Gao Hongfu (second left) raises the national flag at Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2009. Photo: Courtesy of Gao Hongfu
Good-looking, fit and 190 centimeters tall, he has had his fair share of female admirers. Not a film star nor a model, he was the soldier who raised national flag at Tiananmen Square for more than 11 years before he applied to be demobilized in January.
Gao Hongfu, 29, held the post of national flag raiser longer than anyone else since the National Flag Guard at Tiananmen Square was established at the end of 1982.
A conglomerate from Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, recently approached him and offered him a spokesman job with an annual salary of 500,000 yuan ($80,000), which Gao rejected.
"Upon further inquiry, I found that what they were after was my reputation, not my abilities," Gao told the Global Times on Tuesday in Beijing, adding that the company just wanted to use his name to promote its products.
Born in November 1985 in Gaozhai village, Huaxian county, Central China's Henan Province, Gao joined the army in 2002 at the age of 17 when he was still a high school student.
He said that his great admiration for the People's Liberation Army led to him becoming a soldier, and he was particularly inspired after watching the military parade on October 1, 1999 that marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
"While watching the live TV broadcast of the flag-raising ceremony during the parade, I was greatly moved and dreamed of being a flag raiser one day," Gao recalled.
And his dream came true. In March 2003, out of more than 10,000 new recruits with the Armed Police Beijing Corps, he was selected to become part of the National Flag Guard. And thanks to his good performance during the following year of training and practices, he was officially chosen to be the flag raiser in 2004.
Together with a team of 36 other honor guards, Gao took up the prestigious job of raising and lowering the 5-meter-long and 3.3-meter-wide national flag. The ceremony, which takes place at sunrise and sunset, attracts thousands of visitors from home and abroad every day.
Being tall and good-looking are selection criteria for the flag raising position. "People with pimples on their faces, white skin, round faces or crooked legs are not favored," said Gao. The political backgrounds of the candidate's parents and grandparents are also checked.
Tough selection process
Each year, the National Flag Guard selects new recruits from the Armed Police Beijing Corps, about 40 of whom will become reserves. "They can be eliminated at any time during the following training," Gao said.
Recruits need to train for months for the public ceremonies. While learning how to stand at attention, they need to stand still for four hours while holding a cross on their backs and a brick or a bowl on their heads. Sometimes, to sharpen their ability to remain expressionless regardless of their surroundings, the instructor will put live ants on their faces, Gao said.
To increase the strength in his right hand needed for unfolding the flag, Gao exercised with a 3-kilogram dumbbell hundreds of times every day. Due to the long-term strain on his right arm, his right shoulder now gets sore whenever it rains, he said.
According to Gao, there are more than 100 members of the National Flag Guard stationed behind the Tiananmen Tower at the entry to the Palace Museum, responsible for raising, guarding and lowering the flag.
"Once we put on the uniform and walk out of the Tiananmen Tower, we are no longer ourselves. We represent the army and the country," Gao said, noting that although they repeat the same movements every day, they try to treat every day as if it was their first.
On October 1, 2009, he raised the flag at the start of the parade at Tiananmen Square that marked the 60th anniversary of the country's founding, a moment he says he will never forget.
Gao says he raised and lowered the flag more than 6,200 times, and never made one error. He proudly claims that he unfolded the flag perfectly just before it was raised even in stormy or windy weather, and it reached the top of the 30-meter-high pole exactly when the national anthem finished every single time.
Returning to civilian life
The flag guards do not have much time for a personal life. Even after becoming proficient in every part of the daily ceremony, the guards still practice for hours every day. Cell phones are prohibited. They have many female admirers who send them letters and visit their residences but Gao says they never write back and that the intense schedule makes dating an impossibility.
Over the past 12 years, he has only spent the Spring Festival with his parents twice. In February, he went back for a long-overdue family reunion. For the first time, his parents got to watch him raise the national flag up close during a ceremony at a middle school in his hometown.
After a short stay with his relatives, Gao returned to Beijing, where he said he wants to settle down. Several potential employers have contacted him, including real estate agents, secondary schools and banks. He has been offered property management, training and security positions.
He hasn't decided what his next profession will be, but he hopes that it can be something like his flag raising job where he feels he is contributing to the country.
China will hold a military parade this year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. But Gao said he doesn't regret missing the parade.
"I could never get enough of raising the national flag. But I will leave the army sooner or later. It's good for me to leave and adapt to civilian society," he said.