When I think of Tiananmen Square, I think of one scene that is burnt into my memory. It was 1989 and I was 11. I remember seeing on the news, an army tank rolling through this huge square and a young man running out in front of it waving his arms. The young protester did not survive. It is a scene that I am certain many westerners remember and therefore hearing the name Tiananmen Square sends a chill through you, as it does me. The 'reality' is that most of the people killed that day were killed in the surrounding streets whilst trying to hold up the army tanks from arriving at the square or were people living out their daily life in the summer time air and were caught in the crossfire. Regardless of what actually occurred on that day in June 1989 Tiananmen Square is iconic for all of the wrong reasons.
Each morning at sunrise and evening at sunset the red flag with yellow stars is raised in the square by the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Each morning tens of thousands of proud Chinese people gather to watch this event. Whether it is below zero or, as it was this morning a lovely 21C they gather to watch the PLA march out of the Heavenly Gates of the palace that is to the north of the square and across the road and into the Tiananmen. They march at precisely 108 steps per minute and each step is 75cm in length. Not a centimeter more, not a pace less. What a spectacular and somewhat unnerving sight to see.
At 4:30 this morning we rose, dressed and walked through the Hutong lined lane ways towards the square. Beijing is a distinctly different city to Shanghai in its look and feel. It is more like what many of the Chinatowns around the world are modeled on. It is old and polluted but entirely fascinating. The lane ways were quite and the energy in the air was one of exhaustion. There was a small bar with 4 men slumped around a table smoking and laughing as the sun began to illuminate the hazy polluted sky. The pollution level was over 150 which according to the Air Pollution Index means it is only moderately polluted. What it really means that there is a distinct haze in the air and usually your eyes feel gritty. We hailed a taxi to the square. As we arrived we were greeted by people selling Chinese flags and other knick knacks. There were thousands upon thousands of people walking towards the square. As though we were all heading back into our ants nest. We streamed from alleyways and subways, roads and buses towards the site. There was a lack luster security check where both Greg and I walked though, backpacks on, cameras in hand and with metal detectors not going off. I doubt they were switched on, but it made for a good way to spread out the flow of people. I must admit when I walked through I stared at a guard (army I assume as he was in green) and was waiting for him to grab my pack and pull me back for a proper screen. He just waved me on.
As you approach the square itself you could see through the twilight and haze the overwhelming size and grandure of the government buildings flanking the square. They were built by Chairman Mao to look and feel gargantuan and domineering. He did a spectacular job of choosing the right architecture as they do exactly that. The energy around us was prideful yet quiet and contemplative as the Chinese gathered to see their army welcome in the new day.
At 5:27am the gates of the palace opened and the men marched out, across the wooden bridge that spans a moat, across the wide, paved boulevard where all of the cars had been cleared and stopped to the flag pole. There were army guards dotted intentionally all around the square and where people stand. We were on the palace side of the road as we were stopped from going the the flag pole side. I would say due to the volume of people over there. The PLA precisely marched and raised the flag as an eerie silence fell over the crowd of thousands. There were many children in the crowd and they waved their flags, slowly... proudly.
The enormous painting of Chairman Mao hung at the palace gates watched on was his people swelled with pride as the huge red flag caught it's first breath of early morning breeze. The PLA marched back the way they came and the people dispersed. The day had once again begun for over a billion Chinese people.