Question of Perspective
Question of Perspective
Nadine Godehardt

Faces of Tiananmen Square


It is the first time for many of them. I can see it in their faces. Most of them have not yet travelled so far and decided to visit the one place that beside the Great Wall every Chinese has to see at one point in his or her life: the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Every time I am in Beijing for longer than just a day, it is this Square that I feel drawn to. It is not only because one of the first things I learned in my Chinese class was that two soldiers can stand on every stone and in total one Million fit on Tiananmen Square or due to the history of the Tank Man and many others. It is rather the fascination of faces that I see and feel when I walk silently over this place.




You can see the flags of many Chinese travel agencies. Groups of Chinese men and women waiting until the photographer is ready to take their picture from all four cardinal directions, the Forbidden City (North), the Great Hall of the People (West), The National Museum (East) and the Mao Mausoleum (South). Nothing more to say and, for a second, they all seem happy. Most of these groups stand together, talk, chat, and are exciting but the main problem is that they are (officially) gathering on a public square which makes the patrols on the Tiananmen Square nervous – which is even sensible from a distant. Civil policemen are already circling around them, but since these travel groups are too big, the official patrol approaches them eventually and I can literally hear how they try to explain that they need to line up in rows of two since then their group does not count as an unofficial (and forbidden) meeting. This leads to irritations among the visitors and it takes a while for them to line up. However, some groups simply do not follow the demands of the patrol and remain a loose bulk of exciting people. The patrols then call for back up and they stay very close to the group of Chinese tourists (!) which mainly consists of elderly people; people that represent everything but a threat, people that even helped to build the China these patrols try to “defend”. But, clearly, you never know.

It is also the first time for some of the migrant workers (or other working nomads) that usually do not spend their free time on the Tiananmen Square although some of them already live in Beijing (or in fact at the very outer realms of Beijing) for many years. Sightseeing is nothing they can afford easily; they do not have the time or money to spend a day off at the city center. But after years some of them just decide to visit the Square. Their joy is in every moment visible, maybe not so much because of the beauty of Tiananmen is overwhelming but rather the fact that they are free of any worries for at least one afternoon. I can sense how they feel lost and enjoy themselves for a much too short second. I remember one of my Chinese teachers who has never been to the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square in the five years she already lived in Beijing and who always said, it is something she needs to do when she actually leaves the city for good again. I am not sure she ever did come here but when I am here, I also see her walking on the Square, very quiet and lost in her thoughts.  It is a nice image and I think she would smile.

I wander from one end to the other, passing by all the Chinese visitors, getting photographed and taking photographs, trying to guess who is a “real” visitor and who is a “real” civil agent. There are too many rumors and, unfortunately, too many fears. This Square has its own power and everyone who takes a deep breath feels it. The history, the now, and the future, it is hidden in the corners, the underpasses, on the stones and, most importantly, in the faces. These faces show much more “reality” than a visit of all sites surrounding the Tiananmen because no one has to pay any entrance fee. In this sense, it is still a public square despite the control and surveillance. Still, what you see is what you get. It is why I like the Tiananmen Square so much, because there are too many places elsewhere in China where you pay fees for a very non-Chinese experience. If you keep your eyes open here, you might see something real. So, take your time and breath!

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© Question of Perspective by Nadine Godehardt