China – Beijing – Tiananmen Square , Chairman Mao, Forbidden City & National Museum

– OCTOBER 24, 2015

Today we are walking through Tiananmen Square and the surrounding areas.  Of course, this place is famous as twenty-five years ago, Chinese troops violently retook the square in Beijing where pro-democracy protesters had set up camp for weeks.  The Tiananmen Square massacre left an unknown number dead, with some estimates in the thousands, and smothered a democratic movement.  But after a quarter-century—and a thorough attempt by the Chinese government to conceal the events that unfolded that June—the collective memory of the people is sometimes limited to not much more than an image of a man defiantly standing in front of a tank.

Tank Man

Image of “Tank Man” from 25 years ago borrowed from the NY Times website.

Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the centre of Beijing, named after the Tiananmen gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) located to its North, separating it from the Forbidden City. The square contains the monuments to the heroes of the revolution, the great hall of people, the National Museum of China, and the Chairman Mao Zedong Memorial Hall (with Mao’s embalmed body). Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic in the square on Oct. 1, 1949, an anniversary still observed there.  Tiananmen Square is within the top five largest city squares in the world (440,500 m2).  It has great cultural significance as it was the site of several important events in Chinese history.

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Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, is a famous monument in Beijing.  It is widely used as a national symbol.  First built during the Ming Dynasty in 1420, Tiananmen is often referred to as the front entrance to the Forbidden City.  However, the Meridian Gate is the first entrance to the Forbidden City proper, while Tiananmen was the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located.  Tiananmen is located to the north of Tiananmen Square, separated from the plaza by Chang’an Avenue.

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Tiananmen Square – Tiananmen Gate with portrait of Mao Zedong.

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Tiananmen Square – North Gate

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Tiananmen Square – North Gate

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Tiananmen Square – North Gate

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Tiananmen Square – North Gate

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Tiananmen Square – Monument to the People’s Heroes.

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Tiananmen Square – Monument to the People’s Heroes.

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Tiananmen Square – Chairman Mao Mausoleum.

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Tiananmen Square – Chairman Mao Mausoleum.

The Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, commonly known as the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, is the final resting place of Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China from 1943 and the Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1945 until his death in 1976.

Although Mao had wished to be cremated, his body was embalmed and construction of a mausoleum began shortly after his death.  This highly popular attraction is located in the middle of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.  It stands on the previous site of the Gate of China, the southern (main) gate of the Imperial City during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The remains of the Great Helmsman, as he is sometimes known, are on display for public viewing (though some claim this is a wax sculpture placed over the actual body).  It is free for admission, thus people line up for hundreds of meters every day to see the former chairman, many paying tribute to him with flowers that can be purchased at the entrance on the north side.  The security guards inside as plentiful and watch every person like a hawk to prevent pictures or videos from being taken.  They also hurry the people through so nobody can have a lingering moment to look.

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The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong – outdoor sculpture

In the wake of the Sino-Soviet split, the Soviet process of embalming had to be learned through people from Vietnam and a crystal coffin for displaying the body had to be locally developed.  An initial proposal was to use the crystal coffin the USSR had provided Sun Yat-sen after his death in 1925, though this proved unfeasible because the coffin’s length (5 ft 9 in) was not sufficient for Mao’s height (5 ft 11 in) and the nickle-plated sides would have necessitated having visitors look down on Mao’s body (which was deemed unacceptable by the authorities).  Projects to locally develop a crystal coffin were distributed under code names to enterprises all over China, including the 603rd factory, the 605th factory, the 608th factory (a noted maker of quality lenses, including those of Mao’s spectacles and magnifying glasses), and the Beijing General Glass Factory.

One of the vital materials in the production of crystal coffins, the quartz crystals used to make quartz glass, had to be obtained from the East China Sea because of the rarity of quartz in mainland China (and the lack of any quality crystals of necessary size in the world).  When the excavated quartz powder was processed, an issue arose from the fact that such large pieces of quartz glass would require three years of gradual cooling to remove any internal stress.  This issue was solved by a senior Chinese technician.

The issue of illuminating the coffin was dealt with in a simultaneous project.  Using a ten-year-old cadaver provided by Beijing Medical University, they were able to work out a harmonization of colors, angles, and intensity that gave the appearance of normal skin tone (instead of the original gray) and reduced visible wrinkles.  After evaluating numerous designs, a system of xenon lamps was chosen, which would be installed inside the coffin (hidden from visitors’ views) and use fiber optics to provide the same lighting, even if one of the lamps were extinguished.

Nearly two dozen crystal coffins from all over China were also there for the competition, the winning design was subjected to various environmental tests including for temperature, vibration, and an 8.0-magnitude earthquake.  They then knew which design would be Mao’s crystal coffin and final resting place.

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The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong – Chairman Mao in the crystal coffin.

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The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong – the visit from the Simpsons.

The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912.  It is located in the centre of Beijing, and now houses the Palace Museum.  It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years.

Built in 1406 to 1420, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers 180 acres.  The palace complex exemplifies traditional Chinese palatial architecture, and has influenced cultural and architectural developments in East Asia and elsewhere.  The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, and is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world.

Since 1925, the Forbidden City has been under the charge of the Palace Museum, whose extensive collection of artwork and artefacts were built upon the imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The design of the Forbidden City, from its overall layout to the smallest detail, was meticulously planned to reflect philosophical and religious principles, and above all to symbolise the majesty of Imperial power. Some noted examples of symbolic designs include:

  • Yellow is the color of the Emperor. Thus almost all roofs in the Forbidden City bear yellow glazed tiles. There are only two exceptions.  The library at the Pavilion of Literary Profundity had black tiles because black was associated with water, and thus fire-prevention.  Similarly, the Crown Prince’s residences have green tiles because green was associated with wood, and thus growth.
  • The main halls of the Outer and Inner courts are all arranged in groups of three – the shape of the Qian triagram, representing Heaven.  The residences of the Inner Court on the other hand are arranged in groups of six – the shape of the Kun triagram, representing the Earth.
  • The sloping ridges of building roofs are decorated with a line of statuettes led by a man riding a phoenix and followed by an imperial dragon. The number of statuettes represents the status of the building – a minor building might have 3 or 5.  The Hall of Supreme Harmony has 10, the only building in the country to be permitted this in Imperial times.  As a result, its 10th statuette, called a “Hangshi“, or “ranked tenth”, is also unique in the Forbidden City.
  • The layout of buildings follows ancient customs laid down in the Classic of Rites.  Thus, ancestral temples are in front of the palace.  Storage areas are placed in the front part of the palace complex, and residences in the back.
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Forbidden City

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The National Museum of China flanks the eastern side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing.  The museum’s mission is to educate about the arts and history of China.  It is directed by the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China.

The museum, covering Chinese history from the Yuanmou Man of 1.7 million years ago to the end of the Qing Dynasty (the last imperial dynasty), has a permanent collection of 1,050,000 items, with many precious and rare artifacts not to be found in museums anywhere else in China or the rest of the world.

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A busy day, but more to come!

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For more photos of our adventure go to our flickr account here.