Tiananmen Square


On either side of Tiananmen Gate stand two sculpted marble pillars known as Huabiao. These decorative wings represent "notice boards" (feibang zhi mu) - according to legend, they were a place where ordinary people could write their complaints against government injustices.

There is a venerable tradition in China of petitioning rulers; and an equally ancient tradition for rulers to punish those who dare petition them. Bi Gan, an argumentative minister of the Shang Dynasty (12th Century BC) so infuriated the tyrant Zhou, that Zhou, saying, "They tell me sages have seven holes in their hearts," ordered the minister's chest cut open so he could see for himself.

But appeals to the throne were not always so hazardous. From early days a drum was placed outside the court which could be beaten by petitioners who wanted the court's attention. The marble huabiao pillars on either side of Tiananmen were also a reminder to emperors to accept petitions with equanimity.

If Tiananmen Gate has traditionally been the place where the pronouncements of China's rulers have been read to their people, Tiananmen Square is where in the 20th Century the people made their voices heard to the rulers. Just outside Tiananmen Gate stand two huabiao, sculpted pillars. They derive from the practice of leaving a wooden board, the "wood of direct speech" ( feibang zhi mu ), outside the palace on which common people could write any complaints they had about the court. This wooden plaque was eventually fixed to decorative columns, but even after they became more ornamental than functional, the huabiao were still supposed to symbolize the people's right to speak up against official injustice. Reality was often quite different.

Walking past Tiananmen Gate as a child I would look up at the huabiao which reached up into the clouds. At the time, I thought only that they were pretty. I had no idea what they stood for. Now, after much reading, I understand. The huabiao are a debased symbol, tools for expression that have lost their function. They are the tears of China; the huabiao is China's cross.

Li Ao, a Taiwan-based historian, 1980

[From Geremie R. Barmé and Linda Jaivin, New Ghosts, Old Dreams (New York: Random House, 1992).]

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