If you Google Tiananmen Square in Australia, the first website is a Wikipedia entry about the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. An infamous period that captured the western world’s attention at the time. No doubt, the events in 1989 and other events in history have made this location famous. It has the home of many defining moments in Chinese history. Standing there myself, I felt there was so much to unpack and learn. It felt like I was walking through a significant part of Chinese history.
Historically, Tiananmen (in Mandarin it means the Gate of Heavenly Peace) is a gate in the wall of the Imperial City built in 1415 during the Ming dynasty. The gate saw heavy damage in the 17th century when fighting broke about between Li Zicheng’s rebel forces and the forces of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty. The square itself was designed and built in 1651, and was enlarged fourfold in the 1950s, during Mao’s reign.
While some of the photos I took show large empty spaces, I should say that it was particularly busy on the day I went. There were people in Communist/revolutionary outfits marching around, tourists and heaps of locals. The square itself if massive and I was able to capture some of the sights where there was less people. Interestingly, Mao Zedong in the 1950s had intended for the square to be able to host over 500,000 people.
I recommend visiting Tiananmen Square with a guide. (Our guide was a person who was part of our overall tour in China.) That way, they can explain the history of the gate and take you around to see the highlights. With a group of mostly Australian people, who are generally not afraid to voice their thoughts, I noticed my guide didn’t hold back with any questions and answers. Guides can be very informative and will take you to all the key places.
We walked through the gate and under the big Mao portrait to reach the Forbidden City on the other side. Inside is the Forbidden City, the former home of the Ming and Qing emperors. We were taught about the life of the people, including the life of the last Qing Emperor, Pu Yi, and the Empress Dowager Cixi (or Dragon Lady), who was the defacto ruler of China from 1961 until her death in 1908. It seemed like a very boring lifestyle for the people living here. Enclosed and isolated from the rest of the world. Pu Yi was just an infant when he assumed power. Can you imagine a grown man trying to get decree from a crying baby? His reign didn’t last long. The 1911 revolution (or Xīnhài Gémìng) overthrew him and established the Republic of China.
Pu Yi would remain the Forbidden City up until the 1920s until he was forcibly removed and told he was no longer Emperor of China. Pu Yi’s entire life is interesting and is well worth reading or watching. If you want to watch it, I know there is a famous movie titled The Last Emperor directed by Bernando Bertolucci and released in 1987 that chronicles his life. (I haven’t seen it myself.) EVen after being overthrown, Pu Yi would return as emperor of Manchuria (Northern China) during the Japanese occupation and would, following the end of World War 2, live a more humble and simple life as a peasant gardener.
Walking through the Forbidden City is riveting and fascinating. It’s treasures, it’s magnificence, it’s all very special. I found it interesting that the whole city is surrounded on all four sides by a moat. I guess it helps stops people from climbing up the walls. There are several gates and walls that separate each section. This city is pretty much a fortress for the emperor. There is an outer court and an inner court which had rules about who could enter, etc.
The architecture of the buildings and statues, like the gilded lions, are all fascinating and full of rich history. We walked through many of the quarters that were once reserved for the emperors/empresses. You can wander into the Empress Dowager’s garden and resting area and even places the Qing emperors would frequent or walk with his eunuchs.
Here is the location for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City: