Standing in the middle of Tian'anmen Square (Tiān'ānmén Guǎngchǎng, 天安门广场), one is confronted with overwhelming representations of China's past and present powers-that-be, cast in an immense space that dramatizes China's modern history in spectacular fashion. Standing on ground where the Emperor's high officials once did business in classical courtyards and halls, one now finds the world's largest public square, with Mao's Mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People and the Monument to the People's Heroes defining a space that is both austere and grand—and saturated with history and its ironies.
The Forbidden City's outer entrance, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiān'ān Mén, 天安门), stands at the north end, with Mao Zedong's immense portrait fixed to a gate that once admitted only those closest to Emperor and his court. Today, Mao's image looks down on throngs of tourists armed with cameras; scant decades ago, the living Mao reviewed troop formations and assembled masses waving Little Red Books in fervent support of the Cultural Revolution from atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace—the same spot from which he declared the founding of the PRC in 1949. Of course Tian'nmen is also where, following the reforms that began to open China up to the outside world during the 1980s, tens of thousands of demonstrators called for further political reforms before being met in 1989 with the full (and deadly) force of state power—a historical moment that continues to define what is and isn't permitted in the People's Republic.
Despite the weight of history, on a sunny day the square can be a surprisingly light-hearted place, with kids flying kites, and Chinese families and Tian'anmen tour groups paying cheerful homage to Mao, the heroes of the Revolution and the China that they were so instrumental in creating. Crowds thicken toward dusk and dawn at the north end of the Square to witness the People's Liberation Army honor guard raising and retiring of the flag opposite the Gate of Heavenly Peace. At such moments, it's easy to imagine the humming energy of Beijing and, beyond, all of China surrounding this symbolic center. At night, the Square's often imposing feel softens, as the lights of the city cast a warm glow across Tian'nmen and individual couples stroll arm-in-arm, sharing intimate moments in this space made for the masses.
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