History made as soldier and 'sisters' march

Cheng Cheng (right) attends a training session for the parade in Beijing in August.
PHOTO: AFP, China Daily/Asia News Network

For 28-year-old Cheng Cheng from Shandong province, Thursday's parade in Tian'anmen Square was an unforgettable honour.

As the person on the right at the end of the 12th line in the People's Liberation's Army Guards of Honor formation, which escorted the PLA flag, the young lieutenant said she was a little nervous as the unit began marching into the square.

After all, this was the first time that female honour guards had taken part in a national parade in China.

"But the nerves soon disappeared and a sense of honour and pride overwhelmed me," Cheng said on Thursday afternoon, after the honour guards returned to their barracks in a western suburb of Beijing.

"I was feeling proud of my motherland, of the fact that my long-held dream had finally come true and of the excellent performance by my sisters.

"When we marched past the Tian'anmen Rostrum, I knew the whole nation was watching us. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me and probably all of my sisters.

"The honour belongs to each member in my team, no matter whether they appeared in the square or not. We showed the world that Chinese military women are as capable as our male counterparts," Cheng said.

A total of 51 female honour guards from the PLA marched along the capital city's landmark thoroughfare, Chang'an Avenue, in Thursday's military parade.

Together with their 156 male colleagues, they formed a 207-member unit, the largest-ever formation in the 62-year history of the PLA Guards of Honor.

Stringent training

To obtain a place in the grand event, a fierce contest among the female honour guards began in late May. There are 120 women in the Guards of Honor, and only 62 were needed for the parade-51 would appear in the event, with 11 as backups-so the female guards faced three rounds of competition.

"Each of us was asked to perform a parade march one by one in front of the others, while the spectators would raise their hands to show approval," Cheng said.

The 62 women, who have an average height of 178 cm and an average age of 20, practiced about eight hours a day at a military academy in Beijing's Changping district from mid-June.

"We must march with impeccable coordination as we were supposed to parade past the square in exactly 128 steps, each precisely 75 cm," Cheng noted.

Han Jie, leading officer of the honour guards' formation, said: "The women are on average of 9 cm shorter than the men, which results in a different stride length. Therefore they had to train harder."

For Cheng, the toughest part in the training was to hold on to the rifle throughout the drills each day.

'Not easy'

She said: "We took quite a time to get used to this assault rifle because it weighs about 3.5 kilograms. Carrying it for eight hours a day is not an easy job."

Thursday's march could have been Cheng's second appearance in a national parade.

"I was selected to take part in the 2009 parade that marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic as a member of the female medical personnel formation.

"However, my height grew 1.8 cm during the training period for that parade, which made me exceed the required height," recalled Cheng, who joined the PLA in 2004 on her 18th birthday.

What she learned from the 2009 parade training later paid off-Cheng became one of the first women in the PLA Guards of Honor when the elite unit established a female squadron in February 2014.

They have since taken part in a great number of ceremonies and have frequently been featured in Chinese media. But the job has also taught Cheng some valuable lessons.

"The most useful thing I've learned from my experience in the unit is that you should never give up on what you are striving for, " Cheng said.

"You must squeeze the very best out of yourself to achieve the goal you set."