When I think of Tiananmen Square one image comes to mind.
A grainy image of a single man. Somewhat thin, no doubt trembling. In a white shirt, with longish hair standing alone in front of a military tank. Making a moment in history. I don’t recall the first time I saw that iconic image from 1989 but it was so powerful that it forever stuck in mind. And whenever I saw it again I knew exactly what it was. In fact for a long time it was probably my primary mental association with China.
So imagine my shock when I finally visited Tiananmen Square only to find out that in China that image never existed. That moment was surgically excised from the Chinese conscience. It simply doesn’t exist.
If you are in China and search the Internet you will not find reference to that day.
Instead Tiananmen square means something else entirely. It’s the literal heart of the People’s Republic of China, the site of the 1919 student protests against the foreign occupation which birthed Chinese communism. It’s the site where Mao Zedong led the establishment of a new republic in 1949. The square is a pivotal site in China’s history that extends way before 1989.
Its an enormous space. At 800 by 500 meters it’s the fourth largest public square in the world. So at any one time, you will be milling around with a few hundred other visitors and feel unhampered by the swell of humanity surrounding you.
The square sits between the Great Hall of the People, housing China’s parliament and the China National Museum. At the top of the square is Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. The roads leading up to the square are lined with graceful trees which are soon dwarfed by the stark grandness of the concrete plaza. Its interior is decorated with statues and memorials to China’s recent past with a huge portrait of Chairman Mao dominating its middle. He continues to proudly watching over the nation, and I dare say those in the Great Hall as well.
At the end of the square there is Tiananmen Gate, the entrance to the Forbidden City. The gate bequeathed its name to this now famous place – Tiananmen, which loosely translates as Gate of Heavenly Palace.
I never knew until I stood there how China’s famous Forbdden City, its home of decisions and transitions for centuries stood right there at the edge of that square. In essence giving birth to it. How poetic, that that site still was a place of decisions and transitions, though no longer by the emperors hand.
We do not know what his name was. Yet I left wondering if he knew how profoundly he affected the consciousness of people across the world, even if in his own country a generation grew up never knowing of his sacrifice, of who he was, what he did, and how he stood in Tiananmen Square.