For the first time ever for a civilian matter, the Chinese flag was flown at half-mast. Anthony Tao

China began the first of three days of national mourning Monday, exactly one week after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake left entire cities in the Western province of Sichuan in ruins (to say nothing of the human cost and individual tragedies ). To honor the victims, all sports and entertainment were suspended and flags lowered to half-mast for the first time ever for a civilian matter. In addition, at 2:28 p.m., citizens were asked to observe three minutes of silence while air sirens sounded and ship and vehicle horns blared, a truly surreal moment that makes one realize how freakishly unified this country can be, or at least seem.

This was the Central Government putting its stamp of approval on the collective grief—never mind that earthquake relief efforts had already been in full force, with notable Chinese athletes like Yao Ming and world record-holding hurdler Liu Xiang donating 500,000 Yuan apiece (about $71,400) and the Bucks' Yi Jianlian adding 100,000 Yuan (about $14,300). Gold medalist Wu Xiaoxuan, a pistol shooter, collected 500,000 Yuan from Olympic torch bearers (the relay has been postponed until Thursday).

Yet there was also something spontaneous about the outpouring of emotion from around the country. Shortly after the cacophony of sirens and horns faded, thousands gathered at Tiananmen Square and burst into chants of "Long live China" and, interestingly, "China Team, let's go!" It was an impressive display, eliciting the sort of spine-tingling chills you'd get after watching adidas's "Together in 2008, Nothing is Impossible" commercial .

In the absence of a domestic sports scene that's any good—China's basketball and soccer leagues are, by all accounts, unwatchable—gatherings like this may provide the best outlet for collective mourning. It makes you wonder though: exactly what role can sports play in helping countries recover from national trauma?

Joel Kirsch, president of the American Sports Institute, says sports can act "as a form of catharsis for a culture." We saw it after 9/11 at Shea Stadium, and now we've gotten a glimpse of it from Tiananmen—"China Team, let's go," after all, is a chant normally reserved for arenas and stadiums. As Kirsch puts it, even in the aftermath of tragedy, "The whole country came together to cheer together. If China had Major League Baseball or its equivalent, then Major League Baseball would be taking on that role to help people cheer and go through the catharsis.

"That's why sport can be so much more."