Slogans on Tiananmen Gate

Tiananmen at night

Online magazine Slate's Daniel Gross, currently traveling through China, introduces a short post on Marxism in contemporary Chinese society with a surprising historical claim:

When you stand in Tiananmen Square and look toward the Forbidden City, you see a huge portrait of Mao flanked by slogans. The slogans used to say things like "Long Live Marxism-Leninism." Today, they're simply nationalistic: "Long Live the People's Republic of China!"

Gross must have a particularly lousy tour guide. First he can't manage to find a chocolate bar anywhere in China, and now he's suggesting that explicit mentions of Marx and Lenin once adorned Tiananmen Gate.

The slogans have actually changed very little during the PRC's first six decades. At the ceremony to announce the founding of the republic on October 1, 1949, a portrait of Mao Zedong was hung in the center of the gate and slogans reading "Long Live the People's Republic of China" (中華人民共和國萬歲) and "Long Live the Central People's Government" (中央人民政府萬歲) were placed on either side.

The following year, the eastern side (bearing the "government" slogan) was replaced with "Long Live the Unity of the World's Peoples" (世界人民大團結萬歲). An expression of solidarity and internationalism, this slogan had the added benefit of containing the same number of characters as its counterpart on the other side.

The National Day parade, 1949
The slogans in a more traditional era

The first simplified writing scheme was promulgated in 1956, and just ahead of Labor Day, 1964, the slogans were converted to simplified characters. Although the display has been renovated with updated materials over the last four decades, the text itself has not changed.

Prior to the revolution, an enormous portrait of Chiang Kai-shek hung over the rostrum. In the image below from the LIFE photo archives, you can make out four characters reading "The world belongs to the people" (天下为公), a quotation from the Book of Rites that was a favorite of Sun Yat-sen.

And under the Japanese occupation, "Build a New Order in East Asia" (建设东亚新秩序) was hung up right-to-left under the eaves.

The Republican-era gate
Tiananmen under the Japanese

Walking west from Tiananmen Gate along Chang'an Avenue, you'll find additional slogans flanking Xinhuamen (新华门, "New China Gate"), the southern entrance to the government compound at Zhongnanhai. These are somewhat more ideological than their counterparts at Tiananmen, but they too do not mention Marxism-Leninism.

On the western side is "Long Live the Great Chinese Communist Party!" and to the east is "Long Live Indomitable Mao Zedong Thought!" On a screen wall just inside the entrance is an inscription in Mao's own hand: "Serve the People."

Xinhuamen in 1949

However, the gate was not always like it is today. The photo at right, which was taken close to the first plenary session of the CPPCC in 1949, does not show any slogans on the walls.

In 2004, the Xinmin Evening News spoke with a retired Zhongnanhai staffer who described how the slogans came to be:

...a retired comrade who had worked for many years in Zhongnanhai but who did not wish to disclose his name revealed to this reporter the story behind the gate.

The old comrade recalled that from the summer of 1949, when Chairman Mao Zedong and the Central Committee moved their offices, through the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, no large-scale renovations were made to Zhongnanhai apart from necessary repairs and decorations to old, run-down buildings. Many brick walls still looked as they had in the previous century, without any ornamentation whatsoever. The Xinhuamen screen wall still looked as it had when Yuan Shikai had renovated the compound — dark grey brick with an oval design in the middle and flowers inscribed in the four corners.

Renovations to Zhongnanhai began in February or March 1967 and lasted roughly one year. Mostly, this meant carefully inscribing in different calligraphic styles on the walls of the ancient buildings various slogans and quotations from Chairman Mao. The old comrade still recalls that the outer wall of the building containing Mao's swimming pool had the quote, "The force at the core leading our cause forward is the Chinese Communist Party. The theoretical basis guiding our thinking is Marxism-Leninism." The five characters reading "Serve the People" were carved in red and hung on the Xinhuamen screen wall. The walls on either side of the gate also bore inscriptions carved into wood that should be familiar to everyone: "Long Live the Great Chinese Communist Party!" and "Long Live Indomitable Mao Zedong Thought!" This was probably in May or June, 1967.

The old comrade also said that by about 1970, the Zhongnanhai Repair and Maintenance Division did work on the inscriptions. It added gold leaf to "Serve the People" so that the inscription was now gold-on-red, and turned the two slogans into light boxes. Later on, the slogans were painted white and edged in gold leaf as well. "After the liberation, Chairman Mao wrote 'serve the people' many times. The best example of the five characters was picked out of a number of his inscriptions and used for the Xinhuamen screen wall."

Xinhuamen today

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Third Plenum of the Eleventh CCP Congress began restoring order in all areas. In June, 1981, the Sixth Plenum adopted the Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China which clearly and completely repudiated the Cultural Revolution. Traces of the Cultural Revolution, including posters, quotations, and slogans, began to come down across the country, and the signs and inscriptions remaining in Zhongnanhai began to be cleared away as well. The old comrade recalled that the Central Security Bureau made a special study of which signs and inscriptions in Zhongnanhai had to be removed and which could remain, which it then reported to the Central Committe. Their investigation included the Xinhuamen screen wall and the two slogans on either side.

"That morning, the investigators took a look around the Xinhuamen entrance before submitting their report. It was returned in that afternoon. Comrade Hu Yaobang, who was in charge of Central Committee work at the time, personally instructed that all Cultural Revolution signs and inscriptions in Zhongnanhai were to be taken down, apart from the five characters on the screen wall and the two slogans on either side of Xinhuamen."

There are still those who think that the slogans outside Zhongnanhai are too reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. In April 2008, a student from the North China University of Technology wrote a letter to President Hu Jintao asking that the slogans be replaced.

From the Lianhe Zaobao:

Zhao Jingtian told Hong Kong's Ming Pao that every time she passes Xinhuamen she is taken aback by the decades-old red slogans written on the walls....she feels that "Long Live Indomitable Mao Zedong Thought!" is Cultural Revolution-style language, both irrational and obsolete.

The young woman criticized the use of "long live" (万岁, literally, 10,000 years) as flattery used by feudal subjects to curry favor with their emperor. Besides, Mao Zedong was not "indomitable": many of his sayings, including "Carry out the Cultural Revolution through to the end", "Long live the People's Communes," and "Never forget class struggle" have been proven by history to be mistakes.

In her view, the slogans flanking Xinhuamen should keep pace with the times. She suggested changing them to "Carry high the great banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Important Thought of the Three Represents, and continue liberating thought and expanding the reform and opening up!" (高举邓小平理论和三个代表重要思想的伟大旗帜,继续解放思想、扩大改革开放!) and "Be people centered, govern for the people, thoroughly implement the scientific concept of development, and create a harmonious society in China! (必须以人为本、执政为民、落实科学发展观、创建中国的和谐社会!」)

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There are currently 7 Comments for Slogans on Tiananmen Gate.

Comments on Slogans on Tiananmen Gate

I liked the old days when it was just a building.. no portrait or slogans

Thank you, Joel, for a delightful post.

Great post. Not so much for the catch (who cares for the errors of a silly journalist) but for the great research and pictures. I learned something today.

Re Slate: it is obvious that the temptation to write eye-catching factoids is too great for many journalists to resist. The media is desperate for readers these days, and this is becoming more and more a source of inaccuracies. Might be wrong but I feel that in the old times papers used to be more sure of themselves and their reader base... this is also part of "the demise of the media"

Great post Joel - one thing that does seem to have changed is the material that the signs are made from.

Riding by one evening this week, i noticed the character signs are now illuminated (as in the Oriental Morning Post photos in yr post) and seem to be made out of plastic.

This is the first time i've noticed this and am sure that on previous visits the signs seemed simply to have been painted on characters that appeared to have be embedded on wooden frames attached to the wall. Not sure when this happened exactly.

This guy has slipped up a lot on his recent China reportage. I wonder if he's just been hanging out in a bar all week and posting drunken expat yarns to try and cover for himself

I really hate it when journalists make up their own facts. Thanks for the catch Joel!

the old timers do the same too. remember "remember the Maine"?

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