There is too much violence and extinguished hope associated with Tiananmen Square to visit it and not feel like you’re participating in the cleansing of history. The Tiananmen Square protests that broke out in 1989 – a Chinese version of the 1968 Prague Spring – happened in the year I started university. Television news, newspaper reports and photos of the vicious suppression of genuinely popular protests – and mainly of Chinese students – had a profound impact.
Walking through this vast and troubling place, the dystopian future of ‘doublethink’ and ‘doublespeak’ which George Orwell predicted in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, seemed only too real. This couldn’t be better illustrated than by the huge, monolithic Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Great Hall of the People. A monument to a man who shares responsibility for the deaths of millions; and a gigantic building where the ‘representatives’ of the people gather, but from which the ‘people’ are barred.
If you want evidence that under the right conditions ‘doublethink’ can survive into the internet age, Tiananmen Square is it. Thousands of people queued to gain entry to Mao’s Mausoleum; inside they solemnly file past one of the world’s most notorious mass murderers, performing acts of reverence wholly unfitting for a man of Mao’s despotic ‘achievements’. It is both bizarre and horrific, but there are millions in China who still worship Mao.
Tiananmen Square has seen numerous protests, most of which have been crushed violently. It is something of a Chinese tradition, regardless of the type of government. In Europe we remember the Treaty of Versailles as the moment the First World War officially ended. In China it brought protesters into Tiananmen Square.
Despite providing over one hundred-thousand labourers to the Allied war effort, the Chinese were humiliated when the Treaty of Versailles granted former German concessions in China to Japan – we all know how well that ended. This was the start of a series of 20th Century popular protests in Tiananmen, culminating in the massacre of 1989.
Tiananmen Square is a modern invention. Traditional Chinese town planning never incorporated squares where people and protestors might gather. In that sense it represented the vision of Imperial China as absolutely as it currently represents the vision of Communist China. It was once part of a great ceremonial route between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven to the south; a ceremonial gate stood where Mao’s Mausoleum now stands. The old Imperial buildings were torn down and today’s vast concrete desert appeared in their place.
The only surviving Imperial buildings are Tiananmen (North Gate), famous for its giant picture of Mao and as the official entrance to the Forbidden City, Zhenyangmen (South Gate), which you can climb up to get a panorama over the whole square, and Qianmen gate. Seen from up here the true size of the square hits you. Down on the ground the whole area is full of people happily snapping photos of each other. Most people were clearly enjoying themselves, but for me the square was a sterile place.
I walked through the square en route to the far more interesting Temple of Heaven. Although it is an obligatory spot to visit on anyone’s trip to Beijing, I felt underwhelmed by the experience. The scale is intentionally inhuman and Beijing is essentially a city of humanity. Plus the square is reputed to be awash with undercover police. Time to move on…