The evolution of Chinese National Day in Kunming

By in Features

On October 1, China celebrates National Day (国庆节), officially commemorating 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 replete with military hardware, goose-stepping soldiers and floats stressing important cultural points of pride. All of this pomp and circumstance 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 victory over the Nationalists, standing atop Tiananmen Gate before tens of thousands, publicly declaring the establishment of China as a Communist state.

Tourists queue up during National Day at Kunming's Tea-Horse Culture Road (image credit: ZhengShiLong)
Tourists queue up during National Day at Kunming's Tea-Horse Culture Road (image credit: ZhengShiLong)

Here in Yunnan's capital Kunming, while National Day is no less important to many, it is observed with a bit less vim and vigor than in Beijing. 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. This year, by some estimates, half of the Middle Kingdom's entire population will be on the move, vast heaving crowds of humanity spilling through airport, train and bus boarding gates.

For those who do stay in Kunming, 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 and all government offices, 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 — just like it's predecessor in the center of town — seems to have been discontinued permanently.

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 where locals and tourists alike snap selfies, 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 Spring City's unofficial symbol. However, with the coming of the Cultural Revolution and its dictates of destroying the past, Jinbi Square was quite literally wiped off the map. Despite the cultural significance of the two gates, or in fact because of it, both were razed as China cleansed itself of 'backward' and 'feudal' symbols.

Dongfeng Square and the Worker's Cultural Palace in the early 2000s (image credit: Goldenteam)
Dongfeng Square and the Worker's Cultural Palace in the early 2000s (image credit: Goldenteam)

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 choreograph their own performances each 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). Massive portraits of Mao were erected in the run-up to October 1, and attendant fireworks displays were equally impressive.

A National Day parade passes under Biji Gate in 1952 (image credit: CCWB)
A National Day parade passes under Biji Gate in 1952 (image credit: CCWB)

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 and the Workers Cultural Palace continued to be the center of National Day functions until they too were summarily imploded 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, unless you include the throngs of domestic travelers flocking to tourist hotspots in Lijiang (丽江) and Dali (大理). In 2018, as with many recent years, Lijiang is expected to be the second-most-visited National Day destination in the entire country.

All of the traditional activities of the past have seemingly been replaced in Kunming by a general hustle and bustle once unknown or ignored South of the Clouds. Now Kunming residents, and their counterparts across the country, pursue more modern and less politically charged pastimes during their seven days off — namely shopping and sightseeing.

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

Flag image: Panoramio
Dongfeng Square image: CLZG
Bottom image: Yereth Jansen

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Emerald Chicken ?
Thought it was a peacock.

Fond memories of Dongfeng Square and the Worker's Cultural Palace, as seen in the above picture. When I first arrived here, it was a delight to see so many strangers holding hands dancing in a big circle there. It was new to me.

This now empty lot will become the tallest skyscraper in Kunming with 100 floors (407 meters), That's nearly one third higher than our current tallest Wanda finance buildings (317 meters).

The two new towers will be called Eye of Spring Trade Center (aka Dongfeng Plaza) upon completion in 2 or 3 years.

Across from Dongfeng Plaza, behind Gingko Department Store where Kunming Municipal People's Government was previously situated, Spring City 66 tower is already visible in the skyline...

A shabby 63-storey (349 meters) skyscraper in comparison, but already taller than Kunming's reigning champion Wanda twin towers. The massive shopping center mall below will house over 300 international brands next year. KRT subway 1, 2, 3, & 6 will connect below it. Wow, location x 3!

For those who drive, there are going to be a couple of bridge closures and other major roadworks over the holiday.
You xiaoqu (community) management should have a government printed booklet on all of the closures and detours. We were given ours today.

I like the surreal, wide-angle photo of the old Workers' Cultural Palace, nice photo - but it obscures the friendly funkiness of the place as it was in, say, 2003 when I first went there and I'm sorry it no longer exists, There were things about the atmosphere around it which pointed up, at least to me, that, despite plenty of negative things that one can think of that characterized former ideas of social engineering, that there were some good things about it too that are now gone. I'm referring, mostly, to the down-to-earth everyday ordinary humanity of the place as it was. Time marches on etc., but things get lost and sometimes babies are thrown out with the bath water. A lot of the recently-imposed slickness is, in my opinion, negative. Not in political terms, perhaps, but in social terms, the old Worker's Cultural Palace had a real feeling of social equality and fraternity about it that we could use more of now.


This the inevitable path of modern China of 69 years young. From farming & low-cost manufacturing to cutting edge A.I., stem cell, quantum computing, and space race research.

In contrast, here's an aerial view of current Dongfeng Square taken just a few weeks ago:

Here's another zoomed out view from three months ago, when digging was less extensive:

The excavation process for this 407 meter "Eye of Mordor" look-alike is mind-boggling. For those who've visited Taipei 101's outdoor observation deck, it's height is only 390 meters. The long spire (antennae) on top is misleading.

Many more in-depth pictures of what was once our Dongfeng Square is continuously updated by user "oscillation" if you're interested:

One more thing...

If you look closely at my first picture link, the temporary housing and storage facilities are actually where the previous public spaces of Dongfeng Plaza were located.

Once the Eye of Spring towers are built to its South, that open space will return in full glory. Locals and visitors alike will dance again in "friendly & funky" hand-holding circles to traditional Yunnan folk songs.

I believe President Xi embraces the symbiotic evolution of the old and new.

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