Smartly, at 5:45 p.m., as a hazy autumn day began to fade into twilight, a squad of olive-uniformed soldiers marched in stiff unison to the flagpole in Tiananmen Square. With practiced jerks and in perfect silence, they pulled China's national flag down the staff as a colossal portrait of Mao Zedong looked on from the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
Kept at a respectful distance of 75 feet by two rows of soldiers, thousands of spectators watched the red banner with its five yellow stars slowly descend the pole. Although the solemn ceremony takes place twice daily all year long -- up at sunrise, down at dusk -- it carried particular significance for the countless Chinese who visited Beijing during the week-long holiday that follows National Day on Oct. 1.
Tourists from outlying provinces were visible throughout the becalmed capital that week, blessedly free of its usual traffic jams. Most were easily identifiable by their ruddy skin, unfashionable clothes and bright-colored baseball hats handed out by hometown travel agencies. But nowhere were they more concentrated than at dusk in Tiananmen Square, the 4.7 million-square-foot esplanade that has been a center of Chinese history since the Ming Dynasty about 600 years ago.
Before the soldiers marched up, tour leaders shouted through megaphones to gather their flocks for the flag ceremony that was about to begin. An elderly couple, tired from a long day in the city, sat on the hard, flat stones as they waited with no sign of discomfort. A pair of Tibetan monks, jostled by the crowd, clutched their bordeaux-and-saffron robes. A teenage boy pulled his girlfriend in close. And policemen mingled with them all to make sure nobody got out of line.
For most, the National Day holiday was a time to get away from work in the millions of fields, factories and study halls around this giant nation. It was an opportunity to see in person the landmarks of Chinese history that they had learned about: the Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People's Heroes, engraved with Mao's own calligraphy. But perhaps most of all, it was a time to take pride in that long history and in more recent market reforms that have introduced hundreds of millions of people to the fruits of economic well-being.
The 9 percent growth rate that China has enjoyed in recent years, for instance, has meant that many Chinese for the first time can travel for pleasure. The new rich have taken to vacationing in Thailand or Europe. But even many of the small-town not-so-rich have accumulated enough cash to take a holiday. For a large proportion of them, Beijing, with its government headquarters and historic monuments, has remained the destination of choice.
"Beijing is full of history and culture," said Chun Wanlin, 32, who was visiting the capital for the first time along with her husband, Ye Guowang, 34, and their 3-year-old daughter, Ye Zhuofay.
As Chun spoke, the soldiers arrived and started reeling down the banner. She pointed her daughter toward the ceremony and urged her to watch, but little Zhuofay showed little interest in the solemnity.
Ye, who works for a U.S. high-tech company in the southern boomtown of Guangzhou, said he was happy to make the five-day visit because Beijing is the center of China's national life. "There is nothing like this anywhere else in the country," he added, gesturing toward the Gate of Heavenly Peace from which Mao proclaimed the rise of a new China in 1949.
Since then, the wisdom of Mao's leadership has been questioned, even by the Communist Party that he brought to power. Around the square where Ye was standing, army soldiers opened fire on students demonstrating for democracy in 1989. And on the fringes of his own home town, villagers have been struggling for months to right what they consider abuses committed by corrupt party officials.
But for Ye and countless others milling about the square, the National Day holiday was for noting how far China has come, not how far it has to go. The very fact that they were prosperous enough to be there, enjoying a trip to the capital, was reason for pride. And hopes were high that Ye Zhuofay, his young daughter, would have an even brighter future.
"We've made a lot of progress," he said. "A lot of development has taken place."
A few steps away, as the soldiers carefully folded the flag, people were pushing to get a better view. "I can't see," a woman shouted, shoving her way into the crowd. "What are they doing?" a young boy asked. Elbows out, his mother took his hand and pulled him into the fray.
But by then, five minutes after it began, the flag-lowering was over. The soldiers marched away, looking straight ahead. "No talking!" their commander barked to his men, who apparently were whispering. People watched them go by, then began drifting toward the exits and heading for dinner.
The haze turned into a drizzle, meanwhile, and lights outlining the Gate of Heavenly Peace came on. Spotlights flooded down on Mao. "Long Live the People's Republic of China," said a sign on the left side of his portrait. "Long Live the Great United People of the World," said a sign on the right side.