Gradually, Beijing wakes up to a new dawn
Monday morning in Beijing was different. State networks broadcasted news bulletins with black backgrounds, while KTV parlors and nightclubs closed for the night before midnight. Even taxi drivers finished their shifts early.
It was also a sleepless night for some. Lying awake for two hours, Guo Shunqing said he simply gave up trying to sleep at 3 am. After making himself some green tea, he put up his hat and pinned a white flower made of tissue on his left chest of his shirt. Then, mounting his electric bike, Guo headed to Tiananmen Square for his second national flag raising ceremony after more than a decade.
"The disaster is beyond my ability to cope, really. I just feel I can't do anything except paying tribute by coming here," said the 63-year-old, a retired director of a travel agency who now runs an Internet forum on a major web portal called Qianlong.
This was a solemn moment for the senior who knew first-hand what the Wenchuan earthquake victims are going through. He himself lived in tents during the Tangshan Quake that also shook Beijing 32 years ago.
And this morning would be the first time the Chinese national flag would fly at half-mast for victims who lost their lives in this natural disaster. This is unprecedented, as national flags only flew at half-mast for the deaths of political leaders and national heroes.
This explained why about 400 people were waiting quietly at the both entrances of the world's largest square for their turn to approach the 30-meter tall pole south of Tiananmen.
"We took a bus at midnight and we've been here since 1 o'clock," said 21-year-old Ge Xuxue, a business student from Peking University.
"I want to witness this special ritual and give my support to my countrymen in quake-hit Sichuan," the young man from Zaozhuang in Shandong said.
"The quake will unite the country and help build a better Olympics," said 27-year-old Zhao Miao, who works for State Grid, standing next to Ge.
Zhao drove to Tiananmen all the way from Fangshan District, 70 km southeast of Beijing. He said the quick rescue response to the quake earned him more trust in the government.'
As the night, lit by the moon which was clouded over, gave way to a fresh dawn. Thirty-six flag guards marched southbound in a solemn and precise beat through the central arch of Tiananmen at 4:50 am. The center guard carried the flag in front at an angle, crossing a 300-year-old marble bridge, toward an eager crowd that had now grown to over 2,000 people in the center of the square.
"Turn on your TV now. They are going to raise the flag at half-mast," Mao Hongxu quickly relayed to relatives in Huaibei, Anhui province on his cell phone.
"Salute!" shouted a guard by the pole giving the order.
The guard then spread the bright red flag with yellow stars in a dramatic manner at exactly 4:46 am, just as the sun rose above the horizon. The flag ascended to the top of the pole as the national anthem was played three times from loud speakers around the Square.
When the flag reached the top and the last note was played at 4:58 am, the guard by the pole again shouted, "At half-mast!"
The five-star flag descended in silence, and only heavy breaths and the shutters were heard among the crowd of men and women, old and young.
"The silence was unbearable," said 30-year-old Jin Guang, a designer from Jilin province, who carried a mini-sized national flag.
Guo Shunqing, clutching his white flower like a treasured keepsake, said :"I think the government has a better understanding of the public's feelings which explains this unprecedented ritual. It is very encouraging."
Guo added he will upload his photos to his forum as soon as possible.
"My readers are waiting," explained the bespectacled gentleman, before snapping a few shots of the flag against the backdrop of the light pink sky in the east.