BEIJING -- Wielding sarcastic slogans and symbols that cut like knives, demonstrators who took over Beijing Wednesday heaped unprecedented public criticism on senior leader Deng Xiaoping and made it clear they felt he was too old to run the nation.
'Hello, Deng Xiaoping. Thank you and goodbye,' read one of thousands of handmade banners and posters that were held aloft by the more than 1 million workers, students and intellectuals who marched through the streets of the capital.
'Comrade Deng, Sichuan has a family plot waiting for you,' said another, in a reference to the 84-year-old senior leader's home province in central China.
'Xiaoping, you are old,' read a huge cardboard sign plastered across the Monument to the People's Heroes, which sits at the center of Tiananmen Square, the political heart of communist China.
The outpouring of anti-Deng sentiments represented a stunning loss of face for Deng and indicated China's most powerful man may be confronted with a staggering loss of influence as well.
'This demonstration disgraces Deng Xiaoping,' said a doctor from the Beijing Medical College. 'He should go on television tonight and in a national address admit he is too old and then retire.'
Demonstrators used cattle-prod wit to poke fun at Deng and to express displeasure with a system that puts supreme power in the hands of a man whose only official position is as head of the Communist Party's Military Commission, which oversees China's armed forces.
A young student, clad in a T-shirt and sporting 3-D glasses, was cheered and applauded by thousands of marchers as he carried a long bamboo pole from which hung a small bottle -- the Chinese word for which, 'xiaoping,' is a homynym for Deng's given name.
The gesture was a powerful sign to masses who used the same symbol during the late 1970s to call for Deng's ascension to power after he was purged twice by the late Mao Tse-tung during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Though many demonstrators expressed gratitude for Deng's pioneering of economic reforms that raised living standards for most Chinese, they said it was time he stepped aside and let younger leaders carry on.
'The man is 84 years old,' said one young teacher. 'He should take our message seriously and leave national affairs to other leaders by letting them rule collectively.'
But those same reforms, launched in 1978, have been severely tarnished in recent years as Chinese citizens faced soaring inflation, high crime rates and rampant official corruption.
These problems have prompted an increase in anti-Deng feelings in recent months -- citizens of southern Guangdong Province hung small bottles in windows, students smashed them during pro-democracy protests in Beijing and workers in northeastern China wore Mao buttons to express displeasure with Deng, who was twice felled by the founder of Communist China.
Each time, the Chinese people used subtle symbolism to lodge their disapproval of Deng's policies and his continued monopoly on power. That subtlety was abandoned Wednesday and for the first time average Chinese took their gripes to the streets.
'Retire now, Comrade Deng,' read a banner that drew thunderous applause from demonstrators gathered in central Tiananmen Square.