On 1 October, 1949, Mao Zedong announced – in his good Hunanese accent – the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The communists had pondered which capital would be best. Nanjing, literally the ‘southern capital’, had been the base of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). But Nanjing had what is known as bad fengshui for power. Each of the powers that had based themselves there had not lasted so long. Power was felt to leak out of the city along the Yangtze River. So Beijing, the northern capital, was chosen as the new base of power for the communists.
Since that first and famous declaration on 1 October, the occasion has been celebrated each year. In 2016, I decided to experience the event for myself. Actually, I wanted to film the event with a film crew. Easier said than done, since filming in Tiananmen Square requires special permission – especially for a foreigner.
After much discussion by phone with the Tiananmen Management Committee Propaganda Department, we wrote a detailed application. It included the usual information: who, when, why, and so on. But the crucial question concerned my political orientation. So the application closed by stating that I – Bo Guoqiang (using my Chinese name) – am ‘friendly [youhao]’ towards China, indeed I have a ‘deep affection’, if not ‘ardent love [re’ai]’ for China. Further, my political position is ‘without problems [renhe wenti]’ for China.
This declaration did the trick. After submitting the application, the reply came within in a few minutes. We had received a privilege rare for foreigners: to film in Tiananmen on a major day in the Chinese calendar. The letter of permission, with its all-important seal, was picked up later that day.
This letter was like a magic wand on 1 October. The film crew, director, and I were allowed to enter zones closed to most. The letter opened a passage in the crowd to get the best view. Occasionally, a security guard asked us what we were doing. As soon as he or she saw the letter, they smiled, and even guided us to places for the best shots.
But what exactly happened on 1 October, 2016?
We arrived at 4.00 am to find the square already full of people – in fact, thousands and thousands of people. Quite a number of young people had slept overnight in the square, so as to gain a good position for viewing the proceedings. Indeed, this is a rite of passage for many young Chinese, to do it at least once.
It was still a few hours before first light. Yet already people stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the actual celebration. They talked, took photos, listened to the announcements on the loudspeakers. Here, we were told, Chairman Mao Zedong (Maozedong zhuxi) had made his famous announcement. Mao was clearly present, with his huge picture on Tiananmen gate in one direction and the mausoleum with his body in another.
Finally, a little after six o’clock, at the first glimmer of light, the sound of marching band music began. Everyone craned and shuffled forward to gain a better view. Cameras and smartphones were raised above everyone’s head as they tried to film and photograph the event.
I was profoundly moved by the occasion. Why?
The key for me was the absolute simplicity of the experience. A line of soldiers marched out to the music in perfect formation. They circled a massive flagpole and stood to attention. From their midst three flagbearers came forward, attached a massive red flag and its yellow stars to the flagpole, and raised the flag slowly to the heavens. As the flag reached to the top and unfurled in the wind, hundreds of doves were released. They circled the flagpole and square. The massive crowd let out a cheer.
That was it. It took maybe 10 minutes in total and this is what people had waited hours and hours and hours to witness.
Now, I must admit, I was expecting politicians to give big speeches, to have all sorts of events going on for hour after hour.
But no, the actual event was stunning in its simplicity. In an age of oversaturated media, of an oversupply of information and news cycles, this simple event was all the more powerful. Its symbolism was simple, its time brief, its effect deeply moving.
This is how people actually celebrate and experience the birth of modern China, the People’s Republic of China no less.
But what did they do afterwards? They spent a few more hours in the square, taking photographs, exploring the square (for many had come from outside Beijing), finding somewhere to eat, and beginning to enjoy the week-long holiday that would follow.