Tian’anmen Square Flag Raising
When you are travelling in Beijing there is a whole bunch of typical travel stuff you can do like climb the Great Wall, wander through the Forbidden City, eat the delicious Beijing Duck and watch the raising of the Chinese flag at Tiananmen Square. For me, watching the flag raising was one of those things I always meant to do but never got around to doing. Until last Sunday morning!!!
A Little Background on Tiananmen
With out exaggeration, Tiananmen Square is the political and spiritual heart of China and it was in the square that the proclamation of the Peoples Republic of China was made back in 1949. Click here for more information on Tiananmen Square
So the raising of the flag that takes place every morning in Tiananmen Square is a pretty big deal and extremely symbolic. Standing shoulder to shoulder with hordes of patriotic locals watching their flag being raised is definitely a unique and very Chinese experience.
The Night Before
Despite the best of intentions, one of the reasons that I’d never seen the flag raising is it happens at sunrise. The time of day when every sane tourist should be in bed dreaming about the cool places they’ll visit after a good nights sleep. To wake up that early was going to take a team effort so together with a couple of Americans and a Malaysian tourist that I was hanging out with, we swore a solemn pact to watch it together the next day. We were to meet at 5:30am at Tiananmen West subway station to watch the flag raising at 6:00am.
Woke up to the screeching of the alarm the next morning at 5:00am and was dressed and staggering out of the hotel 10 minutes later. Called my Malaysian buddy J while walking north to Tiananemen Square. He could not find the Americans and was on the way.
You’d think the streets would be empty that time of day but I was sharing the footpaths with crowds of Chinese tourists in tour groups all wearing their red/orange/yellow hats and on their way to watch the flag raising. There was not just a few groups of them scattered around the streets, they were every where purposefully marching in unison to Tiananmen Square.
Never expected the flag raising to be that popular so time for a change of plan. Called J and told him we’d meet at the square itself near the flag. He was stuck on a subway going the wrong direction so I was on my own.
A large square area around the base of the flag was roped off creating a very large clear perimeter surrounding the flag. By the time I arrived there around 20 minutes early, the crowd was already lined up against the perimeter five people deep. By the time the honor guard arrived with the flag, the crowd must have been at least eight deep. The sight of the honor guard marching from Tiananmen Gate to Tiananmen Square caused a surge in the crowd squashing the first few rows of people.
I’ve seen plenty of crowds at China’s travel spots with the Badaling Great Wall of China being a classic example but nothing like the crowd at this flag raising. This was a cold spring morning so the crowds during the peak travel season summer would be a lot (gulp) larger. Watching the flag raising during summer would be a form of extreme tourism and an exercise in futility if you under 6 feet in height.
When you first arrive at Tiananmen Square bleary eyed, yawning and desperate for a coffee, you will the around five squads of guards scattered around the inner perimeter of the cleared area, guards posted around the flag pole, four to five pairs of volunteers in their red jackets, a line of guards along the southern edge of the perimeter and a large number of white security vans parked on the road in between Tiananmen Gate and Tiananmen Square.
When the crowd starts to build up and people become pushy, you’ll appreciate the heavy security. Be warned though, this is not a good place for political activists who can’t help themselves.
Like clock work, the honor guard will come marching out of Tiananmen Gate over the center bridge exactly on time with the flag bearer at the head of the column. The honor guard marches to the base of the flag where the flag bearer mounts the flag base and raises the flag with the help of the guards posted at flag.
The whole process from marching out of Tiananmen Gate to the completion of raising the flag takes less than five minutes. Once the flag has been raised, the flag is saluted and the honor guard returns back the way it came to Tiananmen Gate. The crowd then quickly disperses and you are left wandering what to do.
Go bad to bed – this is one of my favorites and definitely the way to go in winter when the temperature is below zero.
Visit Jingshan Park – This is the park to the north of the Forbidden City that has the best views of the Forbidden City and the surrounding area. By the time you’ve reached the top and had a chance to relax, the Forbidden City should be open.
Hit the Great Wall of China – Many parts of the Great Wall such as Jiankou and Gubeikou take a while to reach so start early and have more time on the wall.
Explore the Hutongs – The area around the Forbidden City is riddled with hutongs that are delightful to walk through. You’ll have no trouble finding a small out of the way restaurant in the hutongs to enjoy breakfast.
After the flag raising I caught up with J who arrived around 20 minutes late and we went of to meet another friend then head out to the Zheng Bei Lou tower on the Jiankou section of the Great Wall.
Flag Raising Times
The flag raising ceremony is carried out at sunrise so it is going to be different every day. I recommend you use this Beijing rising and setting times calculator.
To avoid the worst of the crowds and get a good position with a decent view, I suggest you aim to be at Tiananmen Square at least 30 minutes before sunrise.