Friday, August 22, 2014

(My Failed Attempt at) Watching the Flag Lowering Ceremony at the Tian’anmen Square

(This is the second post by Chunhua Chen, a Ph.D student of Political Science at GWU. This summer, she is doing field research for her dissertation in China supported by a Sigur Center Grant for Asian Field Research for summer 2014.)

My stay in Beijing this time is going to end next week. So yesterday, I decided that I needed to go to the Tian’anmen Square to watch the daily National Flag lowering ceremony before leaving the city.  It had been several years since I was last in the Square, and I had never watched the famous national flag-raising or flag-lowering ceremonies—strange, as I had lived in Beijing for six long years. I was sure they were scenes to marvel at. The national emblem and national flag are the symbols of a country and everything it stands for for its people. Ernest Renan says that “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle” that necessarily entails “the possession in common of a rich heritage of memories” and “actual agreement, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to make the most of the joint inheritance.” It is in the same vein of Benedict Anderson’s definition of the nation as an “imagined political community” in the sense that the basis on which a nation is held together springs from its members’ minds. National identities, which are primarily formed on the basis of factors such as sharing the collective memories of history, awareness of oneself as belonging to the same nation as other members, and the sharing of the same culture, are all phenomena at the mental and spiritual level, based on the formation of ideas. The lines between different nations lie in, or stem from, in large part, people’s “imagination.” Ceremonies such as national flag raising and lowering are an important part of creating, sustaining, and triggering that imagination, which is essential for the very survival of any nation. Stephen Walt even calls nationalism “the most powerful political force in the world.”

            At about 6:30, following the stream of tourists, I walked slowly along the narrow street leading to the Square. In the souvenir stores were stuffed pandas, folding fans, cheong-sams, etc. At a porcelain store, I saw several big decorative plates with the portraits of the four generations of leaders of the People’s Republic of China painted on them. President Xi Jinping’s portrait, of course, was on display at the most prominent place. What’s noteworthy was that there was also a plate with the picture of both President Xi and his wife, Ms. Peng Liyuan. A former popular folk singer and performing artist, Ms. Peng charmed the whole country and the world with her glamour and fashion sense when she accompanied her husband on his first official trip in 2013 to Russia, Tanzania, the Republic of Congo and South Africa, and thus broke the tradition of Chinese "first ladies" not entering the limelight.
Left and right: President Xi Jinping; middle: President Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan
 Two little girls, dressed by their parents like Qing-dynasty princesses, were running and laughing on the street. Every several hundred meters there was a patrol team of three helmeted police officers and a white police car. I tried to take a picture of one of the patrol teams but was called off.

I went through the security checkpoint and finally stood at the Tian’anmen Square. Last time when I had been here, I, like many of my peers, had not known much about the history of the Square, especially what happened here back in the late 1980s. But now I had known better, and could not help recreating in my mind the scenes on the Square in that eventful year. Many tired tourists were sitting on the ground, waiting for the ceremony and playing with their handsets. The Monument to the People’s Heroes was still solemn and quiet, and the sunset was purple-orange-pink. Somehow it also looked like blood.  

At about 7, someone shouted, “it started!” Then people quickly formed a wall in front of the gate of Tian’anmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace. I could vaguely heard the national anthem, but was too far away from the flag-raising platform and too short to be able to catch a view. So what I ended up watching was countless cellphone screens ---people were all video recording the ceremony while watching it, or to be more exact, watching the ceremony through their cellphone screens.
I was watching numerous cellphone screens
More screens

The ceremony lasted for only several minutes. Night started to slowly fall upon the Square and police officers—both in uniforms and plain cloches—started to ask people to leave the Square and not gather. I finally saw the flagpole when the crowds were dispersed.

When I left the Square through another narrow gate, I saw many disappointed tourists being turned away by the officers guarding the gate. “The flag lowering ceremony has ended,” one officer said impatiently, “now the Square is no longer open to the public.”

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