I was looking forward to seeing Tiananmen Square and I was not disappointed. It is vast. Around 44 square hectares, or 109 acres, and it is busy, morning noon and night. I can clearly remember seeing news footage of tanks going into the square, facing down students protesting against corruption in the government back in the 1980s and I was fortunate enough to be told of one woman’s recollection of that historic event. I will call her Ellen to protect her identity.
Ellen told me her father was a professor and, when the 300,000 military were called in, he went to the square to find and protect his students. He was gone for two days and she remembers the worry on her mother’s face. Due to the social chaos Ellen (in 6thgrade) didn’t go to school for two weeks and happily played with her neighbours in the streets, oblivious to what was happening.
She was told the truth by her father years later of the bullets and the tanks going in. One lad was crushed in the crowd, the tank running over him resulting in him losing both feet. Where is he now? Dead? In the UK? In prison? No one knows and the sad fact is many young people today are unaware of the events, some believing what they see on social media to be make-believe.
I noticed, in this stunning city landscape, there is a very strong police presence and security measures are in place. There are no hawkers to be found, only official photographers and crowds of tourists.
The coach stopped by the oldest building near the square, which is now the Railway Museum, but was once a railway station, a Victorian building similar to many old railway stations in England. It is a light grey colour with white trim and white lettering.
The group I was with headed across the road, via the subway tunnel, beautifully decorated with bas-relief carvings of government buildings, then onto the phenomenally clean square, decorated with colourful hedgerows and leafy green trees. The pavement and urban features really do shine.
The first buildings I saw were huge pagoda like constructions, built on the corners of the square. They are glorious, red, green and yellow wooden and concrete structures, standing tall above the growing crowds. Many people had umbrellas as protection from the sun’s rays, whereas others, like myself, preferred a baseball cap.
Directly opposite the square, is the Chinese museum and then, turning clockwise is the building housing Chairman Mao, a highly impressive mausoleum, a little bigger than the government centre to its right. To the right of the government centre, opposite Chairman Mao’s tomb is the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Just in front of that entrance, on the square itself, stands a flagpole, guarded by four soldiers, all of uniform height: 6ft, all very good-looking. The flag is raised in a short ceremony in the morning, then taken down during another short ceremony at night.
In the centre of Tiananmen Square is a memorial to Fallen Heroes. It is a tall, stone obelisk, cordoned off and very closely guarded. No one can approach possibly because the bullet holes are still visible! Before the revolt visitors were allowed closer, but not today.
We were also warned to be wary of those who wanted to self-immolate. I double took and wasn’t surprised several in the group I was with didn’t understand what it meant. Seemingly a few people, in protest, have set fire to themselves and I hoped I wouldn’t witness such a horrific event – the smell alone would be sickening!
Fortunately the sun was shining and everyone was content taking photographs, admiring the lamp-posts which decorate and light the square, basking in the bustle, then enjoying the fountains which dance in front of the walls of the Forbidden City.
I was in awe of being in such a historic spot and wished to know more about life in China under Chairman Mao. Ellen quietly told me of an event which happened during the Cultural Revolution, when people were informing against one another regarding any form of dissidence against the leader whose portrait still graces the wall of the Forbidden City.
One man, forgetting to take toilet paper into the public toilets, used newspaper to clean himself after doing his business. Inadvertently the newspaper had a picture of Mao on it and the toilet cleaner informed on the man, who then spent 10 years in prison.
But Ellen says, things have moved on. Democracy is slowly coming in and a capitalist market is developing. No more government coupons and more opportunity for freer speech thanks to social media. (Although what one has to do to gain access to the internet is beyond me!)
The hour I spent in Tiananmen Square will remain with me for a considerable time, not because of its size and urban beauty, but because of the stories I was told and the film footage of lines of tanks clambering onto the flagstones to disperse young protestors, who were very real indeed.