with his family, retainers, and eunuchs in the northern part of the Forbidden City, along with most of the Qing palace treasures. The area between Tiananmen and the first courtyards north of the Meridian Gate (Wumen) were, however, nationalized and became the seat for some government offices and museums.

The Tiananmen courtyard was featured in two other major public events at this time. One was the funeral of Yuan Shikai, who died in 1916 after being humiliatingly rebuffed by provincial generals and politicians when he tried to proclaim himself emperor instead of president. Despite this fiasco, the funeral was a grand event, a true public spectacle. The other was more bizarre, the attempt by a Manchu-loyalist general named Zhang Xun to restore the abdicated boy emperor Puyi-then aged eleven-to the throne. For a few days Zhang's troops occupied the square and the Forbidden City, and the old imperial dragon flags flew once again. But after Zhang's defeat by armies loyal to the republic, new restrictions were placed on Puyi, and he was expelled from the palace in 1924. The whole Forbidden City area was nationalized and turned into tourist sites, staff offices, and museums, and the courtyard became a true public square.

During this period the city of Beijing underwent great changes that altered the symbolic importance of Tiananmen Square. Slowly, the square became a natural forum for rallies and debates over national policy, in part because the area was becoming a political and educational hub. Not only was the new Department of Justice here on the west side, and the new Parliament just farther west beyond the department, but the area was also the site of a host of universities and colleges, now becoming, with the demise of the old imperial system, the focus for the career hopes of young, ambitious Chinese men and women. The three main campus units of Beijing University - those for literature, science, and law - were all just to the east of the Forbidden City, an easy walk to the square. More than a dozen other colleges were clustered near the square, mainly to its west, including several schools and colleges for women and the prestigious Qinghua College, where many students prepared their English language skills before going off to the United States to study.

The rally and demonstration that had the greatest impact on this whole period of Chinese history was that of May 4, 1919. On that day 3,000 student representatives from thirteen area universities and colleges gathered in the square to protest the disastrous terms of the Versailles Treaty, ill which the victorious allies granted several former German concessions in China to the Japanese, who had signed secret agreements with the Allies before joining their side in the war. The Chinese were outraged. They had also been on the side of the Allies and had sent more than 100,000 laborers to work the trenches, docks, and supply lines of the British and French forces. Now they were crudely rebuffed.

The protests begun on May 4 inaugurated a new phase of national consciousness in China and firmly fixed in the nation's mind the idea of the square as a political focal point. Small scale when compared to the 1989 demonstrations, May 4 nevertheless roused the nation's conscience, and the term "May 4 Movement" was adopted to describe the entire event as Chinese scholars, scientists, writers, and artists struggled to explore new ways of strengthening China and incorporating the twin forces of science and democracy into the life of their society and government. Linked in its turn to a study of the plight of China's workers and peasants, and to the theoretical and organizational arguments of Marxism-Leninism, the May 4 Movement had a direct bearing and influence on the growth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which convened its first congress in 1921.

If 1919 marked Tiananmen Square's inauguration as a fully public and antigovernmental space, the 1920s saw its true baptism of fire. These were terrible years in the history of the Chinese republic. The Beijing government was corrupt, ineffective, and the pawn of a succession of militarists. or warlords. Other warlords controlled sections of China, sometimes whole provinces, sometimes scattered cities or stretches of countryside. Foreign economic and political exploration of China continued unabated; Japanese assaults on China's territory grew ever more determined. Antiforeign outrage reached a new peak on May 30, 1925, in Shanghai, after British police killed forty or more Chinese demonstrators at a major rally. The inhabitants of Beijing responded with a vast sympathy rally of their own, and Tiananmen Square was the natural, chosen location to hold it.

A public rostrum in front of Tiananmen Gate was covered with the slogans of the day: "Abolish Unequal Treaties," "Boycott English and Japanese Products...... Down with the Great Powers." Paper banners with political slogans fluttered from the trees - the square was more like a public park than the sterile space it is today - and other slogans were scrawled in black ink or charcoal on the walls of adjacent buildings. Student pickets kept order, and police and army troops kept their distance.

But as demonstration followed demonstration that fall and winter, the patience of local authorities faded. At last, on March 18, 1926, the long-anticipated violence on the part of the authorities erupted. A fresh crowd of 6,000 or more, drawn mainly from students and labor groups, met at Tiananmen to protest the warlord government's spineless acceptance of new Japanese demands. After emotional speeches, the crowd moved off toward the cabinet office of the Beijing-based government. Regular troops opened fire on the crowd without attempting to disperse them first - at least fifty were killed, and 200 or more wounded. It was the first such massacre in China's history, but it would not be the last. "Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood," exclaimed China's best-known writer, Lu Xun, several of whose own students were among the dead. "Blood debts must be repaid in kind, the longer the delay, the greater the interest."

The importance of Tiananmen Square as a public space decreased for a while after 1928, for Chiang Kai-shek's troops and their allies nominally united the country that year and declared Nanjing the nation's capital. Beijing, now renamed Beiping, lost its central role, and as government bureaus relocated to Nanjing, student protests in Tiananmen lost much of their former significance, though Sun Yatsen's portrait now hung over the central arch of Tiananmen Gate. An exception was the demonstration held on December 9, 1935, when students and citizens met in the square to protest Chiang Kai-shek's continued appeasement of Japan. The city police, who had tried to prevent the demonstration by blocking the gates into the square, used violence against the students, turning the fire hoses on them, in the near-freezing weather. Though the impact was not as great as that of May 4, 1919, or March 18, 1926, the "December Niners," as they were swiftly dubbed by the public, did become a potent symbol to the country as a whole of anti-Japanese resistance.

Beijing lost many of its students after 1938, when Japan's full-scale invasion of China led to the retreat of Chiang's armies deep inland to the west. The Communists, for their part, now led by Mao Zedong, made their own base in Shaanxi and attracted many radical students. The Japanese, meanwhile, decorated Tiananmen Gate and Square with colored lights and used it to hold various pro-Japanese rallies and to review the troops of their puppet allies. In 1945, with Japan's defeat and the return of the students from the southwest, the square again became the focus for rallies. This time they were lead by radicals and were against Chiang Kai-shek, for the Communists and Nationalists were now locked in a civil war for control of the country.

Mao Zedong and the Communist party re-created Tiananmen as both a public and an official space. As the Communist victory became a reality in late September 1949, Mao convened a series of meetings in Beiping to consider the country's future course, though there was never any doubt that he intended the country to follow the orders of the Communists themselves. To underline this point, the front of Tiananmen was bedecked with two giant photographs, facing out across the square. One was of Mao Zedong himself; the other was of Mao's leading general, Zhu De, the builder of the Red Army and its finest leader during the long years of guerrilla fighting. On September 30, Mao led the delegates out into the walled square. At a spot 875 yards south of Tiananmen Gate, they broke ground for a Monument to the People's Heroes that was to arise on the central axis between the palace gates. And on October 1, 1949, before cheering crowds, Mao mounted the platform above the Tiananmen Gate in the city now renamed Beijing and declared the founding of the new People's Republic of China.

Tiananmen now became the Communist government's preeminent public space. As the parades grew more grandiose, the square began to take on its present form. In 1958 the remaining walls were torn down, along with the buildings sheltered behind them, and the square was extended to a space of over forty hectares (one hectare equals 2.47 acres), a size that would allow one million people at a time to assemble there. Two huge buildings were constructed, on opposite sides of the square, to house the National People's Congress and the museums of the revolution. That same year, the ornate monolith to the martyrs of China's century or more of revolutionary struggle, the new square's centerpiece, was completed. For May Day rallies and October 1 anniversaries, Mao and all the central Communist leadership would stand upon the Tiananmen Gate, gazing out over their people in the square, while another 10,000 or so officials and invited guests crowded the reviewing stands just below them, along the wall of the former Imperial City.

In 1966, as Mao launched the cataclysmic Cultural Revolution, first hundreds of thousands, and then as many as a million of the so-called Red Guards marched in serried ranks before him, cheering and waving the red book of his selected speeches, as they dedicated themselves to lives of "revolutionary purity" in his name. Fired up by such rallies, Red Guards fanned out across the city, and thence across the country, to root out any of those in power who had ties to the old order or could be accused of "bureaucratism" or lack of revolutionary zeal. Among those seized, dismissed, maltreated, and publicly humiliated was Deng Xiaoping. One can guess that in 1989, the din of the rallies of the Cultural Revolution reverberated in Deng's ears above the calls for democracy and the chanting of slogans and pop music from the student's loudspeakers in the square.

The colleges and universities were almost all moved to the outskirts of Beijing by the government in the first years of the People's Republic. The alleged reasons for these moves were practical ones, based on the need for space and facilities. But if the government wanted to preserve the square for itself, it certainly made the task easier by placing Beida, Qinghua, and the other prestigious schools in the far northwest of the city, a four-hour walk or one-hour-plus bike ride from the square, with no subway links and an erratic bus service, which required several changes.

Then slowly, almost indefinably, something began to erode the government's control of the public space of Tiananmen. The erosion began in 1976, after Premier Zhou Enlai's death, as thousands of demonstrators and mourners assembled on their own, without government approval, to voice their disillusionment with their leaders. Though the Government reclaimed the square to hold solemn rallies and funeral ceremonies for Mao, who died in late 1976, the people had relaid their claim to it. The square was further expanded to house an elaborate mausoleum for Mao to the south of the Revolutionary monument. While it seemed to be the intractable center of the government's power, the Mausoleum also became a beacon of opposition. In 1978 and 1979, groups gathered to hear discussions of new ideas concerning democracy and the arts, initially triggered by writings posted along the stretch of "Democracy Wall" on the edge of the Forbidden City. Then, in 1986 and 1987, the people gathered to show solidarity for their fellow students and others protesting the Party's refusal to allow valid elections or any other actions that would allow meaningful discussions of the nation's shaky course. In April 1989, they moved to Tiananmen again, to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, whom they believed had been sympathetic to ideas for change and reform. Tiananmen became the people's space in a way it had never been before.

Until June 4.

-Jonathan Spence

For more on the Square, see the Tiananmen Square tour page. Available topics include:

Tiananmen Gate and Square
The Portrait of Chairman Mao
The Huabiao
The Great Hall of the People
The Museum of History and the Revolution
The Monument of the People's Heroes
Mao's Mausoleum
The Flagpole
Official parades
Red Guards
Young Pioneers

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