Tiananmen Square is the largest open urban square in the world, covering an area of 44 hectares. It is surrounded by some of Beijing’s most important buildings, including the Forbidden City, the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People; and is located between two huge ancient gates, Tiananmen and Qianmen. First built in 1651, it was enlarged and paved over in 1958, giving it its current appearance. Completed in the same year, the Monument to the People’s Heroes is a 38m high stone obelisk on the south side of the square, which commemorates the people who lost their lives in the revolutions leading up to the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. The only other building to break the square’s huge flat space is Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, located in the centre. This building houses the embalmed body of Mao Zedong, which can be viewed by the public through a specially designed crystal coffin. Thousands of people come to pay their respects to the chairman each week, and it is a very popular destination for vistors from all over the world. The square is now used for major events, gatherings and parades, as well as daily flag raising and lowering ceremonies, which take place at dawn and dusk. If you are awake early enough, the dawn flag raising is particularly moving and patriotic, particularly on days when the big band is present to provide live music.
The History of Tiananmen Gate
Located on the northern egde of Tiananmen square, the Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) served as the main entrance of the Forbidden City (residence of the emperor) during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The gate that stands today is a striking piece of traditional architecture, but is not the first to have been built there. At the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1420s) a wooden gate was built on the present site, and covered in the yellow-glazed tiles which denoted imperial buildings. Destroyed and rebuilt a number of times throughout the Ming and into the Qing dynasty, it was made in its current form in 1651. Despite undergoing extensive renovation and reconstruction in the 1960s, the gate we see today has remained largely unchanged in style and decoration for 400 years. It is a typical example of early Qing gate architecture, with five arched gateways below a palace-like tower. The whole structure is over 33m high and is built of white marble and huge bricks, each weighing approximately 24 kilograms. The roof is tiled with the same regulation yellow-glazed tiles found on the roof of every imperial building, and ties it in with the architecture of the imperial residence it protects. There are also a number of traditional decorations like stone lions (said to protect from evil spirits) and imperial columns (hubiao) with carved dragon and phoenix motifs; as well as the more modern additions of a portrait of Mao Zedong and banners reading “Long live the People’s Republic of China” and “Long live the peoples of the world”.
Tiananmen was the site of a number of major traditional imperial ceremonies, including processions by which the emperor entered and exited the city. These were major undertaking involving thousands of people and many conventions had to be observed. Officials and soldiers lined the road, and the emperor, clad in his dragon robes, was carried in his grand sedan chair. Civil and military officials marched in front and behind with imperial banners flags and weapons, and presented a truly awe-inspiring spectacle.
In ancient times the imperial examinations were also a cause for great celebration, and took place three times each year. An ‘imperial dragon canopy’ was erected in Tiananmen Square, where successful scholars were invited to a great feast, and the best candidates awarded imperial honors in front of the emperor himself.
Trials also took place in the square, but were much more distressing events. The accused were lined up in front of the magistrate, and those who received the death penalty executed immediately.
Tiananmen was also used to broadcast imperial edicts and notifications of state celebrations, such as the enthronement of a new emperor or an imperial marriage. These were proclaimed from a special platform, and even the abdication of Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of China, was announced in this way.