Tiān’ānmén Square

Flanked by stern 1950s Soviet-style buildings and ringed by white perimeter fences, the world’s largest public square (440,000 sq metres) is an immense flatland of paving stones at the heart of Běijīng.

Height restrictions have kept surrounding buildings low, allowing largely uninterrupted views of the dome of the sky. Kites flit through the air, children stamp around on the paving slabs and Chinese out-of-towners huddle together for the obligatory photo opportunity with the great helmsman’s portrait. On National Day (1 October), Tiān’ānmén Sq heaves with visitors.

In the square, one stands in the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe. The rectangular arrangement, flanked by halls to both east and west, to some extent echoes the layout of the Forbidden City: as such, the square employs a conventional plan that pays obeisance to traditional Chinese culture, but many of its ornaments and buildings are Soviet-inspired. Mao conceived the square to project the enormity of the Communist Party, so it’s all a bit Kim Il-Sungish. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chairman, wearing a Red Guard armband, reviewed parades of up to a million people here. In 1976 the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ is the term given to the near-riot in the square that accompanied the death of Premier Zhou Enlai. Another million people jammed the square to pay their last respects to Mao in the same year. In 1989 army tanks and soldiers forced prodemocracy demonstrators out of the plaza.

Despite being a public place, the square remains more in the hands of the government than the people; it is monitored by closed circuit TV cameras, and plain-clothes police can move faster than the Shànghǎi Maglev if anyone strips down to a Free Tibet T-shirt. The designated points of access, sporadic security checks and twitchy mood cleave Tiān’ānmén Sq from the city. A tangible atmosphere of restraint and authority reigns; in fact, some might say the square symbolises the ‘harmonious’ China of today.

All this – plus the absence of anywhere to sit – means the square is hardly a place to chill out (don’t whip out a guitar), but there’s more than enough space to stretch a leg and the view can be simply breathtaking, especially on a clear blue day and at nightfall when the square is illuminated.

If you get up early you can watch the flag-raising ceremony at sunrise, performed by a troop of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers drilled to march at precisely 108 paces per minute, 75cm per pace. The soldiers emerge through the Gate of Heavenly Peace to goosestep impeccably across Chang’an Jie; all traffic is halted. The same ceremony in reverse is performed at sunset. Ask at your hotel for flag-raising/lowering times; rise early, crowds can be intense.