Remembering a Massacre

 “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” (Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, ch.22)

Every year at around this time I look at the famous photograph of Tank Man: the fearless little guy who made the tanks stop for a few minutes in their relentless rumble towards the Square where thousands of student protesters had been living for weeks in a tented city seeking an end to political corruption and a more democratic turn for the government of China . He is a slight man, dressed for a desk, and he seems to be holding a briefcase and a plastic shopping bag — sure indication that this action was not premeditated. He is walking home from the market, and his indignation wells up as he sees the tanks coming to quell a just and peaceful protest. With quiet and unbreakable resolve, he decides he doesn’t care about dying and has to make the tanks stop so as to talk to their occupants, human being to human being, Chinese to Chinese, and ask them what the hell they think they are doing. They stop, they talk, two men come and drag him away, and the tanks roll on. He fails to stop them, but unwittingly occasions an unforgettable image of justice standing up, unbowed, in the face of tyranny — and of hope that mere conversation might achieve something.

Once a year, in the first week of June, I deliberately dwell upon this image not just because of its pure moral power, but because for me it is a memory. I wasn’t there, but I wasn’t far from there. Two friends of mine were friends of Tank Man; they say he had no idea what made him do such a crazy thing. I had been teaching at Shanxi University, in Taiyuan, three hundred miles from Beijing, and some of my students were on Tiananmen Square that day, June 4, 1989 — twenty-seven years ago, half a lifetime ago. A couple of days after the massacre, I left the country, and we have never talked about what happened there. One of them made it back to Taiyuan before I left and pressed into my hand a roll of undeveloped film; only a few days ago he asked me if I remembered that, and I told him of course I do, and the black-and-white photographs he took of hunger-strikers in tents are stored away in a box of my most precious keepsakes. Another young protester, in hiding after the massacre, gave me two plastic Beijing University cafeteria tickets and a Beijing University keyring tag, which I still keep in the same box; these were to be mementoes that the event actually happened, and that Beijing University really existed — because it was quite imaginable that the Chinese government would burn down the entire University and erase it from history. As Ian Johnson points out in a recent article in The Guardian (, the Chinese have been quite effective in the controlling of historical memory. Most young Chinese I talk to these days have no idea what happened on Tiananmen, and have never heard of the major players in this drama; apparently no one ever mentions it. This is why images such as Tank Man stick like a thorn, like a nail, into the thin skin of Forgetting: once seen, never forgotten — and questions will be asked.

My own memories of Tiananmen and the preceding weeks are foggy — because I myself was foggy at the time, because I had not being paying attention and indeed did not know how to pay attention. As foreign teachers, we taught our classes, spoke English with students, and tried as best as we could to cultivate friendships and “see” China. But most of us saw only a surface and were clueless as to what it meant. The consolation for our obliviousness is that many professional China Watchers also did not see anything like this coming. On April 15, the “reformist” Hu Yaobang died, and within a few days students throughout China had boycotted classes and many started flocking to Beijing. The university turned grimly quiet. No one explained to the foreign teachers what was going on; the impression we gained was that the students were protesting government corruption, and that this was a little storm that would blow over soon. So we waited — read books, had conversations, played pingpong. Our students struck me as politically somewhat naive and idealistic, and also not very informed as to what was going on. Of course, the government was also confusing the airwaves with its own opinions and interpretations, and western news stations on the radio had not yet picked this up — but soon they would not be able to ignore it.

I have considered reconstructing a day-by-day chronology of events, but such a clear sequence would do no justice to the utter confusion of the time. The fog of memory is itself the soul’s way of assembling experiences so as to preserve something more vital than a mere sequence — a mix of feelings, moods, images, people, better rendered in the kind of narrative called san wen in Chinese, a seamless fusion of narrative, poetry, and philosophizing.

The storm did not let up. In the month of May, it was increasingly hard to get news — until towards the end of May we got a news blackout. Bear in mind that there was no internet; we had mainly the official Chinese newspapers, snail mail, and shortwave radio. By the middle of May it became crystal-clear to the foreign teachers that something very significant was happening, but our Chinese friends kept us ignorant of it all — partly to spare us complicated explanations, but mainly because they didn’t want to drag us into something that they, the Chinese, had to sort out for themselves. There were no classes, no schedule; people popped in and out of our building at random times, and we spent half the night glued to our shortwave radios hoping to learn something from the BBC or Voice of America. Time seemed to have stopped. Around campus, bands of students would walk singing, sometimes holding bottles. The atmosphere was of a euphoric high, charged with eros. If we gave these students pistols, they would go through the streets shooting at the heavens. And all this was taking place in a month when the trees were shimmering in the green of early summer, and the familiar smog of Taiyuan fairly crackled with sulphurous acridity. The vast industrial city was normally in a state of constant burning, but now even on the emotional and intellectual levels all was combustion.

The old and middle-aged were quiet; they had lived through four decades of Maoism, including ten years of the deranged fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution in which a whole generation was “lost.” They had tried to speak caution to the youngsters but to no avail. On one memorable evening in May about fifteen of our students visited us, looking very concerned. Things were getting dangerous, they knew, and there might be a violent government crackdown. By then the protest had turned into one for democracy, and these students had to know if it was worth sacrificing their lives for democracy: after all, they had never experienced it, so what exactly were they risking everything for? Their families were worried sick for them. I was at a loss how to answer these questions, but it was then that I witnessed the power of a St.John’s education. My then-wife was an alumna of the college. As a student, most of the political readings had gone over her head, but she was able to lead these students, with great calm and clarity, through an impromptu seminar on the opening question, Is a democracy worth dying for? — which of course necessitated the question, What exactly is democracy? They left the room without a simple answer but at least more thoughtful than before.

In the wee hours of May 19 Premier Zhao Ziyang came down to the Square and expressed sympathy for the students and their cause, but asked them to go home to prevent further suffering. He was then ousted and put under lifelong house-arrest, but he had intimated clearly that something bad was coming down the pipe. In the ensuing days the blackout was imposed, and the radio signals were interfered with. We got news mainly from eyewitnesses returning from Beijing. It seemed clear at the time that government and armed forces were full of inner divisions, and civil war was possible; if everything disintegrated, we would be facing bands of looters and would find it very difficult to get out. On the night of Tiananmen itself a student who had made it home reported seeing a tank rolling over protesters and then repeatedly backing over the bodies while a soldier laughed from the turret. A series of stories like this unleashed the imagination into its most terrifying fantasies of oppression. There was something strangely enjoyable and exciting about this state of mind — the exhilaration of all possibilities being open, intensified by utter helplessness. It seemed as if an entire society was about to fall to pieces, and there would be nothing to rely upon besides our own puny selves. From the BBC  I heard that the anti-aircraft guns defending Beijing were redirected towards the airforce bases around Tianjin — so was the air force going to attack the government?  Shakespeare got it right when he opened the civil strife in Henry IV Part 2 with the voice of Rumor herself:

Rumour is a pipe

Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures

And of so easy and so plain a stop

That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,

The still-discordant wavering multitude,

Can play upon it. 

The government too can play upon it, to create the massive anxiety and sense of impotence that result in a craving for safety and stability.

The massacre happened. We waited for news of our friends. The mother of the boy who gave me the Beijing University food tickets took a train with a group of other parents to find her son in Beijing. The train was halted twenty miles from the capital, and together with other parents she walked the rest of the distance and then spent a day scurrying through foul-smelling smoke and gunfire before she found her son hiding with relatives. The boy said that he saw the troops in the early morning heaping all the bodies up, setting fire to them, and then hosing down the remains with chemicals so that no trace was left. No tourist would ever suspect that anything had ever happened.

The next day, in Taiyuan, we learned through the grapevine that students and factory workers in this large city were going to stage their own march and protest. We heard that a notoriously ferocious battalion of troops from the far west had been transported into town by train, and these soldiers did not mind killing Chinese; tanks had been hidden in the bomb shelters under the main square; and our friends who were doctors said that hospitals had been told to empty their beds and have extra supplies of blood ready. These all could have been been part of a ruse to intimidate people, but at this stage anything could happen. It was a slow, dignified, silent march to the city center: hundreds of thousands of people, maybe a million, grieving and angry. All of us foreign teachers went, hoping that with Brits and Americans in the crowd the soldiers would not open fire so recklessly, and if they did, we would be witnesses or, through our deaths, catalysts to an international response. When we reached the center, a group of us climbed to the roof of an international hotel in order to see better and give notice of danger. There were no soldiers in sight. The student leader gave a short speech, after which there was silence. Then the crowd as one voice roared the name of their martyr: “Zhao Ziyang!” — three times. And then a long silence, before we quietly dispersed, many weeping.

Everyone who went through this was changed by it, even though we have never talked about it. How remarkable it was that a people who had never experienced democracy could burn with such longing for it! — although to me the longing was clearly for something else, a breaking free from long decades, perhaps centuries, of cultural frustration and individual stagnation into a hope of freedom and fulfillment. I am curious whether any of my memories ring true to those who experienced these six weeks, whether they too remember it as if awaking from a dream. To me the whole thing, culminating in “Zhao Ziyang!”, felt like collective absorption into an experience that really makes no causal sense — although I know that on the level of causal explanation the chain of events was all too explicable and predictable. Many years later, one of my friends who had been on the square that night, a young man who struck everyone who met him as a paragon of Confucian integrity and idealism, told me that in the 1990s he realized that the students could never have succeeded. After graduating, he worked in local government for ten years, and when the SARS virus outbreak occurred in the early 90s he saw the Communist Party first dithering for weeks and then, when international pressure had been brought to bear, resolving to contain the virus. Within 24 hours, he said, every town and village in the country had a human cordon around it — such was the might of the Party. Had the Tiananmen protests then been allowed to happen, as a way to draw out the forces of dissidence and crush them? — and to cow the population into stability for decades after? This is “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys.” And it worked.

We all left China a day or two later. There was no telling which way the political tide would turn, and if the country reverted to ultra-conservative Maoism our presence would endanger all our friends, who could easily be denounced or arrested for giving state secrets to foreigners. Since the route through Beijing was closed, we had to take a train to Guangzhou and try to find a flight back from Hong Kong, along with tens of thousands of other people fleeing the impending catastrophe. Dazed and emotionally wounded, not least from tearful farewells to dear friends whom we might never see again, we hunkered down in a luxury hotel. On the first night we had dinner in a small Indian restaurant. It was packed. Everyone was watching the epic French Open final between Stefan Edberg and the 17-year-old Michael Chang. I didn’t know it then, but the young Chang had vowed to win because he wanted to give the Chinese something to be cheerful about. The game was an astounding, inspiring battle. I tried a spoonful of my Chicken Vindaloo, felt my mouth filling with a conflagration that expanded to the rest of my head and started to burst through every pore. I put the spoon down, shocked at the intensity of my torment; I had never before been unable to finish a curry. As I continued to watch Michael Chang’s heroic performance, he and I both pouring with sweat for different reasons, no one would would have guessed that my tears were not just because of Vindaloo..


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