This post was last updated on April 24th, 2020 at 02:26 pm
Tiananmen Square is named after the Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace). It is located in Beijing and, together with the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and the Temple of Heaven, is one of the best-known attractions in or around Beijing. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao’s Mausoleum, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the Great Hall of the People can all be found here. The square is 800 meters (0.5 miles) long and 400 meters (0.25 miles) wide and can accommodate around a million people.
Outside of China, the square is best known as a theater of political uprisings in the last century.
Tiananmen Square gained international fame through the protests of 1989, a protest in which it is estimated that hundreds of people died. The precise number has never been known. When you visit Beijing, it is an absolute must to visit this extraordinary place! The square is open daily from the moment the flag is hoisted until the moment it is lowered again. However, the times do vary per month, so pay attention to this!
The Gate of Heavenly Peace
Mandarin Chinese: 天安门 / Tiān’ānmén
Tiananmen Square takes its name from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) on the north side. It is best known as the gate from which Mao and other Chinese leaders gave speeches to the people, where tanks pass by during military parades and where the large portrait of Mao hangs. Previously, the portraits of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, important Chinese leaders in the period between the fall of the empire and the seizure of power by the communists, have hung here in succession.
Incidentally, as many people suspect, the Gate of Heavenly Peace is not the gateway to the Forbidden City, which is about 500 meters behind it. The gate, on the other hand, is one of the six gates in the former city wall of the Imperial City, a part of Beijing with many temples, parks, and lakes, where the Forbidden City is located.
Like similar gates, the Gate of Heavenly Peace is particularly wide at 66 meters and not very high at 32 meters. In front of the gate is a part of the old city moat with seven marble bridges. There are two ten-meter high marble pillars, also called Huabiao, and two marble lions to protect against evil spirits. Originally the gate was made of wood, but after a fire in 1465, the Chinese used stone to rebuild the gate.
For several decades, the gate has also been open to the public and you can take a look from where Mao and the other Chinese leaders always gave their speeches.
For those who wonder what is written in large Chinese characters to the left and right of the gate: on the left, it says Long Live the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 万岁 / Zhōnghuárénmíngònghe wànsuì) and on the right, it says Long Live the Unity of the Peoples of the World (世界 人民大 团结 万岁 / Shìjiè rénmín dà tuánjié wànsuì).
Mandarin Chinese: 毛主席纪念堂 / Máo Zhǔxí Jìniàntáng
This is the mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the final resting place of the still revered communist dictator in China, since 1976. The Mausoleum is located in the middle of the square. Mao Zedong is in a crystal box in one of the halls. The mausoleum is divided into three halls. There is a good chance that you will visit Mao’s Mausoleum during your stay in Beijing. However, you will not be the only one visiting it; usually, there are huge queues of people waiting to enter.
Every Chinese person wants to have seen the coffin at least once in his/her life. And with 1.3 billion inhabitants there are a lot of people! Mao Mausoleum is open every day except Monday from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. It is closed on Mondays.
At the Mausoleum you will also find a large white tower. This is the Monument for the People’s Heroes. This tower is 37 meters high and dedicated to the soldiers who died during the Revolution. In the tower, you will find an inscription from Mao with; “Eternal fame to the People’s Heroes”.
It is not allowed to take bags or other hand luggage inside. However, you can leave them in lockers at the entrance, or, if you are in a group, it is possible to have someone wait with the bags at the exit at the back. You can get through the mausoleum in about fifteen minutes.
Great Hall of the People
Mandarin Chinese: 人民大会堂 / Rénmín Dàhuìtáng
Although it’s not part of Tiananmen Square itself, many people wonder what that large building on the west side of the square is. It is the Great Hall of the People, where the People’s Congress of China meets for a two-week period once a year to vote and meet. Other government tasks such as diplomatic talks usually also take place here.
It is one of the ten large buildings that were built in 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic. If the government isn’t using the building, it is also open to the public.
The Great Hall of the People is divided into different halls that are all beautifully designed! For example, there’s the State Banquet Hall and the Salute State Guest Hall. It is not the most famous building in Beijing, nor is it the one with the longest history, but it is definitely worth a look!
Monument to the People’s Heroes
Mandarin Chinese: 人民 英雄 纪念碑 / Rénmín Yīngxióng Jìniànbēi
Right in the center of Tiananmen Square, a 38-meter-high marble obelisk has been placed on a Buddhist platform for more than half a century. The monument was placed after the communist seizure of power to commemorate all Chinese victims since 1840. At the foot is a very large carved relief with eight images that symbolize events in which many Chinese people died or that humiliated China.
In chronological order, these are the First Opium War (1840), the Taiping Rebellion (1851), the Xinhai Revolution (1911), the May 4 Movement (1919), the May 30 Movement (1925), the Nanchang Rebellion (1927), World War II (1937-1945) and finally the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949).
Mandarin Chinese: 正阳门 / Zhèngyángmén
As on the north side, a gate can also be found on the south side of Tiananmen Square. This is Zhengyangmen, where Zhengyang means the Gate of the Zenith Sun (based on the lunar calendar used in China in the past). The gate is also simply known as the Front Gate (前门 / Qiánmén). Originally it was one of the gates of Beijing’s city wall.
In addition to the gate itself, which is in the square, there is also an archer tower (箭楼 / Jiànlóu) on the other side of the road, which in the past was part of a fortified outpost, also known as a barbican. Both towers are closed off to the public.
National Museum of China
Mandarin Chinese: 中国 国家 博物馆 / Zhōngguó Guójiā Bówùguan.
Opposite the Great Hall of the People is another, almost as large and imposing building, also built to honor the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Today it’s called the National Museum of China, a combination of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the National Museum of Chinese History which were located here before 2003.
After an extensive four-year renovation, it reopened to the public in early 2011. For anyone who loves museums and Chinese history, this museum is definitely worth a visit.
Beijing’s Old Train Station
Mandarin Chinese: 老 车站 / Lao Chēzhàn
Many people who visit Tiananmen Square always wonder what that white and blue building at the southern end of the square is, with that tower that doesn’t look very Chinese. Well, that is Beijing’s old train station, before they moved in 1959 to the larger and current location 3 kilometers to the east.
Known as Zhengyangmen East at the time, named after the gate across the street, the station was built in the early twentieth century (1906) and connected Beijing to Shenyang, the largest city in northeastern China. Today, it serves as a small shopping center.
Mandarin Chinese: 升旗仪式 / Shēngqí Yíshì
On the north side of the square, directly opposite the large portrait of Mao Zedong, the Chinese flag is raised every day at sunrise and lowered again at sunset. This is done by Chinese people who are dressed in a tight uniform and look very seriously. Every first sunrise of the month there is also a military orchestra. For many Chinese people, raising and lowering the flag has great emotional significance, which explains why so many people always watch it and sometimes even cry.
Chinese: 长安街 / Chángānjiē
Although it’s not really an attraction, Chang’an Avenue is worth mentioning. The ten lanes wide avenue is more or less the main street of Beijing and is the street where the tanks always rolled over during the military parades. The street was also a hotspot during the demonstrations in 1989. You have probably seen the famous picture of a man with a bag stopping tanks in their track (see the picture below!).
No advertising is allowed along Chang’an Boulevard and freight traffic may not use the road. Subway Line 1, Beijing’s oldest line, follows the street.
Tiananmen Square is open from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. Located in the middle of the square, Mao’s mausoleum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. On September 9th, the day of Mao’s death and on December 16th, his birthday, it is open from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. The Gate of Heavenly Peace at the north end is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Tiananmen Square and Mao’s mausoleum are free to visit. The Gate of Heavenly Peace is accessible for 15 Chinese Yuan (US$2.10). If you walk through the gate towards the Forbidden City, you can then buy the entry tickets on your left.
How to Get to Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is easy to reach. Every taxi driver will know how to get there, but since taxis are not allowed to stop at the square itself, it may be more convenient to take the metro. Take line 2 to Qianmen, choose exit A and you are immediately at the southern end of the square. On the north side it is best to take line 1 to Tiananmen East, walk towards exit A, but then keep walking, still under the street, to the square.
If you do not come by metro, you will also have to pass a security check before you go to the square.
History of Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square was first added to Beijing in 1651, at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). After the gate from which the square takes its name and the surrounding buildings were seriously damaged during the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, the new emperors built a square here.
At that time, the square was a lot smaller than it is today and it was located between the Gate of Heavenly Peace and the no-longer Gate of the Great Qing (大 清 门 / Dà Qīngmén). Unlike the other gates, this gate only had a ceremonial function.
Plenty of imposing palaces were built in Beijing after the Ming had taken over. In 1959, ten years after the seizure of power by the communists, Beijing was expanded even more. Some of the buildings created in 1959 can be seen around the square. The square was expanded to four times its original size. A large obelisk with a poem by Mao was placed in the center of the square.
The Gate of the Great Qing, which had briefly been called the Gate of China, as well as obstructed city walls, were demolished on the advice of urban planners from the Soviet Union. After Mao’s death in 1976, his mausoleum was built where this gate used to stand and the square was last extended to make a nice rectangle.
However, the square is best known as the battleground of important events of the twentieth century. In 1919, for example, there was the pro-democratic and nationalist 4-May Movement, a student uprising against the division of China by foreign powers and against the powerful Chinese elite unable to prevent it. Also in 1925, the students returned to demonstrate against foreign imperialism.
After the wars, first the Chinese communists against Chinese nationalists, then the Chinese against the Japanese during the Second World War, and then again the communists versus the nationalists, in 1949 on Tiananmen Square, leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the Communist People’s Republic of China.
During the communist period, massive military parades were held on Tiananmen Square. In addition, it also housed hundreds of thousands of Chinese students waving their red Mao books. Nevertheless, it also remained a popular place for uprisings, such as in 1976 after Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s death.
1989 Tiananmen Square Protests
Tiananmen Square gained international fame when on June 4, 1989, a student protest was suppressed forcefully, while the international press happened to be present for a visit by Gorbachev from the Soviet Union. An estimated one million students and citizens participated in the protest. It was a protest against the Communist Party of China.
After a period of rapid economic growth accompanied by widespread income disparities and corruption, the uprising began in honor of a recently deceased politician who, in addition to economic freedom, was also in favor of political freedom.
Students occupied the square throughout May. They had even put a replica of the Statue of Liberty there, which did not appeal to the Communist Party of China. On the night of 3 to 4 June, the protesters were knocked down with the help of tanks. The precise number of deaths has never been known, but estimates range from 400 to 2,600. Perhaps the best-known of the protests is the photo of the man standing in front of the tanks in protest (see picture below).
To this day, the Chinese government is making great efforts to limit the political freedoms of the Chinese people.