Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

What is the historical and religious significance of Tian An Men Square?

In June of 1989, media coverage of the so-called Tian An Men Square massacre—in which many (mostly young) pro-democracy protestors were killed by army forces— brought world prominence to one of China’s most important public spaces. The huge plaza stands directly south of the Forbidden City and is named after the City’s massive southern outer gate, the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian An Men, literally “Heaven Peace Gate”). In a matter of days the space had become a globally recognized symbol for a younger China’s struggle for democracy. But Tian An Men Square had been a powerful symbol for the Chinese people for some years before 1989. Early revolutionary publications spoke of the place as “the people’s guiding star,” the emblem of the new China.

Situated just south of the ancient seat of empire, the square was created as a clear revolutionary response to imperial repression. The open “people’s” square was an obvious counterpoint to the exclusivity and mystery of the Forbidden City. Its placement to the south of the palace also meant that the square overpowered the palace by virtue of its greater access to Yang energy—a symbolism surely not lost on countless traditional Chinese. Mao Zedong and his communist colleagues preferred to play off their new symbols of power against the old. They could have chosen simply to destroy the trappings of the decadent regime, but they might thereby have risked investing the former symbols with even greater power in the popular imagination. Better to reduce them to the status of mere museums.

In the square now stand Communist Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and the Museum of Chinese History and of the Chinese Revolution, contemporary replacements for the old imperial symbolism. Between them and to the south stands the mausoleum of Chairman Mao (d. 1976), but facing north rather than south as the imperial centers had done for over three thousand years. The goal of countless “pilgrims” today, Mao’s Memorial Hall functions as a quasi-religious monument, even in its rejection of China’s imperial religious tradition.


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