The Legend of Tiananmen Square 

By Moina Arcee, May 31, 2014 Edited July 5 2018

Tiananmen Square

 June 4 2014 is the twenty fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event that in 1989 put a brutal end to the pro-democracy movement in Communist China.

It was not the last act of violence to occur in the great plaza. On January 23 2001 five individuals immolated themselves in Tiananmen Square in protest over the government’s suppression of Falun Gong, a sectarian Buddhist group. And on October 28 2013 a terrorist suicide car exploded in Tiananmen Square, killing five people and injuring thirty-eight. The Turkestan Islamic movement claimed responsibility for the act. It is remarkable that violence seems to be attracted to a location that, according to legend, is called “Heavenly Peace.”

There is a great stone gate at the northern end of the massive public square that separates it from the Imperial Forbidden City to the north. The gate is called “Tiananmen”, or “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” It was built in Beijing (also called Peking) China in 1651. The large public square next to the gate adopted the gate’s name. Over centuries the square grew in size, becoming for a time the largest public square in the world, capable of holding over 500,000 people.

The size of Tiananmen Square is proportional to the city it resides in. With its 21 million inhabitants, Beijing (“Northern Capital”) has been the political and cultural capital of China for the last eight centuries. Over the years an impressive collection of parks, gardens, temples, palaces, national monuments, memorials, art museums, and universities have developed which showcase the best in Chinese culture, art, and education. Encyclopædia Britannica says of Beijing that “few cities in the world have served for so long as the political headquarters and cultural centre of an area as immense as China.”

The twentieth century saw the end of dynastic rule in China. Tiananmen Square became a laboratory for new powers. The first experiment was the May Fourth Movement in 1919. The Square became a political rallying point for students dissatisfied with how China was treated in the Treaty of Versailles. The Chinese expected their cooperation with the Allied Powers would award them the Shandong peninsula. Instead, the European powers granted Shandong to the Japanese and the Chinese government meekly went along.


Thousands of nationalistic Chinese students rallied to Tiananmen Square to protest the failure of the Chinese government to protect Chinese interests. The protest included burning down the house of a politician thought to be a Japanese spy, and beating his servants. In turn the government arrested numbers of Chinese students and beat them, which solved nothing. The protest spread beyond Beijing to Shanghai, where workers and merchants went on strike. The strike expanded, with devastating consequences for China’s economy.

The press was used to pass the torch of Chinese nationalism. Realizing the people would not tolerate inaction, the government released the arrested students and forced the resignations of Chinese officials accused of favoring Japanese interests. Chinese representatives refused to sign the Versailles treaty. This did not prevent the passing of Shandong to the Japanese, but it proved the power of organized students, workers, and other social classes in China to successfully rock the boat.

The protests of 1919 put an end to Confucian ethics as it applied to politics and culture. China was proclaimed a republic but in fact rival warlords controlled the levers of power. In 1937 Japan assumed control of Beijing and maintained power until it lost to US forces in 1945. Then the forces of Chinese nationalism and communism squared off, with communism winning control of Beijing, forcing the nationalists (led by Chiang Kai-shek) to retreat to the island of Taiwan. Tiananmen Square was used to proclaim The People’s Republic of China by its new leader, Mao Zedong, also known as Mao Tse-tung, or simply Chairman Mao.

Chairman Mao

Mao was influenced by the nationalism and anti-imperialism of the May 4 Movement, but was primarily a convert to Leninist Marxism. He appeared at Tiananmen Square in 1949 to proclaim a new China. By the time Mao died in 1976, his brand of Communism (known as Maoism) left its imprint on China to the tune of 70 million dead, including over one million Tibetans. According to his personal doctor, Mao went twenty-five years without taking a bath, chain smoked cigarettes, drank heavily, and never brushed his teeth. He had ten children with four wives, and entertained an untold number of mistresses.

When not indulging his vices, Mao embarked on a cultural revolution that tried to obliterate Chinese culture and art as it had existed for all the centuries prior to Mao coming to power. A huge, beautiful mausoleum was built on Tiananmen Square to commemorate Mao’s rule. Construction of the mausoleum required the Square to be expanded once more, to its final size and rectangular shape. Today the Square can host 600,000 people.

Tiananmen Square hosts annual military displays to commemorate Mao’s 1949 proclamation that China was now The People’s Republic of China, and the military was the People’s Liberation Army. This name was an ongoing source of irony among the Chinese, particularly at another Tiananmen Square event in 1976.

Premier Zhoe Enlai

 Premier Zhoe Enlai, a prominent aide to Mao, died of cancer on January 8, 1976. He was a beloved political figure to the Chinese, and an estimated two million mourners left wreaths, flowers, and notes at the Monument to People’s Heroes at Tiananmen Square.

That evening a few thousand were in the square near the Monument. Troops surrounded the mourners, then attacked them with clubs. An estimated four thousand mourners were arrested. According to one report, sixty of the mourners were taken into the Great Hall of the People and beheaded, then cremated. That such atrocities were committed against ordinary law abiding Chinese citizens by the “People’s Liberation Army” in the “Great Hall of the People” illustrates the peculiar moral insanity communism inevitably devolves to.

Beating the mourners

 Chairman Mao seemed to allow Zhou Enlai to be discredited after his death, but motive is murky here, for Mao himself was dying. He had three heart attacks on 1976, and the third one, in September, killed him. The Gang of Four tried to take over after Mao’s death, but they were outdone by right wing reformers. It was a bloodless transfer of power; the blood came later, in 1989.

It happened in Tiananmen Square. The people had been enduring a relentlessly poor economy, and an equally relentless corruption in government. General Secretary Hu Yaobang was seen as a reformer, so when he suddenly died of a heart attack on April 15 the mourning was intense, particularly among students. Thousands gathered in the Square. The mourning became a demonstration to protest high inflation and corruption in government, and to call for reform.

The crowds grew. Now there were tens of thousands in the vast open square. Some students began pitching tents under large lampposts containing video cameras. There were hundreds of police in the Square. Some were uniformed, others were plainclothes policemen.


 Chinese leaders were not unsympathetic to the complaints of their countrymen. But as crowds grew some leaders became fearful. They began referring to the protesters as “counter-revolutionaries” – the ultimate stigma a communist government can bestow. Other leaders favored a more conciliatory approach. General Secretary Zhao Ziyang visited the Square on May 4 to acknowledge the protester’s complaints. The visit of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to China on May 15 accelerated events to the dramatic, and then the tragic.

More protesters

 The Square was flooded with people. Western media attention switched from coverage of Gorbachev’s visit to the estimated 1,000,000 Chinese in and around Tiananmen Square. Protesters used the worldwide media attention to announce hunger strikes. The huge crowd was not just students, but workers and people from all classes. Gorbachev left China on May 18. The leadership felt embarrassed and humiliated about the vast protest during Gorbachev’s visit, and the media attention given to the “counter-revolutionaries.” There was no more conciliation. On May 20 the government imposed martial law on Beijing. The protests continued in defiance of martial law.

The stage was set. Workers, students, the unemployed, everyone went to Tiananmen Square, gathering at the legendary “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” the historic site where change in China had happened so many times in the past. The people had pushed events to the brink. In the pre-dawn hours of June 4 the Chinese people received an answer.

The “People’s Army” entered Tiananmen Square and with no warning opened fire on the masses of unarmed protesters. Then tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled onto the Square, crushing anyone in their path. It was a slaughter.

Martial Law

The Chinese government initially claimed that no one was killed. The casualty toll was difficult to calculate because the government closed down the Square, and had helicopters airlifting large bags from the Square. They have continued to refuse to provide details of the Massacre to this day. Western reports range from 500 to 3,000 dead, with many more thousands injured. These of course, are estimates, and may be high just as the government estimates are low.

Clearing the Square

The other complicating factor is that the military suppression extended beyond Tiananmen Square to many other parts of Beijing. Throughout the city there were reports of government violence, and of protesters fighting back and killing or injuring government troops. Thousands were arrested, and of those a number were executed. How many? Perhaps even the government doesn’t know.

Bloodlust ran its own course: government troops attacked each other and vandalized businesses. Groups of protesters isolated soldiers and beat them to death. Others set military vehicles ablaze. Families of the victims attempted to enter the square and were mowed down by machine gun fire. They faded away, surged back and were murdered again.


It has been twenty-five years since the violence at Tian’ anmen, the legendary Gate of Heavenly Peace. Perhaps one day the legend will coincide with reality. Or perhaps there will always be that unfathomable gap between ideals and reality, between the “People’s Army” and an army that actually protects and defends its people instead of destroying them. Perhaps the allure of peace will continue to draw Chinese to the platform where their ideals may be heard. Or perhaps heavenly peace comes only after enduring the unendurable.

"Heavenly Peace"


The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Copyright © 1994-2008 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia® Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights

Rummel, R. J. China’s Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900Transaction Publishers, 1991. p. 205: In light of recent evidence, Rummel has increased Mao’s democide toll to 77 million;

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. PublicAffairs, 2009. p. 53: “… the Chinese communists’ murdering of a mind-boggling number of people, perhaps between 50 million and 70 million Chinese, and an additional 1.2 million Tibetans.”

 Li, Zhisui (1994). The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician. London: Random House.

 Gao, Mobo (2008). The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution. London: Pluto Press.

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