Tian’anmen – More than just a square

By Edmund Smith-Asante, BEIJING

Chairman Mao Zedong's picture overlooks the Tian'anmen Square from the north. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
Chairman Mao Zedong’s picture overlooks the Tian’anmen Square from the north. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE 

All that I knew about the famed Tian’anmen Square in China was a story about a student protest that had gone awry some years ago. But that square had etched a certain impression on my mind.


According to that story, after the Beijing government had tolerated a student protest and occupation of its iconic central square for seven weeks in 1989, some troops were eventually sent in to clear the square, which resulted in not so pleasant circumstances, and with some of the students allegedly losing their lives in the melee that followed.

The Chinese government has however, since the reported incident refuted that there was a massacre of the students as reported by some media and described the reports as mere

Standing in front of the Great Hall of the People.
Standing in front of the Great Hall of the People.

I had the privilege of walking on the square on my way to attend China’s annual Two Sessions – the Fifth Session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the Fifth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC).

The experience was made possible by the China Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA) and the China Africa Press Centre (CAPC) which are hosting a group of African journalists in a media exchange programme.


The Tian’anmen Square, which can be compared with Ghana’s Independence Square, lies at the cross-section in the central point of Beijing, and embraces three other world-acclaimed places.

These are the Great Hall of the People where the Two Sessions were held, the biggest palace museum in the world known better as the Forbidden City and the National Museum of China (NMC) – a very huge and imposing edifice. It is no wonder, therefore, that everyday thousands of people are seen queuing at one site or the other.

When it was first built in 1417, the Beijing city square was called the Chengtian Gate. According to Chinese history, the square was twice destroyed in the Ming Dynasty – once by lightening and once by war.

In 1651, during the 8th year of Emperor Shunzhi’s reign in the Qing Dynasty however, the Emperor who was known as Fulin in private life had it rebuilt on a large scale and its name changed to Tiananmen.

Tian’anmen, which was the venue for important ceremonies during the Ming and Qing dynasties, such as the coronation of emperors or the conferring of the title of empress is still used for important events in modern China.

The Tian’anmen Square measured about 110,000 square meters formerly as a courtyard in front of the main gate to the Forbidden City.

However, since the fall of the feudal system, and especially since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, it has been renovated and expanded many times and now has a length of 880 meters and a breadth of 500 meters, measuring 440,000 square meters.

To its east is the National Museum; to its west, the Great Hall of the People and in the south between the Monument to the People’s Heroes in the center of Tian’anmen Square and Zhengyangmen Gate on the southern edge of the Square is Chairman Mao’s Memorial Hall.

The mausoleum is the final resting place of Chairman Mao Zedong where his body was embalmed and put on display after his death. On the northern side of the square is the palace museum also known as the Forbidden City.

National Museum

The Tian'anmen Square and the frontage of the National Museum. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
The Tian’anmen Square and the  frontage of the National Museum. PICTURE BY EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE

The National Museum of China (NMC) is only seen as another very imposing building until one enters to see its beautiful interior and comes face to face with the over 100 years of history represented by over one million collections from all over the world after its founding in 2003.

The largest museum in the world covering 192,000 sq metres and towering 42.5 metres with five floors above ground and two floors underground, was constructed from 2007 to 2010 and reopened to the public in 2011.

Imagine my excitement on seeing some artifacts from Ghana (Ghana in China National Museum) entering the edifice, although the first thought that struck me was that ‘we have nicer artifacts back home that can best tell the Ghanaian story’. A question I asked myself was whether we indeed treasured what we had.

Indeed my thoughts were justified with a message by the Director of the Museum, Mr. Lu Zangshen in May 31, 2012, which was displayed on a wall in the museum.

It read in part that “African sculpture is a distinct part of African art and has been the source of inspiration for various artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. It also has great influences on Western modernist art.”

Inside the museum there are 48 galleries with the largest 2,000sq metres and the smallest 800 sq metres in size and this includes a gallery of over 600 wooden sculptures from Africa which were on exhibition at the time of visit.

According to Mr. Chen Lvsheng, deputy curator of the museum, there are about 5,000 collections including sculptures, crestings and masks from about 400 tribes from 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Apart from a carving of a ‘sacrificial boat of sacrifice for a bumper harvest of fishery’ from the people of Dandu and intricately sculptured wooden chairs and stools from the Ashantis as part of the African sculpture exhibits there was also an exhibition on state gifts.

These were 611 gifts received by three generations of Chinese leaders from the leaders of various countries with whom they had relations. The only two state gifts seen from Ghana were presented by former Head of State Jerry John Rawlings.

They were a carved wooden stool presented to Comrade Deng Xiaoping in September 1985 and a wood carving of heads to another leader.

Collaborations welcome

Addressing the African journalists earlier, the Deputy Director and Researcher of the NMC, Mr. Bai Yuntao said there were about 7.62 million visits to the museum in 2016 contributed to by between 20,000 and 30,000 daily visits.

In all, he said there were 3,800 public museums and 4,000 private museums in China, all of which received support from the government.

Mr Bai said although there were frequent collaborations with European countries such as Italy, Poland, France, the United Kingdom and USA each year, there were no such collaborations with African countries although there had been mutual visits in the past. He therefore, welcomed future collaborations with African museums.

Lessons for our Museums board

He explained that the large number of visitors attracted to the museum could be attributed to the three methods of exhibition, which were through tours of the museum (comprises 49 per cent of visits), lecture and classroom teaching of students (10 per cent of junior high and primary school studies must be conducted outside classroom according to Chinese education curricula).

Mr. Bai said the museum also had an official website and used social media platforms such as WeChat to promote its activities.

“We have opened a microblog in three channels and we already have four million followers,” he said.

The Ghana Museums and Monuments Board could lurch onto the hand of collaboration extended by the NMC to improve the relevance and gains of our museums which have so much to offer. There is the need to promote domestic tourism for Ghanaians to know their rich history (such as the role of the forts and castles – are we preserving them?) and cultural heritage.

Writer’s email: edmund.asante@graphic.com.gh

This story was written on April 3, 2017


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