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The flag-lowering ceremony at Tienanmen Square

Tienanmen Square

Just before the flag-lowering ceremony at Tienanmen Square

One of the most impressive experiences in China was the flag-lowering ceremony in Tienanmen Square. Anyone who has been to Tienanmen Square will relate to the feeling of being examined scrupulously; but the flag-lowering ceremony piqued this sensation.

At the time I thought it was a special occasion that we had inadvertently stumbled into, but after doing a bit of research, it seems that this is a daily occurrence. Presumably the flag-raising ceremony carries just as much weight, and I found myself amazed that in a city with such a throbbing mass of people each going about their daily lives, all of their activity and all of their priorities were a distant second to state-sponsored ceremony.

Small groups of soldiers patrol the area around the flag-pole non-stop, with official cars circling the crowd announcing the fact that the ceremony is about to begin. The area around the flag-pole is cordoned off, and there’s no way anyone wants to mess with that. Stern soldiers stare back at the crowd from beyond the fence while the crowd waits, arms aloft and cameras flashing. The sense of anticipation combined with sheer intimidation is quite an add sensation to feel in a large crowd. I’m far more used to waiting for bands to show up on stage, and unbridled excitement taking hold when they finally arrive. Purposeful intimidation in a large crowd is not something I’m used to.

Hi-def screens running across the square

Enormous screens run across the square

From the gates to the Forbidden City they march – around 30 soldiers, ornately dressed in ceremonial gear and armed to the teeth, marching with absolute precision all the way to the flag-pole. Bear in mind, the highway-sized road between the gates and the square itself has been closed all this time; a city’s main traffic artery completely disabled while this twice-daily ceremony takes place. A few of the soldiers approach the flag – now lowered – and fold the red banner in a peculiar way, the peculiarity of the deed doing nothing to detract from the unbelievable precision of the exercise.

Almost as quickly as the soldiers arrive, they disappear beyond the Forbidden City walls. The crowds disperse, talking loudly and continuing with the night’s activities. We enter a subway to exit the square. The crowd is thick around us; parting hurriedly as two lines of soldiers march with alarming speed straight into the mass of people. A throng of teenage boys follow behind them; laughing and imitating their goose-step. It seemed to make sense for those wishing to escape the subway quickly. We chose not to try our luck with the Chinese military, and threaded our way slowly to the city centre as darkness fell.

It was – for all its absurdity – a brief lesson in the ceremonies and rituals of a country very different from my own. And whatever your political views, it’s an impressive sight to see and well worth the journey.

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