China Mourns, With Minimal Guidance

On Tiananmen Square, the buildup was dizzying—people strolling or hurrying north, in crossing paths, till they ran out of room to walk. When 2:28 arrived, the pause itself felt curiously inadequate. The vastness of the square worked against it: The horns and sirens came from far off, a faint disturbance carrying across the open space. Camera shutters clicked and clicked. A silver-haired woman in a wheelchair bowed her head, and the photographers moved in on her.

Then it was over, officially. The crowd held its place, murmuring, considering. Near me, a man broke huskily into song: “Qilai! Qilai! Qilai!”—“Arise! Arise! Arise!”—the words of the national anthem. The singing faltered. A chant began: “Zhongguo”—“China”—“jia you!” It was what people yell at sports events to exhort the athletes—“Jia you!” Literally meaning “add gas”; “step on it”; “go.” Go, China!

For a few minutes, the singing and chanting continued raggedly, at odds, among different knots of people: Arise, you who refuse to be slaves … “Jia you! Zhonggou! Jia you!” Then, swiftly, the crowd made up its mind: “ZHONGGUO! JIA YOU!” Thousands of fists pumped in unison, amid phones and cameras held aloft. Newspapers, their front pages done in black and white, bobbed along. A call-and-response developed: dozens of people, leaders of their vicinity, offering “Zhongguo!” and tens of thousands returning “JIA YOU!” A small man rode above the crowd, clutching a flag and a poster and a flower, thrusting his arms up over and over again in a Y of rapture.

After 5 or 10 minutes, the chanting gave way to applause. A new call immediately picked up. “Zhongguo!” “WAN SUI!”—“Ten thousand years!”—the old cry for wishing long life to Mao. Off across the crowd and across the street, the Great Helmsman’s portrait looked down from the gate, but the masses were hailing their own country and themselves. “Zhongguo!” “WAN SUI!” “Zhongguo!” “WAN SUI!” “Sichuan!” “WAN SUI!”

The crowd milled, not pressed to the front any longer. People snapped pictures of each other, of the most fervent demonstrators, the elderly, children, pretty girls. Cameras pointed in my face. It occurred to me that I was an obvious foreigner in the middle of an impromptu nationalist rally, but that was too specific and intellectual to be a real worry. It was enough that I was in an immense, agitated crowd, one that hadn’t figured out what it was doing. “Country?” a man demanded, after snapping my picture. “Meiguo,” I said. He grinned and gave me a thumbs up.

Waves of chanting came and went, for 20 minutes, half an hour, on and on. Men were raw-voiced or panting with exertion. Uniformed police officers moved among them, with no obvious concern or emphasis. Then someone unfurled a large Chinese flag, and people began to push in toward him in excitement. A middle-aged man in a blue-on-blue dress shirt moved toward the flag-bearer, unobtrusively, and said something to him, and the flag began to retreat to the south and east, pulling part of the crowd with it. Another middle-aged man, wearing a blue pullover, held a walkie-talkie down by his side and watched.

Then the whole back of the crowd broke into a march, a river of people flowing from west to east, where the flag had gone. “China rising! China rising!” a gaunt young man in lensless hipster glasses called out, grinning, as he passed me. The river eddied into new vortexes of chanting: “Sichuan!” “JIA YOU!” I spotted the man in the blue-on-blue shirt again, steering a white man and woman out of the thick of one vortex. “We just crossed some sort of a boundary, in the center,” the white man said, in a Southern Hemisphere accent. The chanting carried on.

It was more than an hour before the authorities finally decided to end it. The normal method of clearing the square, if an event requires it, is for a line of soldiers to march down from the north and sweep it clear. This time, the soldiers worked their way south at a stroll, in no formation, wearing pale green shirtsleeves. A baby-faced NCO took some pictures. The crowd began to move along. One man turned back and tried one more yell: “ZHONGGUO!” The plainclothesman in the dress shirt stepped over to him. Take a rest, he said, mildly.