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National Day in the Spring City

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A National Day parade passes under Biji Gate in 1952
A National Day parade passes under Biji Gate in 1952

On October 1, China celebrates National Day (国庆节), a commemoration of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Firework displays on an immense scale are staged in many major cities across the country and Beijing puts on an often interminably long parade, which is beamed to televisions in all corners of the country.

As with similar celebrations across the globe, National Day is a time of patriotic remembrance. The first such event famously included Mao Zedong, fresh from his defeat of the Nationalists, standing atop Tiananmen Gate before tens of thousands, publicly declaring the establishment of China as a Communist state.

Here in Kunming, while National Day is no less important to many, it is observed with a bit less pomp and circumstance than in the nation's capital. For some, it is a chance to leave the city on vacation, as the now seven-day holiday is one of few in the Chinese calendar without attendant familial obligations. Nonetheless, trips home for those originally from out of town are common as well.

For those who do stay in town, disruptions to daily life are slight, especially when compared to the frenzy of travel and business closings associated with Chinese New Year. For the most part, businesses, other than some banks, stay open through the October holiday. An officially organized fireworks display was once held at the north end of Dianchi Lake near Haigeng Park, but that seems to have been discontinued.

Parades and other public observances in the Spring City were once common on National Day. In fact, such celebrations were intimately linked to Jinma Biji Fang (金马碧鸡坊) and its eponymous twin entrances — Golden Horse and Emerald Chicken gates — but those too have been done away with.

A 1991 celebration in Dongfeng Square
A 1991 celebration in Dongfeng Square

Before the founding of 'New China', what is today a pedestrian square was a busy thoroughfare through which much of the traffic heading east and west through the city had to pass. Since their original construction nearly four hundred years ago, Golden Horse and Emerald Chicken gates were a popular gathering place for vendors, travelers and, on important or official occasions, crowds of onlookers.

Parades, including those arranged for National Day celebrations, naturally passed through the gateway, which for nearly two centuries has been considered the city symbol. However, with the coming of the Cultural Revolution and its dictates of destroying the past, Jinbi Square was literally wiped off the map. Despite the cultural significance of the two gates, or in fact because of it, both were destroyed as China cleansed itself of 'backward' and 'feudal' symbols.

Kunming's Biji and Jinma gates, from a collection by Martin Hurlimann published in 1929
Kunming's Biji and Jinma gates, from a collection by Martin Hurlimann published in 1929

While national days continued to be held each October between 1966 and 1976, they too were purged of links to anything other than the Communist Party's vision of China. By this time, festivities had been relocated to Dongfeng Square (东风广场), a public area purpose-built for mass activities. Work groups — known as danwei (单位) — were required to design themed floats and performances for National Day. These usually centered around the 'three pillars' of Mao's China — workers, farmers and the military, collectively referred to as gongnongbing (工农兵).

Eventually, the Cultural Revolution came to an end and the country slowly returned to its senses. State-sponsored dogmatic repudiations of the past were eased and Jinbi Square was rebuilt at its original site in 1998. Dongfeng Square, however, continued to be the center of National Day functions until it too was summarily demolished in 2013.

Today, officials hold solemn private gatherings in the bowels of government buildings to remember the founding of the country. Gone are the parades and mass gatherings of years past. All of these activities have seemingly been replaced by a general hustle and bustle as Kunming residents and their counterparts across the country pursue a more modern pastime on their days off — shopping.

Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published by GoKunming on October 1, 2014.

Top image: CCWB
Flag image: Panoramio
Dongfeng Square image: CLZG
Street scene: Belleindochine
Bottom image: Yereth Jansen

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Five images in article but source is for four. We noticed that. Here, you get the 4th image source: its Martin Hurlimann. That is one of the more captivating images of old Kunming. Cant help thinking if those two boys in white are "slaves" from Zhaotong. Slave is maybe not right word, but its been used to describe them kids sold from Zhaotong, hence dare to reuse it.

And btw, that means the year 1902 under the photo is wrong. No big deal, its great photo. I assume you think its Auguste Francois, it has a resemblance. Notice the electricity poles there, it also means its later. The photograph should be found in Martin Hurlimanns book on his photographs in Asia. Worth a look. I think White Lotus Press has republished it quite recently.

Oh, so sorry for so many messages. Apparently there were electricity poles in 1902 as well. Anyway the image is from end of 1920's. In a book: "Ceylon und Indochina. Burma, Siam, Kambodscha, Annam, Tongking, Yünnan. Baukunst, Landschaft und Volksleben.
Hürlimann, Martin
Published by Zürich Fretz & Wasmuth, 1929

Later republished: White Lotus Press (2001)

PS. You should put an edit function here too, its embarrassing to write three messages in a row.

That is one of the all the more enrapturing pictures of old Kunming. Cant help thinking if those two young men in white are "slaves" from Zhaotong. Slave is possibly wrong word, but rather its been utilized to portray them kids sold from Zhaotong, thus set out to reuse it.

@Peter99 The image credit has been added. Thanks for pointing it out. Caption changed too.

Nice article and good picture thieving Patrick, though I note you didn't repeat the story of Jinma and Biji which might have been enlightening for some.

Dongfeng Square was a retiree park for years before they demolished it to make way for the subway and who knows what else that is still yet to emerge. It used to be quite pleasant to walk through as a refuge from traffic, with dancing, card games, tai qi and captive birds visible all day. Sadly that is gone and the eastern side of the center of the city has become pedestrian-unfriendly. No doubt when it opens we can look forward to inadequate escalators and crowds on stairs in the new subway. I really feel sad for the older residents at the moment, it's becoming very hard to move around and refuges from bustle fewer and fewer.

A GoKunming article from 2008

(reprinted here en.kunming.cn/index/content/2008-11/21/content_2037430.htm)

says the ceremonial arches were destroyed during the Second World War and doesn't mention them being torn down in the Cultural Revolution. It says they were rebuilt in the 1960s. I guess they could have been rebuilt then destroyed again in short order. Anyone know what the full story is?

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