Tiananmen Square: The Monument War

Is the city a reflection of the people that live within it, or are the people the mirror of their city? Monuments and public art are seen as evidence of the character, history, values and culture of a city and its people,[1] and if the city and its inhabitants are not in agreement with each other than interesting and potentially violent repercussions can come with this imbalance. The city is a powerful political tool for both those in power and its citizens. Thus, in a political environment like communist China, it makes sense that in order to change a political regime, the people would have to attempt subvert and confront the physical symbols of the government. This essay will address the role of monuments and public art in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests, and the way in which the government and its citizens manipulate the physical layout of their city in order to alter their experience within it.

The ways in which the physical make up of a city can be manipulated to communicate ideas or to direct a certain way of living are very complex and varied. In most major cities around the world today, public visual culture can take on a variety of different forms. These forms may include government endorsed buildings, monuments, and memorials, city planning endorsed public art, and unauthorized street art and installation. There are many crossovers between all of these different forms of visual culture.

Monuments have long been used as a way to provide insight into the culture, values, events, technology, and society of a city.[2] . However, as contemporary society changes, new demands are made upon civic monuments to stand up in a value pluralist world.[3] Many of these new demands have been addressed by the growing popularity of public art that, theoretically, has more freedom of expression than that of government monuments or memorials.[4] Public art is commissioned art from a city’s planning committee and is usually judged on the criteria of what value it will give to the environment it is situated in.[5] There is inevitably heavy censorship involved with the commissioning of public art works, but a successful work of public art has the power to “enrich a city, reinforce its culture, create identity… encourage risk, represent diversity, give voice to the unsung, and allow us to remember.”[6] Artist John Latham said, “the context is half the work”.[7] Public art is both bound and inspired by Latham’s statement in that it can only make sense, and potentially only exist, in its intended setting.[8] When making public art, the artist has to adapt their studio practice to address the new challenges of a public environment.[9] The artist has to take into consideration their audience, the surrounding buildings, monuments and other works of public art, and the durability and safety of the materials used in the construction of the work. [10]

There are still limitations in public art practices in the fact that if the government or appointed city planning committee does not feel an artist’s work is suitable for public exhibition, no matter how relevant or necessary the ideas within that work may be to a society, it will never be legally displayed.[11] To fill this gap in the system, many artists will install unauthorized work in order to convey their message.[12] Such works are often criticized as vandalism, but many people are beginning to see their value in their cities as a way of avoiding government censorship and communicating about real, and controversial issues.[13]

The destiny of city, for the most part, is to outlive its inhabitants, and the city of Beijing has survived a massive 3,000 years worth of inhabitants.[14] Since its origins as the capital city of the ancient state of Ji in 1045 BC, it has had 12 different names, survived through 20 dynasties, and remained the capital city of China since 1279.[15] Over these three millennia of changing rulers, peace, war, poverty and prosperity, the city has changed immensely, although interestingly, most of this change has occurred in the last century of its life.[16] This is in great part the result of technological advancements in city development, but it was also due to the vastly different political agenda of Chairman Mao to his imperial predecessors.[17]

   
  
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     Beijing in 1945     Nigel Cameron and Brian Brake  Peking: A Tale of Three Cities  (New York, 1965)

Beijing in 1945

Nigel Cameron and Brian Brake Peking: A Tale of Three Cities (New York, 1965)

City design and development in pre-Mao, imperial China was distinct from the western tradition of city planning, in that despite the changes of rulers, time, and ideologies throughout history, certain design elements of imperial Chinese cities have remained unchanged for millennia, regardless of when they were built, their locations, and the nationality of their patrons’.[18] This was due to the cultural requirement that the current ruler maintained their role as the guardian of tradition, and therefore made little or no challenges to the architectural ideologies of the past.[19] The imperial city is characterised by a four-sided boundary, often in the form of a wall with three gates interrupting each side.[20] Within the external boundaries, a second or third smaller rectangular internal boundary is created to show the division in rank, with gates leading seemingly endlessly along a central horizontal axis.[21] For example, the Forbidden City in Beijing was located in the central, innermost walled boundary. This layout is based on the traditional belief in a four-sided universe with the Son of heaven at its centre, or the emperor of at the time.[22] Despite this concern with maintaining tradition, the main goal of the new ruler was still, of course, to mould a spatial layout of monuments and buildings that would symbolize the ruler’s goals and values.[23] However, this was often achieved through re-arrangement and re-labelling of the pre-existing layout, rather than through complete demolishment.[24]

  Idealized plan of Imperial Chinese capital city from   Yongle Dadian   (The Great Encyclopedia of the Yongle Period; Beijing 1949)

Idealized plan of Imperial Chinese capital city from Yongle Dadian (The Great Encyclopedia of the Yongle Period; Beijing 1949)

The scene in which the 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests occurred was created through a new process of, appropriating, re-arranging the spatial layout of monuments, which did include extensive demolishment.[25] Tiananmen Square was up until Chairman Mao’s take over in 1949 the Palace Square of the Forbidden City.[26] The Forbidden City was a central area within Beijing reserved for Royal inhabitancy, sealed off from the public by a series of gates and walls.[27] In order to establish authority and distinguish his revolution from imperial China, Mao symbolically addressed his public from on top of the main gate to the Forbidden City, the Tiananmen Gate.[28] This action secured Mao’s People’s Republic, as it represented the exposure and submission of authority to its people.[29] Mao took the Tiananmen Gate and the Square out of their politically symbolic roles in Imperial China and gave them new roles it as political emblems for his Republic.[30]

  Map of Tiananmen Square and its monuments   http://www.chinaspree.com/china-travel-guide/images/tiananmen-square/tiananmen2.jpg

Map of Tiananmen Square and its monuments http://www.chinaspree.com/china-travel-guide/images/tiananmen-square/tiananmen2.jpg

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao continued to demolish and rebuild Beijing to represent the ‘New China’.[31] Over three decades he demolished the surrounding gates and walls that had been so central to the imperial city’s design.[32] He expanded Tiananmen Square to hold 400,000 people,[33] demolished imperial buildings around the Square and replaced them with the Great Hall of the People and Mao’s Mausoleum,[34] and erected the 37.4-meter high obelisk entitled The Monument to the People’s Heroes.[35] The final result was the Tiananmen Gate, a commandeered symbol of Imperial China, standing alone in a sea of new political monuments, stripped of its surrounding walls, with a 6 x4.6 meter high portrait of Mao hanging around its neck.[36]

  Tiananmen Gate with Portrait of Chairman Mao   http://america.aljazeera.com/content/dam/ajam/images/articles/tiananmen_square_gaurd.jpg

Tiananmen Gate with Portrait of Chairman Mao http://america.aljazeera.com/content/dam/ajam/images/articles/tiananmen_square_gaurd.jpg

Tiananmen Square has always been a place of high political tension, being the stage for many pre- and post-Mao demonstrations.[37]  The 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests were the result of growing tension between the government and the people and was sparked by the death of controversial Party member, Hu Yaobang in April 1989[38]. A week later, hundreds of thousands of students converged around the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square to mourn and protest the government’s regime, demanding democracy.[39] In embracing the Monument to the People’s Heroes, they re-claimed the giant obelisk from Mao as a representation of the People’s Republic, and transformed it into their own symbol of political reform.[40] On May 15 students began a hunger strike, the numbers of the strike grew to over three thousand over the seven weeks of occupation.[41] The movement was widely covered by international news and supported by Chinese and non-Chinese alike in different communities all over the world.[42]

   
  
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     1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests   http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2014/04/29/world/29sino-may401/29sino-may401-tmagArticle.jpg

1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2014/04/29/world/29sino-may401/29sino-may401-tmagArticle.jpg

On the morning of the 30th of May 1989, the Tiananmen Gate awoke to see a new monument constructed directly in front of it staring down the portrait of Chairman Mao on its façade.[43] The student protesters from the surrounding art schools had managed to create and assemble a seven-meter high statue depicting a young woman on a pedestal holding up a torch with both hands.[44] They called her The Goddess of Democracy. The Goddess of Democracy was created as a work of public art that functions in a similar way to a government endorsed monument, speaking to the surrounding monuments, and to the government, in its own language. Through the common language of monumentality and public art, the protesters had managed to challenge the symbolic physical layout of their city, and in turn, to challenge the values and ideologies of the government.

The success of their makeshift monument was highly criticised by pro-democracy and pro-communism supporters alike,[45] much in the same way unauthorised ‘street art’ is criticised by the public. In the Beijing People’s Daily newspaper the next day, journalist Wu Ye scorned the statue saying, “The Square is scared. No one has the power to add any permanent memorial or to remove anything from the square. Such things must not be allowed to happen in China!”[46]

On the morning of the 4th of June, it appeared that the statue had been exhausted the government’s patience, and the military was given ordered to have the square cleared using tanks and firearms.[47] The result was reports of the massacre of thousands of protesting youths and the inevitable destruction of The Goddess of Democracy. The statue was made of white plaster and Styrofoam[48] and was always destined to die a martyr.[49]

Later that year the government erected a new monument where the Goddess of Democracy had stood.[50] The statue depicted four plain, submissive figures: A farmer, a worker, a soldier and an intellectual, all standing with arms lowered, resigned to their prescribed roles. The new monument represented the government’s forced and arguably ‘weak’[51] response to the protests.

   
  
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     New sculpture erected by the Chinese Government in the Place of  The Goddess of Democracy  from  Newsweek,  9 October 1989

New sculpture erected by the Chinese Government in the Place of The Goddess of Democracy from Newsweek, 9 October 1989

Many public art pieces have emerged in the wake of the events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. As to be expected, few of these works have been authorized in Tiananmen Square itself, however Danish artist Jens Galschiot was able to erect a sculpture from his series Pillar of Shame in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park in 1997.[52] The pillar was created in Hong Kong to commemorate the 8th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Student Protests of 1989.[53] Its display in Hong Kong is particularly potent and fitting given their current Pro-democracy movement.[54] The Pillar of Shame depicts a tower of wreathing bodies piled up on top of each other reaching upwards.[55] The work is made of concrete and was originally painted black, but in 2008 the pillar was painted orange to raise awareness of human rights issues in China.[56] Along the base of Hong Kong’s Pillar of Shame is inscribed in red the words: “The Tiananmen Square Massacre June 4th 1989, The old cannot kill the young forever.”[57] Galschiot has created 4 of these pillars to date, and uses them as a kind of “Nobel Prize of Injustice” to bring attention to a shameful event that should not be forgotten by neither the public nor the government.[58] The two-tonne sculpture is 8 meters high[59] and like The Goddess of Democracy speaks to the public as a monument.

Within every city there is a careful and purposeful arrangement of physical symbols that reveal the culture, history, values and identity of its people. These visual symbols can include buildings, monuments, memorials, public art, and street art. They can be created and commissioned by the highest and lowest within a society. The 1989 Tiananmen Square Student Protests were held within a space that has been carefully arranged and rearranged for thousands of years in order to represent and enforce the values of those in power. In 1989, the protesters confronted and altered this politically charged space, and therefore momentarily took back some of that power. The Goddess of Democracy was always destined to be a martyr of the monument war of Tiananmen Square, and such is the power of the monument and public art that in her destruction, her message only became louder.

 

[1] Büchler, Pavel. Decadent: public art : contentious term and contested practice. Glasgow: Foulis Press, 1997, 16.

[2] Kargon, Jeremy David. "Changing Monuments and Monumentality." Interdisciplinary Themes Journal 1, no. 1 (2010).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Büchler, Pavel. Decadent: public art : contentious term and contested practice. Glasgow: Foulis Press, 1997, 2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Harding, David. "ART AND SOCIAL CONTEXT contextual art practice in education." David Harding. http://www.davidharding.net/?page_id=22 (accessed October 20, 2014).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Büchler, Pavel. Decadent: public art : contentious term and contested practice. Glasgow: Foulis Press, 1997, 1.

[10] Ibid., 2.

[11] Akbar, Arifa, and Paul Vallely. "Graffiti: Street art – or crime?." The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/graffiti-street-art-ndash-or-crime-868736.html (accessed October 19, 2014).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Wikimedia Foundation. "History of Beijing." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Beijing (accessed October 20, 2014).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Steinhardt, Nancy Shatzman. Chinese imperial city planning. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999, p.1

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 2.

[19] Ibid., 4.

[20] Ibid., 6.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 8.

[23] Ibid., 1.

[24] Ibid., 2.

[25] Ibid., 1.

[26] Wu, Hung. "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments." Representations 35 (1991): 88.

[27] Ibid., 87.

[28] Ibid., 88.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 89.

[32] Ibid., 88.

[33] Ibid., 90.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 94.

[36] Ibid., 89.

[37] Ibid., 86.

[38] Zhao, Dingxin. The power of Tiananmen state-society relations and the 1989 Beijing student movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, xv.

[39] Ibid., xxv.

[40] Wu, Hung. "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments." Representations 35 (1991): 94.

[41] Zhao, Dingxin. The power of Tiananmen state-society relations and the 1989 Beijing student movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, xxvi.

[42] Ibid., xvii.

[43] Wu, Hung. "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments." Representations 35 (1991): 85.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 111.

[46] Wu, Ye, “What does the statue of the Goddess of Democracy which appeared in Tiananmen Square indicate?” Renmin ribao (People’s Daily) overseas ed., FBIS-CHI-89-104 (1989): 28.

[47] Wu, Hung. "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments." Representations 35 (1991): 112.

[48] "WSJ Archives: Goddess of Democracy Is Erected in Tiananmen Square." China Real Time Report RSS. http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/05/30/wsj-archives-goddess-of-democracy-is-erected-in-tiananmen-square/ (accessed October 19, 2014).

[49] Wu, Hung. "Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments." Representations 35 (1991): 113.

[50] Ibid., 114

[51] Ibid.

[52] Wikimedia Foundation. "Pillar of Shame." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_of_Shame (accessed October 21, 2014).

[53] Ibid.

[54] "Hong Kong's democracy debate." BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27921954 (accessed October 18, 2014).

[55] Wikimedia Foundation. "Pillar of Shame." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_of_Shame (accessed October 21, 2014).

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] "Nobel Prize of Injustice to be set up in Brazil, press release 16.04.00." Nobel Prize of Injustice to be set up in Brazil, press release 16.04.00. http://www.aidoh.dk/news_releases/pos/brazil/ukposbrazilnews06.htm (accessed October 21, 2014).

[59] Wikimedia Foundation. "Pillar of Shame." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pillar_of_Shame (accessed October 21, 2014).

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Akbar, Arifa, and Paul Vallely. "Graffiti: Street art – or crime?." The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/graffiti-street-art-ndash-or-crime-868736.html (accessed October 19, 2014).

Büchler, Pavel. Decadent: public art : contentious term and contested practice. Glasgow: Foulis Press, 1997.

Harding, David. "ART AND SOCIAL CONTEXT contextual art practice in education." David Harding. http://www.davidharding.net/?page_id=22 (accessed October 20, 2014).

"Hong Kong's democracy debate." BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27921954 (accessed October 18, 2014).

Kargon, Jeremy David. "Changing Monuments and Monumentality." Interdisciplinary Themes Journal 1, no. 1 (2010).

"Nobel Prize of Injustice to be set up in Brazil, press release 16.04.00." Nobel Prize of Injustice to be set up in Brazil, press release 16.04.00. http://www.aidoh.dk/news_releases/pos/brazil/ukposbrazilnews06.htm (accessed October 21, 2014).

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