People Watching in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Who can forget the iconic image of the young man in 1989 defying the might of the Chinese army in the shape of a tank in Tiananmen Square? It’s a picture that was beamed around the world.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, with the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the background. (Ann Burnett)

So, of course, Tiananmen Square was one of our must-see sites in Beijing. Its name comes from the Tiananmen Gate (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) which separates the Square from the Forbidden City. The first square was built in 1651 but it’s been enlarged several times since, the latest in 1959. Tiananmen Square now covers 109 acres and is the third largest public square in the world. It can hold around half a million people at one time and has been the site of demonstrations, meetings and celebrations as well as political events.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You can’t come to China and not see it!
  • It’s a great place to get the flavor of the country.
  • Good for people watchers.

Buildings Around the Square

Around its periphery are some of Beijing’s most important buildings: the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, the National Museum of China dealing with the country’s history pre 1919, the Great Hall of the People, and the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

People Watching, Tiananmen Square (Ann Burnett)

But people come here to see and be seen. It’s for strolling around the limitless stretches of concrete interspersed with lavish almost Disney-esque floral decorations. It was quite crowded the day we visited, especially with Chinese tourists. “People in China now have the time and money to take holidays,” explained our guide, “and they want to come to Beijing to see the sights.”

Seeing and Being Seen

Crowds of these Chinese visitors marched around in groups, all wearing matching hats to enable them to stay together and not get separated from their group, a sensible idea, as we later met an Australian who’d managed to lose his group, never found them again and had to resort to taking a taxi back to his hotel. The headgear was quite distinctive; there were numerous baseball caps in a variety of colors and even a group wearing Burberry hats. They followed their guides who carried microphones which beamed their voices across the square and added to the general cacophony.

To my surprise, I found myself the centre of attention of one group. Not for them the grandeur of Mao’s tomb or the splendour of the monument, no, they were staring at me. One old gentleman in fact stepped out of line the better to gaze at me. “Some of the people from rural parts of China have rarely seen a Westerner,” our guide said as the old man was unceremoniously hauled back into line and marched off. But why were they staring at me and not at my husband as well? I eventually deduced that it must be my rather long nose that caught their collective eye. Pearl Buck, in her novel, The Good Earth, mentions the Chinese hero of the story commenting on the long noses of the Western businessmen he sees. And so with me. So we happily posed for photos for various groups while taking our own photos and no doubt, being photographed by the security cameras mounted on tall poles across the square. Apparently there are plain clothes police amongst the crowds though we only managed to spot a few soldiers in uniform.

Crowds in Tiananmen Square (Ann Burnett)

Events in the Square

Every morning at sunrise, the Red Flag is raised but you need to get there early to obtain a good viewing point as crowds come to watch the ceremony. The time varies according to the season so check the local paper for it or ask at your hotel reception. On windy days, Tianamen Square is a popular place to fly kites, which can reach such heights that they are almost indistinguishable among the clouds. On holidays, the square is filled with fresh flowers. To the outside world, Tiananmen Square may always be synonymous with the events of 1989, but to the Chinese, it is part of daily life — and so a place to start getting to know China and its people.


  • You can’t miss it. Most bus routes and subway lines 1 and 2 go there.
  • Wear comfortable shoes: There’s a lot of walking.
  • The Forbidden City is at the north end of the square; include it in your trip too.

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