Police exclude journalists on Tian’anmen Square


JUNE 4TH, 2009

Shiyun Fan and Yawen Gao


As the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 and the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party in power approaching, foreign journalists were excluded from Tiananmen Square by police because Chinese government’s strengthened control over dissenting voices. Reporting on the protests was forbidden for it might cause “social unrest”. Social networking sites, for example, Twitter and Flickr, were blocked, while some dissidents were under house arrest during that time period for the same reason.


Tiananmen Square: Figure or Ground?


The history of celebrating and protesting in Tiananmen Square can be traced back to the early 20th century. The May 4th Movement 1919 in Tiananmen Square represented a novel stage in the process of anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism, set the future tone of the square, which has a strong relationship with politics. During the past decades, series of political events took place; theTiananmen Protests is among one of the most serious and sensitive events which are declined to be talked about in public by the communist party.  Tiananmen Square as the world’s largest public square, has extensive open space for public events. In architecture, the term “figure-ground” is often used to describe the relationship between objects and field, private and public, enclosure and opening. To some extends, Tiananmen Square can be considered as “ground” which provides great potential for propaganda and communication, as well as politics. However, even the monumentality embedded in the idea of “ground architecture” provides opportunities for different groups in different aspects, the possibility for politics it provides varies from person to person.

Tiananmen Square’s monumentality is reflected in both political and architectural aspects. The political importance of Tiananmen Square was destined when it was first built. When Chinese Communist party established its power in China, it settled down to build new political space throughout the nation, as well as a neo-socialist system. In Beijing, the capital of People’s Republic of China, the reconstruction of Tiananmen Square became the priority, which included enlarging the square of the original palace, erecting a monument for people’s hero and establishing architectures with political symbolism. The square was designed as a political space. It’s the place to hold military parades, to stage the ceremony of the establishment of PRC and to enable the public marching. Tiananmen Gate was such a sacred spot where People’s Republic of China was established, where the founding ceremony of new China was held. Therefore, Tiananmen is the birthplace of new Chinese Communist Party, the witness of the new China, and the power center of the new government. In other words, the political center of neo-socialist China and the imperial palace of feudalist dynasties converged at Tiananmen Square, which stands for not only the legal status of the current government but the bright future of China under the leadership of China Communist Party.

Fig 1.1 Plan of Tiananmen Square at Qing Dynasty.
Shu jun, “The Historical Documentation of Tiananmen Square,” Central Committee of the CCP Party school Press, 1998

Architecturally, the way how Tiananmen Square was designed and constructed achieved its great physical monumentality and made it a grant landmark of Beijing, even China. Previously, the square was enclosed by a red wall for the use of an emperor. To extend it, Building and Construction Authority of Beijing removed three gates on both east and west sides, tear down the red wall lying across the central part. From 1950 to 1958, the government gradually demolished old buildings to enlarge the total area of Tiananmen Square. By 1958, the amount of dwellings to be demolished increased sharply to fulfil several large projects for celebrating the 10th anniversary of the national foundation: 4600 houses were destroyed within the original Tiananmen Square, 2610 houses were removed in the site of Great Hall of the People, and 3168 houses were dismantled for the History Museum of China. As the square was designed as the core of the city, the orientation of the main roads were determined accordingly, consequently the urban fabric grew around it. Due to the demolishment and enlargement, what we see today is the extensive open space lying in the center of the crowed and modernized city.

Fig 1.2 Residences demolished for the enlargement of Tiananmen Square
Beijing Planning Board, Beijing Urban Planning Authority, “Changan Street: Past, Present, and Future,” Beijing Machinery Industry Press, 2004
Fig 1.2 Plan of Tiananmen Square Reconstruction Project from 1958 to 1959
Shu jun, “The Historical Documentation of Tiananmen Square,” Central Committee of the CCP Party school Press, 1998

However, because Tiananmen Square is so wide open, we think the square per se could no more be considered as “object” but “ground”, the site of Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, and the National Museums. In Carol Burns’ article “On Site”, she claims there are two conceptions to consider the site in architectural design, clear site and constructed site. The architecture of clear site is to consider the site as unoccupied and void of architectural context, which means ignoring the pre-existing and taking the site as “blank”. Burn states that such clearing is precluding change, development, and all future planning in a single move. Once it is constructed, there is no necessity to modify, change or improve. According to Burns, Tiananmen Square is a clear site per se where you can hardly find the pre-existing buildings but masonry and concrete flat ground. The Communist Party claimed their power by knocking down the old and replacing them with masonry monument and great halls of significant political impacts. The party aimed to finalize the site by denying the history and ignoring the future improvements, which corresponding with their political philosophy: ideal and total control over the country. Therefore, Tiananmen Square contains great power of governmental control: it prevents any forms of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Furthermore, because of the giant scale of the flat open area, all changes or improvements seem to be powerless and impossible. Buildings of political importance, such as Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, The Great Hall of The People and the National Museum, were built around it. New urban fabrics were created around the square area further. Thus, when it shifts from a “figure” to “ground”, greater monumentality is provided. It’s the idea of clearing that makes the buildings standing out and monumental. Worldwide, many significant architecture of great monumentality consider sites as clear or they are “sites” per se. For instance, Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow, which has similar political monumentality as Tiananmen Square. It was built on a site where all buildings were burnt down before the construction. Union Square in Washington DC has the longitudinal plan, which is wide open as well. It’s a clear site per se, where locates historical buildings and Washington Monument. It’s where people protest, celebrate, and parade.

Based on what we have stated, the idea of taking the architecture or the building as clear site provides great monumentality. However, when it comes to whether it offers possibilities for politics, people have various opinions. Doreen Massey insists that space is separate from politics; only dislocation can provide possibilities for politics. In “Politics and Space/Time”, he claims, “Any attempt to represent the world ‘spatially’…is an attempt to ignore that dislocation.” On the other hand, orderliness, lacking of dislocation, is death of the history and freedom. Similarly, Burns insists that architecture of clear site prevents any forms of improvement and change, while “clearing” is one kind of orderliness. Both Massey and Burns suggest only chaos or disorder can provide possibilities for politics. However, it depends on people who are occupying the space. For instance, Tiananmen Square offers great opportunities of politics for the Communist Party. After enlarging Tiananmen Square, the party claimed its power over China in the Founding Ceremony of the PRC in October 1949. The square is the stage where China Communist Party began to engage in politics. Ceremonial events are means for the party to claim dominant position without exception. On the contrary, for ordinary people in China, the square did not offer politic possibilities, or at least not as much as the party’s; instead, it took their rights away. During the development and enlargement of Tiananmen Square, thousands of residential buildings were knocked down; thousands of people had to leave their houses and lands; some even became homeless. Nowadays, in Tiananmen Square, people were not allowed to protest and speak out dissenting voices; journalists are not allowed to report Tiananmen Protests in 1989; plainclothes are with you among the tourists in specific periods. The Communist Party claims the square is people’s square, but indeed, it’s the party’s square, politically. Therefore, it’s difficult to say whether Tiananmen Square provides possibilities for politics or not. It provides possibilities to different group of people in varying degrees.

In conclusion, Tiananmen Square’s “ground” property allows communicational, ceremonial and political events to take place; the possibilities for different groups of people are not equivalent. However, the inequality is more a result of social political system. Because the political system determines the form of the architecture. Socialist architecture usually prefers monumental forms, such as Tiananmen Square which is a product of socialism under Chinese Communist Party, so it becomes a large propaganda tool for socialism and communism.




Encyclopedia Entries

Scholarly Articles

Orthographic Documentation

  • http://www.kinabaloo.com/tiananmen_square.html : Site Plans and photos of Tiananmen Square, including locations of subway stations and main streets nearby. The location of Tiananmen is convenient to reach both by car and by subway. Mao’s Mausoleum and Great Hall of The People make the square politically sensitive.

Video and Audio

  • “June 4, 2009 Tiananmen Square 1,” Uploaded on Jun 8, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqHquyqfWmQ : On June 4, 2009, a journalist took this video in Tiananmen Square under the risk of arrest. Plainclothes policemen with umbrellas kept blocking his view by standing in front of him.
  • “BBC News – June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square Massacre,” Uploaded on Aug 17, 2006. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJBnHMpHGRY : A commentary from BBC of the event on June 4, 1989. The PRC fired at students who were protesting the Communist Party of China for democracy.
  • “I Love Peking’s Tiananmen – English Version,” Uploaded on Jun 14, 2011. http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/caFxJEN-548/ : English version of Chinese children’s song “I love Peking’s Tiananmen”. The lyric indicates Tiananmen Square as a monument or symbol of Mao.
  • “Beijing Travel Tips – Tiananmen Square,” Uploaded on Jul 16, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Pgy7UZCbWI : Travel Tips on Tiananmen Square. The video gives a better understanding of the scale and monumentality of the square.

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