China stood still. Heads bowed, helmets in their hands, soldiers balanced on the rubble of a town devastated by last week's earthquake. A mother whose child had died wept quietly in her van. Thousands gathered under the portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square.

China's 1.3 billion people stopped yesterday at 2.28pm - the exact time of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake a week ago - for three minutes of silence to grieve for as many as 70,000 people who are feared dead. In Hongbai, one of the worse-affected towns, a single siren wailed and the few dozen people still in the town pressed their car horns. A military helicopter hovered overhead, its emergency siren howling over the roar of its blades.

©Kyodo News/AP
A 61 year old woman is rescued 164 hours after the earthquake in Beichuan

It is the first time that China has mourned its ordinary citizens: the last period of national mourning was for Mao Zedong in 1976.

Last week Zhu Mengxia was chatting with friends at the door of her store. Seconds later the force of the earthquake and her collapsing home hurled her into the street. She picked herself up and ran to Hongbai Middle School. Three hours later she pulled the body of her 14-year-old son from the flattened building. "I simply feel numb," she said.

Flags across China were lowered to half-mast. President Hu Jintao flew back to Beijing after three days in the earthquake zone for the start of the period of national mourning. Bars, clubs and cinemas have closed. The Olympic torch relay through Chinese provinces will be suspended. Entertainment websites are redirecting users to commemorative sites.

In the main square of Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, thousands held hands and women sobbed. Many carried white flowers made of folded tissue paper in a sign of mourning. They cried: "Fellow countrymen, go in peace". Then they began a shout of "Go China", punching their fists in the air.

Thousands stood in silence around the national flag in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Shanghai's casino-like stock market stopped. Traffic in Beijing stopped. Rescue teams stopped searching for bodies. Relatives seeking missing loved ones at a stadium housing refugees paused.

The devastation caused by an earthquake that China has described as its worst in more than half a century has brought together people from across the country to offer help. It is a rare display of patriotic emotion that the Government has allowed - even in Tiananmen Square.

As loudspeakers announced the end of the silence people rushed to the flagpole in the square holding up placards reading "Go China". Then came roars of "Long live China!" and "Stay strong China!". It was the first such unfettered outpouring of feeling in the square since student demonstrators gathered there.

In Hongbai a young army officer said: "My heart aches. It was so painful when children were dug out and parents cried beside the bodies. This mourning is very important."

Amid the grief three people were pulled out alive but one woman died later. The rescue operation also suffered when landslides buried about 200 people en route to distant villages.

Only a few buildings still stand in Hongbai - a town whose livelihood depended on a phosphorous mine. Most of the miners died when it caved in. Their children were killed as they sat down for afternoon classes.

Almost every family in this region has lost relatives. Li Ming sobbed. "My baby was only 9. Such an outstanding child who was third in the class."

Her son - an only child, like so many as a result of the one child family planning policy - was found the morning after the earthquake. "We were in despair until the soldiers came, and then I had such hope. Now it's gone," she said.

A book of condolence is at the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place, London, until Wednesday (21/05).