Tiananmen Square Anniversaries

Ten years ago, I frequently traveling to China for work, and found myself in Beijing during the week of the twentieth anniversary of the protests and massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. As the thirtieth anniversary is upon us, it seems a good opportunity to look back at that experience.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is a YUGE space, mostly empty. It is bounded on the north by the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City. On one side is the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the Chinese government, on the other is another imposing government building that I’m pretty sure was the culture ministry. To the south, before several temples, is the imposing tomb of Mao Zedong.

In front of the Forbidden City
Chilling out in front of Palace of the Republic
Gearing up for Expo 2010

What was most notable was how ordinary things were, just a mixture of Beijingers and tourists wandering about like any other day. Indeed the most subversive thing I saw during that visit was my own photo with our mascot in front of Mao’s portrait.

Mao and “mao”

There was almost no mention of the anniversary in any media. The big story around town seemed to be the preparations for Expro 2010 in Shanghai. One English-language newspaper had an article about the “last of the 1989 hooligans” being released from prison, but that was about it. My colleagues, who are younger and would have been small children at the time, barely even knew about it except as rumors. One did check out a video via internet tunneling and was shocked to know that her country could have done something like that – but she did accept that it was true.

It’s hard to say if my experience of young Chinese encountering Tiananmen Square as we know it is at all representative, as my friends and colleagues tended to be more educated, cosmopolitan, and a bit jaded. Indeed, one young woman from the more conservative countryside whom I befriended in Suzhou on that same trip seemed to be less cynical and more toeing the party line about respect for authority (and reverence for Mao). I suspect things are even tighter and more controlled now, given the current Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping. Only time will tell how the country comes to reckon with this particular chapter of its past.

Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, Beijing

On the northwest corner of Beijing is the Summer Palace, or Yihe yuan (颐和园).

It is quite a contrast to the dense network of buildings and courtyards of Forbidden City, and is dominated by the “natural” elements of of Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill – “natural” is in quotes as the lake and hill are at least partly artificial. Along the hillside are a series of impressive buildings leading up to the Tower of Buddhist Incense. Other palaces and gardens ring the lake, with similar architectural and sculptural elements:

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In its present incarnation it is more of a park than a palace, with locals and tourists boating on the lake, or having picnics in the gardens and pavilions along the side. However, the main attraction remains the buildings of Longevity Hill. At the base, one enters a court and the Cloud-Dispensing Hall, and can look upward towards the tower up the hill.

From there, one climbs a series of covered and exposed stairways, navigating a series of buildings on the hillside:

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The courtyard of the Temple of Buddhist Virtue at the top of the stairs is relatively tight, and only offers extremely vertical views of the tower:

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One does, however, get a specular view of the lakeside and southeast towards the city center of Beijing.

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The Summer Palace has quite a history. It was destroyed during multiple invasions in the 19th Century and was rebuilt around 1900 in its current form.

Back in the city center is the Temple of Heaven.

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The most prominent building, the circular triple-gabled building depicted in the pictures above, is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Harvests seems to have been a major focus when the temple functioned as a location for ceremonies performed by the emperor. However, the most important structure, from a ceremonial point of view, was the Alter of Heaven, a tiered circular mound at the southern end of the complex:

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Unlike the more architecturally prominent buildings, which have gone through extensive maintenance and renovation, the mound seems to have gone to seed a bit, with lots of grass and weeds coming up the ground. For me, however, this actually makes for interesting photography, as I tend to like buildings that in a bit of disrepair.

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I found more buildings in various states off to the side of the main axis of the complex, such as this dry moat with weeds growing:

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This area of the complex was nearly empty, no tourists and very few locals, and walking around here among more quiet and less maintained buildings was quite comforting, especially after the intensity and the crowds of Beijing.

The Forbidden City

The first stop on my weekend trip to Beijing was the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial seat of power from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. It is really is a “city” rather than a palace. It is huge and contains hundreds of buildings, and in three hours I was only able to cover part of it. This article presents only a small sampling of what I saw.

The Forbidden City is surrounded by a moat and walls, with towers at the corners:

Inside the walls are a patchwork of courts and buildings, of which Hall of Supreme Harmony is the largest and most iconic:

The people in the crowd (which is relatively modest for China) should provide some sense of scale for the size of the buildings and the courtyard. At this scale, the architecture seems relatively streamlined and spare, but a closer look reveals intricate details in the buildings, as well as the networks of stairways and paths.

The above architectural details are more intense, in terms of color and complexity, than those I had seen previously in the other cities. Other imperial and religious buildings in Beijing share a similar style.

Views such as this may be recognizable to some readers who have seen documentaries, or films like The Last Emperor. Another image I did recall from seeing film many years ago was the imperial throne:

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It was actually a challenge to get a good look at the throne or other significant building interiors, much less attempt to photograph them, because of the ubiquitous crowds:

One could escape from the crowds for a bit by staying out in the middle of the courtyards, or venturing into the maze of side buildings. Wandering the side areas was quite interesting, around a narrow corridor one could easily find another whole court and buildings, “palaces within palaces”, such as Palace of Heavenly Purity with it’s golden lions in front:

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Tucked inside the warren of side courts were numerous gardens, similar to those I saw in Suzhou and Wuxi. Some were similarly small an intimate, and seemed like pleasant oases. There was also the imperial garden, which contained this rather large rockery topped by a pavilion (closed to the public), which like it could be at home in a Lord of the Rings movie as much as a Chinese imperial palace.

Scattered throughout the complex were numerous statues, such as the lions protecting palace, entrances and dragons, and other artifacts from the imperial courts:

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I would have liked to try out those bells.

At the southern entrance is Tiananmen Gate, which now bears the portrait of Chairman Mao:

I of course could not resist having Zip pose for a “Mao and mao” photo (one of a few I have taken during my trips to China).

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