China – How I proved a bigger attraction than Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square is the third largest city square in the world.
Its 440,000 square metres is home to a huge image of Mao Zedong, China’s great Communist founding father.
The picture itself is six meters (20 feet) high and 4.6 meters (15 feet) wide. It weighs up to 1.5 tons.
Size is important in Beijing’s central square.
But for a people so used to ‘big’, the residents of Beijing aren’t so used to tall.
At five foot ten, I’m above average height for a woman in the UK. To the Chinese, I was like a giant.
And they stared at me as if Gulliver himself was marching through their Lilliputian city.
Onlookers paused in their visit to this ancient area – The Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City was built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty – to pose for pictures alongside this rather confused westerner.
My guide told me that if I’d have had long blonde hair and blue eyes the experience would’ve been even worse, though this was hard to imagine as more and more hands stretched out to grab me.
Away from my new found fame, Tiananmen Square was awash with Communist red splashed across its buildings, while Mao looked down from his place on the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Incredibly, his massive portrait is re-painted every year by reclusive Chinese painter Ge Xiaoguang – who has done that job since 1977.
Mao himself, or at least his embalmed body, can be found in the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, his final resting place.
Although Mao had wished to be cremated, his body was embalmed and construction of the mausoleum began shortly after his death.
It remains a hugely popular attraction, with people lining up for hundred of meters every day to see the former leader.
This incredible pilgrimage was not for me though; the thought of queuing to see a dead body didn’t appeal.
Mao’s wasn’t the only picture in the square during my visit in May.
A huge image of Sun Yat-sen, known as the Father of the Nation and the first president of the Republic of China, was also on display.
Sun played an instrumental role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, and was eventually made president of the Provisional Republic of China, when it was founded in 1912.
The square itself is named after the Tiananmen Gate – or Gate of Heavenly Peace – which is located to its north and separates it from the Forbidden City.
In modern times it is perhaps best known for the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when a student-led demonstration was suppressed by the military with thousands dying.
But its history goes back to the construction of the gate in 1415, although the square itself wasn’t built until 1651.
When Beijing was invaded by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War, they considered burning down the gate and the entire Forbidden City.
It survived that threat, and in November 1958 Mao oversaw a major expansion programme with the intent of making it the largest and most spectacular in the world.
Size, history, huge historical figures… but for one day in May, Tiananmen Square and all its attractions were overshadowed by this western traveller.