Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City
City squares tend to be somewhat staid affairs centered around a bit of greenery. Not Tianenmen Square. At 440,000 square meters, Tianenmen Square stretches nearly as far as the eye can see; it doesn’t take much imagination to see why it is the largest city square in the world. On its most magnificent side lies Tian’an Gate, the famous maroon red entrance to the Forbidden City, above whose fortress-like doors hangs the iconic image of Mao Tsedong, the founder in 1949, of the Communist ‘New China’. Tian’An Gate faces yet another ancient gate, Qianmen, to the south.
The square’s western side houses the Great Hall of the People, which is where the Communist Party convenes twice a year to confer on all things political (it has just finished a two-week meeting as I write, with agenda notes concerning rising food and housing prices, and corruption at all levels of government), while on the east lies the National Museum of China. Both buildings are massive, Soviet-inspired blocks of architectural utility and grandeur. Unlike most city squares, Tianenmen Square boasts not a single bench nor tree, though it does have a large number of policemen in Mao overcoats who happily pose for photographs.
The quite beautiful, Art Deco-inspired lampposts are said to house some of the city’s highest number of CCTV cameras, while plainclothes policemen are said to patrol the square at all hours of the day. Huge flat-screen TVs show images of the square itself and of China’s diverse population, many of whom converge as tourists on the square to pay homage to and take photos of the government buildings (notably the 125-ft tall Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Diego Rivera-esque monument of Communist soldiers). The site of the June 4, 1989 protests – during which police killed an undisclosed number of anti-government protestors – Tianenmen is lit up in an oddly genteel way at night, fairy lights extending along its monstrously long parallel lines in a show, it seems, of looking towards the future.
Long queues start early to enter the Forbidden City, home of China’s emperors from 1420 until 1911. Built in 14 short years and extending nearly 180 acres, the Imperial Palace is almost twice the size of Tianenmen Square – which demonstrates, really, just how huge both are – and was constructed with the help of one million workers. Its scale and beauty are the yin to the palace’s yang: artisans hand-carved white marble for the emperor’s walkways while the construction workers fitted the entire palace together lego-style; not a single nail can be found in the whole place. The City houses 980 rooms and an incredible number of gardens, many of them named as oddly beautifully as “The Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance”, the “Hall of Mental Cultivation”, and the “Palace of Earthly Tranquility”.
Symbolism is rife in the Forbidden City: its yellow roofs represent the colour of the earth, the ‘holy’ aspect of the emperor. The roof’s statuettes also denote the importance of a building and begin with a man riding a phoenix and end with an imperial dragon for protection. The higher the number of statuettes (nine was the max), the more significant the building; the “Hall of Supreme Harmony”, however, has 10 – the building was considered so important it was beyond importance (the 10th statuette is a flying monkey).
For much of the City, its red walls are all that the eye can see; but as the feng shui of the City changes, and you start to climb up stairs to get to higher and higher courtyards, Beijing’s modern skyline comes into hazy view. China’s emperors never had the luxury of seeing the land they ruled, however, as it was illegal to build anything taller than the City itself. No wonder many of them filled their time with concubines: by the time the Qing Dynasty was dissolved in 1912, there were said to be some 20,000 concubines living amidst the royal palace, and it’s their living quarters – the silk brocade, the model battalions made of jade, the porcelain tea sets – that offer the most interesting look of all into this ancient way of life.