Tiananmen Square: A Stage for Political Theatre

Petitioning the government is common enough in every country. It doesn’t necessarily result in death–except, of course, in China.

Luxun, 1926

Historically, Tiananmen Square has been the cultural center of China. It has been a location for the expression of freedom, joy, pride, grief, and power. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were demonstrations for free speech, free press, and democracy. Primarily composed of college students, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were characterized by the revival of youth, political tensions, and bloodshed. Although unsuccessful, the protests projected a powerful message all around the globe. Most scholars have performed research on these events based on the organizational structure of the movement, the international implications of the movement, and the cultural impact of the film. However, the focus of this essay lies on the analysis of the protests of Tiananmen Square on 1989 through a political theatre approach. To dissect the Tiananmen Square with credible sources, Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary on the events of Tiananmen Square with greater attention to interviews conducted on the major stakeholders (student leaders, intellectuals, workers, etc.) of the events. Scenes from the Gate of Heavenly Peace will be studied with close attention to visual, historical, symbolic, and musical features as theatrical devices of mass mobilization. In the broader context of Chinese performing arts, the protests of Tiananmen Square resemble the influence of growing technological capabilities as mediums of reaching larger audiences and the usage of props, symbolism, and public sentiment have been addressed through different subcategories of performing arts. Throughout the essay, the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace and the political protests of Tiananmen on 1989 may be used interchangeably.

Demonstration of grievances during 1960s

According to Guthrie, to understand social change, “a more concrete discussion of how the cultural emerges, how it is employed, and the ways in which the cultural is connected to organizations and institutional changes is needed,” (Guthrie, 423). The cultural insurrection that occurred in 1989 was accompanied by political and economic sanctions, distrust of the government, and hundreds of losses. Although complete and comprehensive context cannot be fully provided, key information in assessing Tiananmen Square as a political theatre performance will be provided. This information relates to Tiananmen Square’s cultural significance, XYZ

The Importance of Tiananmen Square

Prior to analyzing Gate of Heavenly Peace, it is important to consider the significance of Tiananmen Square without its popularization from media outlets during the late 1990s. Although the global public remembers Tiananmen Square due to the protest of 1989, the cultural significance of Tiananmen Square is not derived from these events. Instead, the significance of Tiananmen Square results from its location, history, architectural features, and the public’s connection to the square. Whereas Westerners may remember Tiananmen Square due to the protests of 1989, Chinese people understand that Tiananmen Square is a symbol of the PRC’s power, control, and pride. According to Catherine Ingraham, Chinese protestors joined in Tiananmen Square “because of the felt affinity between the idea of insurrection and the idea of the square,” (Ingraham, 44). The idea of the insurrection rose due to a series of changes in the socio-political spectrum in China. Gao Qi describes the teenagers of 1989 as products of change: “the younger you are the greater the Western influence…the changes have been so fast that the generation gap is leaping over thousands of years,” (Jones 120). Additionally, China’s insurrection was in part due to the public’s affinity towards Tiananmen, which in Chinese means ‘gate of heavenly peace.’ Combined with the public’s connection to the square, growing unrest and hardships led to the rise of Tiananmen as a platform for political theatre.

35th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, Tiananmen Square

Defining Political Theatre

Defining and dissecting political theatre is an important step for understanding the effectiveness of political theatre as a mass mobilization device. Although political theatre is not a completely novel concept, its approach is often unrecognized in the larger spectrum of research. Guthrie describes political theatre as “street theatre” which he defines as “a cultural performance, enacted in the public sphere, before a mass audience,” (Guthrie, 435). An important characteristic of political theatrical performances, and street theatre, is the fluidity and the improvisation of the performers. Theatrical performances often maintain a division between performers and the audience. In typical theatre, this division can be drawn by the costumes of the characters, the presence of a stage, and the rules of the theatre. However, both street theatre and political theatre are examples of interactive theatre. Guthrie contrasts political theatre from typical theatre as political theatre is “less routinized and therefore more dependent on the will of the actor,” (Guthrie, 437). In other words, political theatre is enhanced by the involvement of the audience through different manners of support and indifference. With the movement’s overall goal for democracy in mind, the growth or disillusionment of the movement can be directly related to the fluidity of political theatre. The scope of political theatre can rapidly expand through the empathy it receives from the crowd, which can lead to growth in involvement, or it can rapidly dissolve through the rejection of local people.

Hu Yaobang’s funeral at Tiananmen Square

The Playwrights

The representative organization of the movement can be interpreted as the playwrights of the whole performance. Playwrights have autonomous control over every component of the theatrical performance. Hence, although this group did not demonstrate autonomous control over the situations in Beijing, the group organized and deployed key initiatives while keeping the movement afloat. In other words, the representative organization can be viewed as limited playwrights in control of the course of the movement with the authority of controlling the most The protests of Tiananmen square of 1989 were driven by theatrical initiatives that enabled mass mobilization towards a common goal: democracy. Scenes from Gate of Heavenly Peace demonstrate the student leaders distributing their newsletter (01:44:01), devising their political petition (00:44:40), distributing resources (02:00:53), and more. Most importantly, this group of student leaders determined the trajectory of the movement. The establishment of the organization had large implications that led to the sustainability and growth of the movement. According to Guthrie’s analysis of organizational structures, “organizations provide a structured forum in which individuals can develop an ideological commitment to the group cause,” (Guthrie, 441). Thus, the student leaders and the representative organization can be interpreted as the playwrights of the theatrical performance. With control over the initiatives and demands of the movement, this organization had some influence over the trajectory of the protests. Each of their decisions could’ve easily changed the history of China.

Chai Ling, the Commander in Chief of Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters


Villagers petitioning their grievances (1989)

Most importantly, the characters of the protests, including those that were not directly addressed in Gates of Heavenly Peace, can be analyzed as integral components of a theatrical performance. Due to the scope of this essay, all the characters from the performances in 1989 will not be analyzed. Alternatively, a few characters will be provided as examples of different characters. As mentioned above, protesters were driven through the representing organizations goal of achieving democratic. Characters during the protests range from political figures to American news broadcasters of that time. Although each character’s role may change to the subjectivity of the boundaries of political theatre, characters that clearly established an impact on the protests and on the worldwide perception of the events are worthy of interpreting as theatrical performers. For example, Chai Ling, the Commander in Chief of Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters was an integral character in the expansion of the protests of 1989. Many had doubted her abilities as a leader, and had often framed her actions as “self-interest”, yet her drive for perseverance and local support was immense as “350,000 Beijing residents lining the streets offering support,” had promise Chai Ling their devotion to the movement (Guthrie, 427). Additionally, the private sector of Chinese economy served as an integral character for the growth and sustainability of the movement. Guthrie states that “the private sector played a critical role in the 1989 Chinese movement, as members of this sector contributed money and resources to the movement,” (Guthrie, 448). Although Gate of Heavenly Peace only makes small references to private supporters from Hong Kong, it is clear that the politically theatrical mobilization had influenced characters that were not actively at Tiananmen Square. These characters stood as integral sources of financial, medical, and political aid. Finally, public figures were especially important in mobilizing the masses through a boost in morale and support. Cui Juan, a rock music singer who promoted individualism and whose songs were used as chants for freedom, demonstrated support for the movement along with several other singers in Hong Kong (02:17:08). Cui Jian’s music set a revival and empowered teens during the protests. Jones states that “Cui Jian exercised a far more profound influence on the democracy movement than the two most celebrated democratic dissidents in recent Chinese history, Wei Jingsheng and Fang Lizhi. This specific quote emphasizes Cui Jian’s influence as a public figure. Therefore, it is clear that there is a myriad of forms a character may take in political theatre, yet the influence and goal of the most prominent characters can be analyzed to the extent of the results of the movement.


Throughout the history of Chinese performance arts, props have always been important aesthetic and symbolic elements. Haida’s usage of swords to convey love, Similarly, the Tiananmen political theatre is highly characterized by homogeneous usage of props that provide both symbolism and unity. On May 13th, students staged a hunger strike on Tiananmen, preventing Gorbachev’s welcome event from occurring in Tiananmen Square and provoking the government’s declaration of Marshall Law on May 20th. Due to Tiananmen Square’s importance as a political and cultural site, pressure amounted, and students sought to establish a stronghold in Tiananmen Square. As the 38th Army entered Beijing, students in Beijing joined together in a massive hunger strike. A look at point 01:14:51 of Gate to Heavenly Peace demonstrates the homogeneous appearance of the students. Students during the hunger strike, and the protests, wore headbands to symbolize their plight and commitment towards democracy. Like many other Chinese performances, the usage of props during the protests was not accidental. Its ability to unify people and allow people to join a movement through a single garment proved to be an essential mobilization technique during the protests in Tiananmen.


The protests’ primary stage was situated in Tiananmen Square, yet the growth of the movement led to the rise of global media as the secondary stage. The global expansion of media outlets throughout the world, and Western media involvement in China, led to worldwide broadcasting of the events of 1989 in China. In a similar way to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the messages that the Chinese were delivering reached “unprecedented number of people” due to the “technological capability of transmission,” (Lawson, 4). Ingraham states that, during and after the protests, Western media broadcasted the events of “Tiananmen over and over to inscribe it in the historical register of places that have served as battlegrounds for ideological transformation,” (Ingraham, 45). The “battlegrounds for ideological transformation” had started in Tiananmen and rapidly branched out to other parts of the world. One of the participants of Teacher Hunger Strike, Liu Xiabao, recalls watching Hu Yaobang’s funeral, and the subsequent protests, from New York (00:47:03). The Teacher Hunger Strike occurred in May 14th as teachers stood in urge to protect student protestors and as a demonstration against the government’s lack of response. In the larger context of political theatre, performers like Liu Xiabao are directly influenced by the reach of the secondary theatrical stage. Western media’s proliferation of outlets produced a secondary theatrical stage. Since political theatre deals with fluid structures, a viewer could quickly become a performer. Together, Western media’s broadcasts allowed greater involvement and increases from new performers as they flooded into Beijing. These entrants represent the secondary stage’s impact on mobilizing external powers and potential performers. Guthrie states that news channels around the world “became active participants in the protests and calls for liberalization,” (Guthrie, 449). As the Cold War began to end, media outlets throughout the world defined the status of ideological battles throughout the world. In general, Western sentiment was driven by American portrayal of communism. Brownell states that she had previously “assumed this ‘communist discipline’ to be antithetical to the ‘democratic’ regimes of a ‘free’ society,” (Brownell, 12). Therefore, the availability of media outlets, and Western desire for the demise of communism, provided an effective secondary stage with a much larger audience.

CNN broadcast of the demonstrations of 1989


Mass mobilization during the protests at Tiananmen Square became feasible by the intense symbolism used in rhetoric and representation of the people’s grievances. From the rhinoceros of Rhinoceros in Love to the swords from Hedda Gabbler, symbolism has been an eternal feature of theatre in China. Similarly, political theatre is heavily characterized for symbolism as a means of facilitating mass mobility and creating tangible representations of their ideologies.On May 29th of 1989, students joined in effort to create their own representation of democracy, a concept that was radical and foreign in China (02:13:08). This statue, which closely represented the Statue of Liberty in New York, was the representation of ideologies from all supporters throughout the world. It stood to represent the hopes for a tangible future, one that would allow greater freedom and democratic rule. Symbolism throughout the protests including colors, props, and rhetoric served as tools for mobilizing large groups. For example, the chants for freedom and democracy (01:15:07) were followed by large red banners with yellow text highlighting Chinese power and its desire for democracy.

Indirect Theatrical Message

Indirect theatrical messages are characterized for their impact on external individuals. In the context of the protests of Tiananmen Square, the direct theatrical message is the student leaders’ “cultural message that becomes a powerful mobilizing force for a mass audience,” (Guthrie, 423). The indirect theatrical message is the subjective interpretation of the protests and the underlying perceptions of China. Feasible due to the proliferation of media outlets (00:46:48), the indirect theatrical message is any individual’s understanding of the events in Tiananmen Square on 1989 and the change in popular views of China. Like many other performance arts, the performances of Tiananmen Square portray new perceptions of China, communist government systems, socialism, democracy, etc. Hence, apart from the primary message (the call for democracy), the protests in Tiananmen Square delivered a more lasting message to those who had seen the protests, the bloodshed, and its effects.


This essay does not undermine the effort and sacrifices that were spent during the protests of 1989 at Tiananmen Square. Instead, the larger goal of this essay is to exemplify the actions of the protestors as theatrical performances that mobilized thousands and reached millions. Therefore, the direct results of the protests of Tiananmen Square and the impact that the protests have to be acknowledge. The aftermath of the protests of Tiananmen Square were unquantifiable, with civilian disappearances, casualties, political illegitimacy, and a loss of public morale. After 1989, “communist parties’ lack of success in elections throughout Eastern Europe underscores how support for communism can melt away,” (Stavis, 60). After the terror of June 3rd and 4th, the martial law of command established a new blackout in Beijing, the source of the disaster. Due to this blackout, counting and reporting fatalities became impossible and chaos ran through the whole square. According to Benedict Stavis, “Amnesty International determined there were over 1,300 fatalities,” (Savis, 56). Additionally, intellectuals analyzed the social/political trends and concepts that occurred during and after the protests. Shen Tong concluded that “what China needs now is personal liberation. What our generation needs to do is push for individual freedom,” (Jones, 124). Therefore, the results of the Tiananmen Square were not only symbolically significant during the brink of the Cold War, but were also perceived as losses and were causes of mourning and grief for the people of Beijing.

After a careful analysis of the protests of Tiananmen Square, and Gate of Heavenly Peace, it is clear that an approach on political theatre serves as a tool for understanding the success of the movement’s representational organization. From the character present during the protest to the protests’ reach throughout the world, each component can be analyzed as a theatrical device for mass mobilization. Each person’s interpretation of the event may be different and the reach of the events may not be obvious, yet the escalation of the protests reached audiences beyond time and space.  


Ingraham, Catherine. (1993). Gate of Heavenly Peace. Assemblage, (20), 44-45. doi:10.2307/3181692

Stavis, Benedict. (1990). China Explodes at Tiananmen. Asian Affairs,17(2), 51-61. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/30172136

Guthrie, Douglas J. “Political Theater and Student Organizations in the 1989 Chinese Movement: A Multivariate Analysis of Tiananmen.” Sociological Forum, vol. 10, no. 3, 1995, pp. 419–454. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/684783.

Salter, Denis, et al. “China’s Theatre of Dissent: A Conversation with Mou Sen and Wu Wenguang.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, 1996, pp. 218–228. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1124526.

Lin, C., XIAOBO, L., DUO, Z., DEJIAN, H., & XIN, G. (1989). Tiananmen Square Hunger Strike Declaration. World Affairs,152(3), 148-150