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Tiananmen Square at Dawn

Home > Beijing > Places of Interest | Day Trips | Walks
by John Burns (subscribe)
I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published February 8th 2016
Cold, crisp and - surprisingly - clear

"One hundred RMB," he told me, his stretched vowels betraying a strong Beijing accent, "it's twenty kilometres."

"It isn't twenty kilometres, it's seven," I said to him, showing him on the map, before quickly discovering that my words were escaping into thin air, the taxi driver having turned and walked away in disgust. It was eleven PM, I was standing outside Dongzhimen Metro Station in Beijing as the temperature plummeted further and further below zero, and had just chased away what appeared to be my only means of getting to my hotel. So far, my return to the Chinese capital wasn't going so well.

I wondered why it had taken me so long to reach Tiananmen Square. I worked in Beijing for three incredibly busy weeks in the summer of 2013; three weeks in which, other than swift trips to the Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall at Mutianyu, I barely had time to do anything other than work and enjoy the occasional beer of an evening. Leaving the sweltering city on a southbound train one evening in late August, I was confident that it would only be a matter of weeks – rather than years – before I was back again. That was now two and half years ago.

I tracked the driver down again – yes, of course, 100 RMB is fine, practically a bargain. Now may I sit in your warm taxi for a while? – and within ten minutes I was gently thawing in my hotel room, waiting for my thumbs to start working once more so I could set my alarm ahead of the next day's dawn mission to Tiananmen.


Paradoxically, waking up in the middle of winter in northern China is substantially more pleasant than in the south, where short winters and sizzling temperatures for the rest of the year render central heating unheard of. As a result, I found myself up and out the door before dawn, standing in the street and gathering myself for the mile-or-so walk through the brisk morning to Tiananmen Square; a square which has been a focal point for so much of China's culture and history – both positive and negative – for centuries.

While Tiananmen Square as we now know it has been in existence for only six decades, the gate and plaza from which it takes its name are far older, dating back to the early 15th Century, when the Ming Emperors decided that they required a battlement that was both suitably secure and ostentatiously grand to guard their Imperial City.


And the gate we see today certainly is both of these things, capped as it is with breathtaking Chinese traditional architecture, and patrolled almost constantly by platoons of young, enthusiastic-looking soldiers. This dichotomy goes some way to summing up Tiananmen, not only as a structure, but also in terms of how it reflects China's position today. The square itself is a true meeting of the old and the not so old; a place where the ancient and the imperial come face to face with the forces of socialism and Marxism.

At one end, you have The Forbidden City, popularly known as Gu Gong or "former palace" in Mandarin, a towering symbol of all that is great in China's long and colourful history; while at the other you have the Tomb of Mao, founder of modern China and attempted destructor of its antiquity during the Cultural Revolution. Oh, and just west of here, you have a branch of the McDonald's burger chain. Imperialism, Communism and Capitalism sharing the same square mile.


Like a great many of the Soviet-inspired plazas of the Eastern Bloc countries or in East Asian communist states, there is something starkly beautiful about Tiananmen Square. What was planned back in the 1950s as a clean and untarnished vision of a New Order for China, has become another layer in the sediment of the Chinese character, a character that has been formed over millennia. Standing there – shivering slightly in the still sub-zero temperatures – as a startlingly clear sun begins to climb at my back and people emerge from the subway in increasing numbers, buttoning up their coats against the frozen sharpness of the air, it's difficult not to marvel at the sheer aesthetics of the place. I had heard that Beijing has a severe problem with smog; I do not know what happened to that smog on this particular morning.

My hands were beginning to freeze solid at this point, so I decided to call it a morning and head to one of the backstreet restaurants I had passed on my earlier traverse towards the square. Enjoying a steaming bowl of Zha Jiang Noodles is the only way to warm up in Beijing, in my opinion.
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Why? The heart of the capital at the best time of day
Where: Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Cost: Free for the Square Only
Your Comment
Beautifully written story. Thank you.
by Jenny Rossiter (score: 3|3726) 443 days ago
Lovely article and well deserving of the award!
by Rota (score: 2|672) 443 days ago
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