As 'New China' turns 70, a look back at National Days past 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. This year marks the seventieth anniversary of that earth-shaking event.

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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The Beijing Tian AnMen activities are available for view on most major Chinese streaming sites - to include Youku and Aiqiyi...

Photo of Tea Horse Culture Road. In fairness, that does not look like a queue, just a normal holiday crowd. I think if it was a queue there would be no gaps in it. Just sayin.

Great that there are no military parades on National Day,here. I assume it's only in Beijing that all that is promoted?

It would be a logistical nightmare to hold multi-city military parades. Military representing all three uniforms protecting Yunnan's sw border already had their own thing in Kunming. They congregated at the people's freedom monument hall arriving on bus loads. Packed house.

Perhaps tactfully change "promoted" to celebrated. Refrain from being an acrimonious guest to your host. Untimely, especially on their birthday night, which begun with fireworks to boot (booming in the distance as I'm typing this), and well deserved I might add.

70 years may appear like a lifetime for individuals, yet fleeting for populous nations. From overwhelming poverty to global success story. Hundreds of millions of souls with job opportunities to feed themselves and their families.

Pausing your country/ethnic/political bias for a moment as fireworks light up the night below the same crescent moon seen 70 years earlier. We as one human race can collectively celebrate and ponder on this glimmer of truth, craters notwithstanding.

So someone who raises doubts about a military parade is an acrimonious guest and is ethnically biased? I wonder would that count as 'playing the man not the ball ' - to coin a phrase. By the way, a Chinese patriot of my acquaintance recently pointed out that the Americans are not afraid of Chinese weaponry but they are afraid of China's GDP. A return to high growth combined with fairer distribution of wealth is China's best defence.

In Sun Tzu's Art of War. The best military tactic is not engaging in actual war, but defeating your enemies in mental tactics without firing a shot.

The display of advance weaponry is correlated to China's long-term GDP stabilization.

Americans don't seem to have a defense system that can bypass a legion of hypersonic ICBMs with nuke warheads capable of hitting US mainland soil in 30 minutes. This type of weaponry gives MAD (mass assured destruction) leverage to China's claim to the USD trillion dollar gas and mineral resources in the SCS.

People forget that energy also drives the economy, without which we saw the eventual downfall of Imperial Rising Sun and Nazi Germany.

@viyida wrote: "MAD (mutual assured destruction) leverage"

An oxymoron. MAD is bi-directional, hence the "mutual". Both sides have reduced leverage over each other under MAD, because threats to use conventional force have low credibility in light of the extreme risks involved.

My typo, good catch herenow.

Chinese has a phrase to describe contradiction similar to your oxymoron, called 矛盾 (maodun). The spear (mao) that penetrates all shields and the shield (dun) that blocks all spears. Therein lies the contradiction.

The ongoing arms race, as it stands on paper, no shields of missile dense systems (MDS) could deter faster than sound hypersonic spears.

Moreover, ally Russia is currently bolstering Mainland's early missile defense system to counter more traditional ICBMs. Only these three nations will have this early warning MDS tech.

Hence, the concept of mutuality is, at least for now, tilted in favor of China if in event of an unlikely military escalation. This shift in balance of power, to return to my Art of War nod, gives U.S. and allies more pause for thought for waging war over the disputed SCS.

Chessboard stalemate ensues. The status quo of China expanding military, fishing, and drilling presence resumes as planned.

Let's hope the Chinese, both its people and the government, does not make the same mistake as Japan did in WWII, into thinking that Americans are too soft and lack the resolve to pursue its enemies. If nothing else, history has shown that the US have its share of vindictive, hate-filled people who love nothing more than a fight based on perceived slights, Any attack on America will not be easily forgotten or forgiven.

Nuclear weapons, great power rivalry, drilling for oil and gas in the sea despite global warming. Learn from the mistakes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan - not by not invading other countries but by ensuring we have sufficient weapons of mass destruction to avoid retaliation. What a wonderful future you set out for us.

As the 70th National Golden Week comes to a close, allow me to end the discourse on a more positive note with the "second arrow" parable.

To use another weaponry analogy, a wooden arrow flies across a forest and hits a person on the back. This first arrow of misfortune causes great pain to the victim, or even a nation. Be it the pain and humiliation inflicted by the Japanese occupation, Nanjing massacre, or the Opium Wars instigated by the British centuries earlier. As victims in life, we may not see the first arrow coming, nor control its trajectory.

The second arrow, however, is the suffering in the psyche after being hit by the first arrow. The emotional turmoil lingering in the mind of the victim(s) afterwards. The archer of that second arrow is in actuality ourselves. We've been shooting ourselves with them since the dawn of human conflicts.

We internally fire the second arrow, perpetuating our own adverse reactions of suffering vis-a-vis the first. Negative reactions that lead to a cyclic chain reaction of retributions or suffering for others as well.

For the sake of humanity, and to avoid a nuclear winter or impending global warming catastrophe, we as individuals and a collective nation turning to the next chapter, should try to control life's second arrows by being more mindful, or "正念" (zhengnian).

The word "" is the combination of now () over mind/heart ().

Not being attached to the past, nor fretting the future.... drishta dharma sukha viharin.

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