In the first series of photos, taken circa 1989, I am sporting the standard Chinese girl grade school outfit – blue skirt and white shirt uniform set, plus a tightly pulled ponytail. In most of these photos, I am performing the Young Pioneer salute, right hand sharply raised above my forehead, with a grimace on my face. It was not the patriotic posture that I minded, but the awkward combination of white socks and sandals that the Shuangyushu Central Elementary School had forced me to wear.
The second set of photos, taken just last week, looks wildly different. I am wearing a short dress and high heels (more appropriate for dancing at a night club than for attending to my patriotic duty) and, although you can’t smell it in the digital image, there is most definitely cigarette smoke in my hair. Instead of uniformed Young Pioneers, I’m surrounded by an eclectic group of friends – a tall blond Texan man, an equally blond Arizonan native, and two culturally and ethnically mixed overseas Chinese. In our hands are plastic cups full of beer and imaginary conductor wands, which we wave about as we loudly warble the national anthem.
These were just two of the more memorable occasions when I went to watch the sun and flag rise in the square at an absurd hour. Like hundreds of thousands of my countrymen who make their way to Tian’anmen Square on holidays from near and far, I find something special in the camaraderie of the event.
If nothing else, there on the square, I share a bond with thousands of others who have endured the painful process of appearing awake in public at an hour when everything else sleeps.
Chinese people take the flag raising ceremony very seriously. Although reliable figures for how many people make the sunrise pilgrimage each year are hard to come by, there are reports of a single day peak at 12,000 people on Jan 1, 2009, and an astounding 220,000 people during National Day golden week in 2006.
While the ceremony starts at a shockingly early hour – around 4:45 am in the summer and 7:30 am in the winter – a look around the square on any given day tells you that setting the alarm was peanuts compared to the other trouble that people went through just to be there. When the green guard gives the flag a sharp toss and the five-star red banner unfurls in the wind, most of the excited faces in the crowd are tanned and their happy exclamations shouted in dialect.
To the non-Beijinger, a trip into the capital to witness the flag raising is a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that carries a near religious significance. Ever since Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China to a parade of 300,000 on Oct 1, 1949, people have flocked to Tian’anmen Square in the wee hours of the morning.
Nationalism and patriotism are touchy subjects sometimes, as cynics are quick to dismiss any such acts as products of propaganda and political amnesia. Yet, I would argue that it would be a shame not to partake in this unique cultural experience when in Beijing. At the very least, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
I was surprised by how few of my foreign friends who live in the city have taken advantage of their proximity to the square. None of the group that I dragged into a taxi at 4:20 am in Sanlitun and herded down a wide open Chang’an Avenue at 4:40 am last weekend had attended the flag raising ceremony before. Half of them hadn’t even heard of such a thing. Nor have many of my close friends and acquaintances in Beijing made the trek. Even a quick poll of a 500-member strong “serious Sinophile” academic alumni group yielded only a 50 percent hit rate. Most people I asked who knew about the event simply shrugged and said: “I’ve tried to make it, but it’s just too early.”
If the cultural draw and a chance to mingle with 10,000 of “the masses” aren’t enough to persuade you to at least attempt a visit to Tian’anmen Square early in the morning, consider these three good reasons to make it on time:
1. It will be the only time that traffic stops for you to run across 10 lanes to get to the other side of the street
2. The air over the square has some semblance of crisp cleanliness in the extremely early morning hours
3. For once, you can be surrounded by countless country Chinese and not be the center of circus attention (nobody will be looking at you when the trumpets start playing)
And if you’ve tried and failed to see a flag raising ceremony, take these five words of advice: stay up, don’t get up.