Title

The Benches of Tiananmen

  • A migrant worker sleeps on a bench in Beijing, China. During summer nights, on Chang’an Jie near Tiananmen Square, the benches are occupied by tourists, the city’s homeless, migrant-workers, and many others who spend the night.
    A migrant worker sleeps on a bench in Beijing, China. During summer nights, on Chang’an Jie near Tiananmen Square, the benches are occupied by tourists, the city’s homeless, migrant-workers, and many others who spend the night.
  • A garbage collector sleeps on a bench next to a collection of plastic bottles that he will exchange for income at one of Beijing’s recycling collection centers.
    A garbage collector sleeps on a bench next to a collection of plastic bottles that he will exchange for income at one of Beijing’s recycling collection centers.
  • Locked in a languid embrace, a teenage couple sleeps on a hot summer's night. Many young tourists save money by sleeping on the public benches rather than in one of Beijing’s hotels. It is also a convenient way to get an early start when Tiananmen Square reopens for a flag-raising ceremony at sunrise.
    Locked in a languid embrace, a teenage couple sleeps on a hot summer's night. Many young tourists save money by sleeping on the public benches rather than in one of Beijing’s hotels. It is also a convenient way to get an early start when Tiananmen Square reopens for a flag-raising ceremony at sunrise.
  • A man sleeps on one of the benches, the character for “fate” written on his forearm.
    A man sleeps on one of the benches, the character for “fate” written on his forearm.
  • Using his jacket as a blanket and his bag as a pillow, a man sleeps on a bench.
    Using his jacket as a blanket and his bag as a pillow, a man sleeps on a bench.
  • A teenage couple sleeps on a bench using each another as cushions.
    A teenage couple sleeps on a bench using each another as cushions.
  • Several hours later, the two teenagers seen in the previous photo have rearranged themselves on the bench.
    Several hours later, the two teenagers seen in the previous photo have rearranged themselves on the bench.
  • Wrapped in a jacket, a homeless man sleeps on a bench.
    Wrapped in a jacket, a homeless man sleeps on a bench.
  • A homeless man sitting on a bench next to Chang’an Jie in Beijing.
    A homeless man sitting on a bench next to Chang’an Jie in Beijing.
  • A man sleeping on a bench.
    A man sleeping on a bench.
  • Two teenagers spend the night on a bench.
    Two teenagers spend the night on a bench.
  • Three teenagers on a bench.
    Three teenagers on a bench.
  • One of the teenagers has left; the remaining two pass the time with their cellphones in hand.
    One of the teenagers has left; the remaining two pass the time with their cellphones in hand.

Tiananmen Square. Center of China, theater set of the Chinese Communist Party’s biggest political shows, Mecca of millions and yet a void in the city. No Beijinger in his right mind would ever suggest “meet me at the Square.” Tourists find no place to sit; they can only walk through the Square, conscious of the watchful gaze of security officers—both in uniform and out—who monitor the space for signs of protest. No Agora, Tiananmen Square is a black hole that sucks life and only allows the transient. Yet during summer nights, at its outer fringes, it becomes the People’s Square again. Tourists, lovers, homeless, peddlers, and migrants all come and stay. They carefully take off their shoes and claim ownership of the benches that line the walls of the Forbidden City. The benches become their home for a night or a few hours. They relax, if only briefly, and drift into a vulnerable sleep. The Square is theirs, until the flag rises again. —Gilles Sabrié