When most westerners think of Tiananmen Square, they think of the violent confrontation between the Chinese government and thousands of protesters on June 4, 1989. But few know that Tiananmen literally translates to "Gate of Heavenly Peace," and as we made the rounds, I found out just how ironic that name is.
We exited the rectangular complex of the Forbidden City on the south side through Tiananmen, which opens into the square of the same name, a huge concrete mall lined with government buildings on all sides and dotted with monuments heralding the exploits of influential party members. The square is modeled after Moscow’s Red Square, and it’s interesting to see the Soviet architecture juxtaposed with the traditional Chinese buildings in the Forbidden City. Each style helps tell the story of 20th-century China, the gradual shift from the secluded rule of the emperors in the Forbidden City to the Communist rule established by Mao Ze Dong in 1949.
As I was researching Beijing, I thought my ideal itinerary in the Forbidden City would start by passing under Qianmen, the "front gate" south of the square, then traversing the square and entering through Tiananmen, beneath Mao’s giant portrait, which hangs above the center of three alcoves. But exiting here gave me a more chronological experience, bringing me from the Ming and Qing dynasties into the modern era, where Mao’s specter still lingers but seems to be fading as capitalism encroaches and the Party loses relevance.
There were murmurings, at least by our friends, that the government was considering taking Mao’s face down. If they did, I wondered what they would put in its place, or if they would replace him with anything at all. I thought a cross or a mural of an empty tomb would be nice to see there, looking over a place that has seen so much oppression in the past century. The government now acknowledges that Mao was wrong at least part of the time, but he’s still revered for uniting the republic under one banner.
Tiananmen was the place where about a million people came together to celebrate the Communist takeover of China and the installment of Mao in 1949, as the world was reeling from war. While there weren’t any protesters mowed down at this rally, this was where Mao, the self-proclaimed "Great Savior" of the people, started his rule and received the authority to begin reforms like the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. These campaigns spelled death for innumerable Chinese citizens who were casualties of negligence and government inefficiency or were simply killed because they didn’t agree with the ideals of the Party.
And as most westerners know, Tiananmen is also the site of the June 4, 1989 incident, where a peaceful protest was crushed when the Chinese army rolled in with tanks and guns blazing. According to our friends, the event is known in China as 6-4, and it evokes images and feelings similar to those Americans get when they hear "9-11." I don’t know how much the Chinese media actually leaked about the event, or if foreign news services were on hand to grasp the atrocities in all their grim detail. In China, the line between news and propaganda is blurred at best. But the government couldn’t keep it hush-hush, as I’m sure they knew when they ordered the attack. They took a risk, knowing they’d lose credibility in the eyes of the world, but certain that pesky supporters of democracy would fear the iron fist that had pounded the center of the square.
This brand of oppression has been the signature of the Chinese government since the People's Republic was founded, and one last tourist attraction perfectly represents the Party's desperation--and inability--to hold onto its original ideals as the country gravitates toward globalization and capitalism.
Scanning the Lonely Planet China book before our plane touched down in Beijing, I read something that shocked me: Chairman Mao's embalmed corpse is put on display in a glass vault/case for 2 hours a day, and pilgrims from all over China and the rest of the world can come pay their respects, or if they're like me, wonder why anyone would memorialize--or mummify--someone who had caused so much harm. The government schedules maintenance, taking care of the Mao's carcass much like they would any other historic relic.
Unfortunately, we didn't arrive during visiting hours. I wanted to be the only guy at my university to have thrown up on Mao's rotting remains. To put this exhibit into ghastly perspective, this year marks the 30th anniversary of Mao's death. And to think, when Jesus called Lazarus out, the people were afraid of his four-day stench!
As I said before, Mao promised to save the people from their ailments--physical, economical, and spiritual. But his body is still here, and although his ideas still linger, he's become more of a pop-culture icon than a shepherd to the massive flock that is the Chinese population.
In total darkness a meager candle is better than an absent sun. Where there is a dearth of the Gospel, false saviors can flourish. A struggling people desire someone to unify them and guide them through dark days. For the latter half of the 20th century, Mao was the man who stepped in and promised to do so. With him gone and his image fading, there is opportunity to infuse this culture with a new Savior, One who speaks to the needs of their hearts, and one who doesn't need to be preserved because the grave could not hold him.
He is the only "Gate of Heavenly Peace," and my vision is that one day this square will be used to announce the establishment of a new kingdom, one where hearts searching for a Great Savior can rest because they are fully assured that they have found the true one.