Written by Emma Tilley, (Brown University) Student Correspondent CET Beijing, Fall 2018
Every year on October 1, the People’s Republic of China’s National Day, patriots gather in Tian’anmen Square to watch a ceremonial flag raising perfectly timed to both the sunrise and the national anthem. While the flag is raised and lowered with the sun every day, the National Day ceremony is the most elaborate, attracting tens of thousands of domestic tourists as the start to a week-long holiday. According to everyone we asked, our initial plan to arrive six hours ahead of time was still far too late. So in the early evening on the last day of September, another CET student and I arrived at Tian’anmen to wait overnight in the hope of securing a spot near the front of the crowd. The square itself was empty – earlier that day there had been a memorial ceremony and meetings – and sightseers were confined to a wide walkway between the square and the National Museum.
As close to if not the only non-Chinese people in the line, we were already objects of mild curiosity to some visitors, but given that we were expending significant effort to participate in national day festivities we became considerably more strange. (If you look up the coverage from CCTV or similar sources, it will say people gathered from all around the country, not the world.)
Our neighbors asked in Chinese and English: Why are you here? Are you communists? Is America’s national day like this? We answered curiosity with curiosity. Much of the crowd that had been with us from the very start were students, though there were also middle-aged and elderly people traveling alone and even a few young families. To pass the time they played guessing games and taught each other words from their hometowns’ dialects – a reminder of the vast cultural diversity even within a comparatively homogeneous nation.
At about midnight, a seemingly infinite line of charter buses arrived, all full of soldiers in dress uniform. I assume they were told not to since the curtains inside were mostly drawn, but a few soldiers peeked through the windows as they drove past the line, sometimes quickly closing the curtains again when they realized we saw them too. Finally around 1:30 people started saying we were going to be let into the square itself. Seven or eight policemen linked arms in front of the start of the line and opened the barricade separating us from the crosswalk into Tian’anmen.
What followed was barely removed from chaos. The crowd pressed against the back of the line of policemen, all (us included) shouting in excitement to be moving for the first time in seven hours or so. Stepping on each other’s shoes, we stumbled half-running across the crosswalk into the square – and then the space was wide enough that people could run right past the policemen in a mad dash for the front. My friend and I exchanged a split second look: would we be trampled if we didn’t run, or rebuffed if we did? I grabbed her hand and we joined the rush, weaving between a checkerboard of soldiers and police who stood at regular intervals and stoically watched the flood. We ended up in the fourth row from the front, almost centered with the flagpole and Mao’s portrait.
The last few hours before sunrise were the coldest and everyone’s fatigue began to show. I tried unsuccessfully to nap while sitting and surrounded by what I would later find out was 110,000 to 140,000 people. At one point a little girl pushed through to the front, and when concerned adults asked if she had gotten separated from her family, she said “no, I just needed fresh air”, and disappeared back into the crowd.
As the sky finally grew lighter, the anticipation only became more evident. There were a few false starts as people mistook drumbeats or trumpets for the beginning of the ceremony, but when it did start I was unprepared for the intensity of it. Tens of thousands of voices competed with the band for volume and everyone lifted their respective phones, or selfie sticks, or small handheld flags to try to see or be seen. At the end of the anthem thousands of doves were released, forming huge flocks that spiraled up to fill the sky as the band began another patriotic song. The ceremony in total lasted about five minutes – no doubt more comfortably and clearly seen by millions on TV. (This is also how I would advise most people to watch it, if you’re curious.)
So why were we there? What is there to gain from National Day for someone not of Chinese nationality or heritage? It’s certainly an occasion to think about patriotism as a concept and in your own situation. Actually, a few people advised us to go see the ceremony on a different day altogether to avoid the crowds. But the pomp and sheer spectacle of the marches and music was only part of the reason. As in any case where the wait is longer than the event itself, the shared experience with strangers is a vital part, and what better way to understand something so seemingly abstract and removed from our direct knowledge as Chinese patriotism than by spending time with clearly patriotic people from every part of China and every walk of life? If it is so important as to move this many people this deeply – I ought to understand it, and I want to be there.