When leaders of other nations visit China and are received amid the splendor of the Great Hall of the People, military honor guards are ready to be reviewed. They await the orders of one man whose duty it is to ensure the ceremony is conducted with split-second precision — no missteps, no actions that are not fully coordinated, and no mistakes.
Acting head of the honor guard Lieutenant Colonel Li Qiang barks orders to the soldiers, and a welcome to the visiting leader, in a tone that pierces the silence. He then accompanies the leaders on their review of the guards as the military band plays, cameras click and whir, and his polished leather boots crack sharply on the floor with each step.
At 35, Li has experienced the ceremony, which lasts up to 10 minutes, more than a thousand times during his 18-year military career. But every ceremony is like his first in terms of the buildup of nervous tension beforehand.
“Every action, facial expression and how we appear represents the military and the nation,” he said. “We have to be 100 percent correct in the process.”
Part of the process includes brandishing a 1-meter-long sword that weighs 1.65 kilograms. He cannot look down at the scabbard when he sheathes the sword during a ceremony. Perfecting this routine took thousands of hours of practice on the drill square, ruined 200 pairs of gloves with splatters of blood, and scarred his left hand in the first six months.
Li became the youngest acting head of the guard in 2002 at the age of 22. Before his appointment, his biggest honor was being part of the military parade in 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s establishment.
According to Li, each guard wears out five to seven pairs of boots a year.
The distance covered by their goose steps in the three years of training is 12,500 kilometers, the equivalent of the Long March carried out by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army from 1934 to 1936 led by the Party.
Li has to make 48 gestures and shout 35 orders for each welcoming ceremony.
His workload has increased as more foreign leaders visit the country, and his throat bears testament to China’s growing global role.
“I remember there were more than 20 ceremonies one day at the airport during the Beijing Summit Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006. Despite the outdoor noise and my strained vocal chords, I had to keep my voice booming out,” he said. “There is no shortcut to exercising the voice. Just practicing and practicing every day, even sometimes with bloodstained spit.”
In 2014, the honor guard was given a new uniform, and the year also saw the introduction of female honor guards. His orders are still issued in a commanding voice, but maybe not as loudly as before.
“An overwhelmingly loud voice is no longer a necessity to show the Chinese military’s power, whose quality has been much improved in recent years, not to mention that soldiers are a token of peace in the peaceful era,” Li said.
He said his sense of achievement not only comes from visiting leaders giving a thumbs-up to the honor guard, but also from the support of the families of the guards.
The honor guard staged a special ceremony last year for family members at the training base as a token of appreciation for the limited time the guards spend with their families.
“My daughter, who is less than 2 years old, had no idea of what was going on, but she was so excited to see us performing the ceremony,” he said with a proud smile.