Clad in skirts, riding boots and hair pulled back into the classic chignon, 13 women soldiers from China’s military debuted as honour guards on Monday to welcome the visiting Turkmenistan president.
They are the first female People’s Liberation Army honour guards since the squad was established in 1952. Their attire of knee-high skirts and five-centimetre heels singled them out from the rows and rows of sober, hunter-green uniforms of their male comrades.
Their presence apparently left an impression on President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who is in China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping.
“It’s very nice, very good,” Berdimuhamedov said of the female soldiers.
The military’s newspaper, PLA Daily, said accepting female troops to the honour guards, a non-combat unit mobilised during parades and ceremonies, was meant to show how the country was keeping up with the times.
It is a “strategic decision aimed at demonstrating the nation’s culture and developments in modern times”, the newspaper said.
The Chinese military as a whole has been drafting women for decades, producing its female PLA major general, Li Zheng, in 1955. They have traditionally been assigned to communications, artist-troupe and non-combat units, but have since played larger roles such as joining fighter jet squadrons and combat troops.
According to The Beijing News, the first batch of 30 women honour guards were drafted from the Beijing military region in February, including three officers and 27 soldiers. They trained for three months.
All of them are either Party members or League members, and 90 per cent are college degree holders. They met the height requirement of 1.73 metres or above, and the majority are talented in sports and performing arts.
Zhang Shibo, commander of the Beijing military region, said they plan to draft 100 more this autumn, and 50 each year afterwards.
“The military parades I participated in before were all unarmed,” said Cheng Cheng, captain of the female division. “Now, in the honour guards, I need to carry a machine gun. It is very heavy.
“Compared to male soldiers, we don’t have such strong physical strength or endurance. But after three months’ training, I think I’ve improved a lot,” Cheng said.
At the ceremony for the Turkmenistan president on Monday, Cheng was the flag-bearer of the air force contingent. The other 12 women were in the last row of the army, air force and navy formations.
But some mainland netizens reacted negatively to the division’s debut, saying the women had no place in the honour guards.
“It’s inappropriate to have a woman among the three flag bearers, because those three represent the power of army, air force and navy. Also having a relatively short female in between two big male soldiers just looks weird,” said one user whose post garnered more than 300 “likes”.
Others belittled the PLA’s decision to welcome women into the honour guards in light of larger political problems. A blogger from Beijing said: “This is what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is good at. They can’t even bring back our 11 fishermen.”
The political commissar of the military honour guard told the Beijing Morning Post that political consciousness is the top requirement for a member of the unit. “They have to be absolutely loyal and hold firm beliefs in the nation and the Party,” the officer said.
The United States, Canada, France, Chile and Colombia have female honour guards.