Seeing Tiananmen Square, the “Rectangle of Change”

Beijing Travel Report Tiananmen Monument to the Heroes of the People

At the very center of Tiananmen Square - the inspiring monument to the heroes of the people

Tiananmen Square is one of the top sights that everyone sees in Beijing.  And it is a BIG sight to see.  At 109 acres, the square is the third largest public square in the world.  After its last expansion, at the death of Chairman Mao, it became large enough to hold 600,000 people. That is BIG IMMENSE SUPER-DUPER KING KONG SIZED

This large open square, with massive buildings around the edges and monuments in it, is the epicenter of governmental change in China.  I cannot write a post long enough to cover all the history of Tiananmen Square and its pivotal points in Chinese history.

Rectangle?  Isn’t it a “Square”?

If you are wondering why I said “rectangle”, here is the reason.  Technically, there is today an open plaza “square” bordered on the south by the Monument to the Heroes of the People and on the north by Chang’an Street.

I, though, consider all of the plaza and monuments from Qianmen Gate in the south to Chang’an Street in the north to be the overall Tiananmen Square.  When the world refers to Tiananmen Square, it is inclusive of all that.  Any tour to Tiananmen Square will normally include at least an outside walk around all the monuments contained in this rectangular area.

Here is a quick overview of what I learned in my brief time there.

A Much Smaller Tiananmen Square in the Past

Beijing Travel Report Old vs New Tiananmen Square Google Map

Blue is Old Tiananmen Square, Red is New Tiananmen Square - Click image to go to the actual Google Map.

Tiananmen Square wasn’t always this large.  With its initial creation during the rebuilding of Beijing by the Ming Dynasty in 1415, it was quite a bit smaller.  Most of the sides, where the large boulevards are today, were occupied by government ministries and academies.

The actual square itself began on the south side with a ceremonial gate called the “Great Ming Gate”.  The Qing Dynasty changed the name to the “Great Qing Gate”, and the Republic called it the “Gate of China”.  You may see the Chinese form of the final name: “Zhonghuamen Gate”.

Despite the change in names and ruling governments over time, it really was the Gate of the Nation.  This gate remained closed most of the time, only opening for the passage of the Emperor.  The northern end of the square was the Tiananmen Gate, entrance to the Forbidden City.

The Gate of China itself was the start of the inner Imperial City.  The area walled in from this south gate to the northern Tiananmen Gate was restricted from common Chinese.  Here, the Imperial Officials from different departments would have offices for administration of official business.  The Tiananmen Gate on the north end lead into the Forbidden City, the inner sanctum of the Emperor.

This area between the two gates was also known as the “Thousand Foot Corrider”.  It was supposed to take one thousand steps to walk from the Gate of China to the stone bridge just in front of the Tiananmen Gate.  (Maybe I will test this on my next visit.  :D)

Over the centuries, several monumental events relating to governmental changes happened in and around the square.  Despite these upheavals, Tiananmen Square pretty much remained this shape and size from its creation in 1415 until the early 1950s.

That, however, was not to last.

The Communists, They are A’Changing

With Chairman Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic of China in the square in 1949, Tiananmen Square was to see vast changes.   The gate itself was demolished in the early 1950s, and the square widened in several stages.

With the Communist Party’s desire to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 1959, several major buildings of the Ten Large Buildings Project were built on the sides of the repeatedly widened square.

This once restricted area would become a public gathering place four times its original size. It truly became a monument itself to the liberation of the people.

What You Will See in Tiananmen Square Today?

You may think that you will just see an empty concrete pad, but you would be quite wrong.  So much of the historical and current life of China is attached to this square.  Following are the highlights of what you will see.

Beijing Travel Report Mao Mausoleum from South

Looking at Mao's Mausoleum from the Qianmen Tower

#1. The Final Resting Place of Mao
Today, you will find the southern end of Tiananmen occupied by Mao’s Mausoleum.

This is a massive building, dedicated to the leader of the Communist armies that succeeded in taking control of China after World War II.

Chairman Mao is entombed inside for public display.  The lines to get in can be quite long though.

Go to expanded post on Mao’s Mausoleum->

Beijing Travel Report Tiananmen Monument to the Heroes of the People

To the Heroes of the People

#2. Monument to the Fallen Heroes
Prominently standing just north of the mausoleum is the Monument to the Heroes of the People.

It is dedicated to the heroes of the 19th and 20th centuries that struggled to free the Chinese people from both foreign and Imperial oppression.

Go to the expanded post on Monument to the Heroes of the People->

#3. Signage of the Times
In a stroke of modern flair, you will find 2 enormous electronic signs just north  of the monument.

These examples of China’s modern tech are one on either side, both facing their displays north.  In keeping with the gigantic game plan, the active display area of these signs is approx. 150 ft long and 15 feet high.

Beijing Travel Report Tiananmen Electronic Billboards

Electronic billboards extolling the virtues of China

You will see moving images and video of the beauty and virtues of modern China.  Sort of a modern day “feel good about China” propaganda display.

#4. The Actual “Square” Square
The very large square plaza, bordered on the south by the electronic billboards and on the north by Chang’an Street, is actually “square”.  It is an actual open space for gathering for national processions and events.

#5.  Great Hall of the People on the West Flank
Several prominent buildings were built around the edges of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing Travel Report Great Hall of the People

The Great Hall of the People - where the Chinese "Congress" meets

On the west side, you will find the Bank of China and the Great Hall of the People.  That is China’s closest thing to the American Congress.  This is where all the representatives of the people meet one a year.

The Standing Committee also maintains its offices in the south wing of the Great Hall.  The committee is sort of a hybrid of a US President’s Cabinet and a company’s board of directors.

Go to an expanded post on The Great Hall of the People->

#6.  National Museum on the East Flank

Beijing Travel Report National Museum Front

The BIG museum in Beijing, the National Museum

On the east side, the National Museum of China stands ready to educate Chinese citizens and  tourists alike.  This building is a combination and expansion of 2 former museums that formerly co-exisited on the same site.  Recently remodeled, you will find an endless list of treasures there to discover.

This is where you go to find out both the history of the Communist Revolution, and the history of Chinese civilization.  The civilization section covers from early history all the way through to the end of Imperial China.

Go to an expanded post on The National Museum of China->

Tiananmen Changing of the Guard - Flagpole

Oooohhhh... Ceremony - Changing of the Guard happens at the flagpole on the north end

#7. The Changing of the Guard
The last important location, at the northern edge of the actual square centered from east to west, is the national flag pole. 

This is the location for  the “changing of the guard” ceremony for China.  Just like at Buckingham Palace or the Greek Guard in Athens, this is attended with great ceremony. 

The Chinese people will gather in droves to witness this event that happens at dawn and sunset.  As I did not witness this on my last trip, I will leave you with a link to this account by John M. Glionna and Lily Kuo.

A Special Note about Police, Guards, Security, and Photos

I would always caution you to not take any close-up pictures of Chinese guards, police, military, and security officers.  While I don’t know of any certain rule concerning this, it should be obvious.  Don’t poke the dragon.  Especially you, Anthony!  (He is a friend of mine who tests everything.)

There are ceremonial guards at the flagpole all the time.  I should not have to say this, but I know how stupid ignorant unaware some tourists are.   DO NOT wave your hands in front of their face to try to make them blink.  These are not your Buckingham Palace type of guards.  You might get away with that in London.  I don’t think you will get away with it here.

Do not approach them unless you have a specific need for their services.  And I don’t mean posing for pictures!

While they can help you in an official capacity, they are there to maintain order, not to be the object of your photo shoot.

Tiananmen is an especially touchy area for them, so don’t press your luck.

Folks, thanks for reading my overview of the history of the square and its layout today.  Due to the importance of the major buildings and monuments in and around the square, I have created separate pages for each of those. Check out the links to the expanded posts listed in the sections above to learn more.

Hopefully you now will not just hurry through the “rectangle” in your rush to get to the Forbidden City.  It deserves its own unhurried look.

I do hope that you have enjoyed this look at the “rectangle of change”.  Today, it is a rectangle of remembrance, national power, and history.  Make sure you see it.

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