Tiananmen Square is one of the largest public squares in the world (though strictly speaking, it’s actually a rectangle, 800 metres x 500 metres). As the ‘front door’ to the Forbidden City, it has a historical, cultural and political significance that makes it a must-visit sight in Beijing. Besides its breathtaking space and beautiful floral displays, the square has major attractions such as the Tiananmen Tower, the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China.
The square as we recognise it today was expanded to four times its initial size and fully paved in 1958, nine years after Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China here, on October 1st 1949. It is said to be able to hold anywhere between 500,000 and a million people.
The imposing red gate tower from which the square takes its name is the entrance to the Forbidden City. Historically the tower was used for ceremonial declarations of the new emperor. You’ll see five archways, the largest of which was reserved exclusively for the emperor, while his family and his subordinates would come and go via the side gates, according to their rank. Since 1948 the gate has been adorned with a portrait of Mao Zedong, which now features in millions of ‘selfies’ every year!
To the west is the Great Hall of the People, and its name is not an exaggeration. It houses 300 meeting halls, a 10,000 seat auditorium and a 5,000 seat banquet hall, not to mention more than 50 reception rooms and conference lounges on many different levels.
The Great Hall was opened in 1959 as one of the Ten Great Buildings constructed under the vision of Chairman Mao. It is the venue for the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, held every five years, and for other political and diplomatic activities.
With nearly 200,000 square metres of exhibition space making it the third-largest in the world, the museum manages to accommodate 5,000 years of Chinese history very successfully. Its five floors take you on a journey through a civilisation, witnessing the artworks, implements and inventions that have shaped this nation and the world beyond, including ancient currency, scripts, bronzeware and extravagant imperial jewel collections.
Possibly Tiananmen Square’s biggest attraction is the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao. Opened in 1977, a year after the leader’s death, the grand hall is home to statues, writings and paintings commemorating Mao. But what really draws the crowds is his embalmed and preserved body lying in a crystal coffin, past which snakes an endless stream of people paying their respects.
Other highlights of a trip to Tiananmen Square include the flag raising and lowering ceremonies at sunrise and sunset, as well as the changing of the guard at specific times throughout.
Chinese tourists from around the country descend on Tiananmen Square to take their photos in front of Mao’s portrait. Some are from distant rural areas and may rarely have seen non-Asian faces in their hometown, so be prepared that some of them may take photos of you without asking, or ask you to take photos with them. Nevertheless, people are generally very friendly and respectful.