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China's Eternal Parade Ground

In the West, Beijing's Tiananmen Square evokes the brutal repression of 1989. But to the Chinese, it is a vivid patriotic symbol--the only place to greet President Clinton properly.


BEIJING — As public spaces go, it's not a pretty sight: a vast plain of concrete bounded by a mishmash of architecture, including a mammoth Stalinist government building and a three-story Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.

But as symbols go, Tiananmen Square is one of the most recognizable on Earth, 100 acres spread out under the heavy-lidded gaze of Mao Tse-tung and featured in countless cutaway shots by filmmakers needing a quick and easy emblem of China.

For many in the West, Tiananmen Square has become synonymous with a single event: the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. So dominant is the square as a symbol of repression that critics are blasting President Clinton for agreeing to meet Chinese leaders there this week during the first visit by a U.S. president since the massacre.

But in China itself, that bloody event represents just one layer of meaning out of many covering the square--the world's largest public plaza. Along with the ancient Gate of Heavenly Peace that overlooks it and gives the plaza its name, Tiananmen Square has been part of the political landscape here for centuries. Ming Dynasty emperors ruled over it as part of the southern approach to the Forbidden City, and Mao basked in the adoration of Red Guards who packed the square by the millions.

Since Mao established the People's Republic in 1949, the square has hosted scores of foreign dignitaries, including former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon and George Bush. For Clinton to avoid Tiananmen during this week's summit would constitute an insult to national dignity in the eyes of some Chinese and a departure from standard procedure for the government.

"This has been the protocol of China for many years," Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan said Tuesday. "Not to hold a welcoming ceremony at [Tiananmen Square] in honor of President Clinton, such an important guest of state, would be abnormal and discourteous."

To many Chinese citizens, Tiananmen Square is this country's paramount symbol of state, enshrined in the official national emblem and pictured on every note of currency. The square has been witness to several defining moments in China's tumultuous history, including--but not limited to--the demonstrations nine years ago.

"Tiananmen Square is definitely the central symbol of China," said Yan Yufen, 46, a factory worker in the city of Taiyuan, about 250 miles southwest of Beijing. "The last time I was there watching the national flag being raised, I was so excited that I couldn't help bursting into tears."

Author David Bonavia, a former China correspondent for the Times of London, once wrote of Tiananmen Square: "The patriotic emotions stirred by that name are extraordinary. No city except Mecca or Moscow has a monument to match its magnetic hold on hundreds of millions of people."

Clinton will be officially received Saturday at the Great Hall of the People, the massive legislative and banqueting structure whose Stalinist bulk stretches along the square's western edge for a full quarter of a mile. (Nixon and Bush ate there.) Clinton's meetings with President Jiang Zemin will take place in the central government compound of Zhongnanhai, just a stone's throw away.

Birth During a Golden Age

But Tiananmen Square's association with political power in China extends back more than a millennium, to long before either the Great Hall or Zhongnanhai ever appeared on a draftsman's drawing board.

The first open space where the square now sprawls was cleared during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the golden age of ancient China. Although Beijing was not the capital then, the royal family kept a home here, and part of what is now Tiananmen Square served as a courtyard outside the home's main entrance.

After Kublai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, China's new Mongol emperors moved the capital to Beijing, where construction began in earnest, including on the first incarnation of Changan Avenue (Avenue of Eternal Peace), the broad east-west thoroughfare at the northern end of the square that until recently still bore the tread marks of tanks from the 1989 crackdown. During the Yuan Dynasty, the square began to assume its present shape, although that was but a fraction of the 160-football-field expanse it is now.

By the middle of the Ming Dynasty, more than a century later, the Tiananmen area had been built up--and had become closely identified with the seat of imperial power.

A 17th century map shows that the square, paved with stone slabs, was walled off as part of the Forbidden City, accessible only to the emperor and his court.

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