“Flames in a Mirror”: Tiananmen Square 25 Years Later
By Mishi SaranJune 3, 2014
I need a public square
an empty square
to set out a bowl, a small spoon
and the lonely shadow of a kite
— Bei Dao
TIANANMEN SQUARE was my brutal wedding to China.
I was a foreign student in Beijing 25 years ago. My junior year abroad while at Wellesley College was meant to satisfy a curiosity about China and prolong the mind-twisting delight of decoding Chinese ideographs. In April of 1989, a beloved and outspoken, reform-minded Chinese cadre called Hu Yaobang died.
I had never heard of Hu Yaobang.
I didn’t fully understand the heady winds of change that were blowing through China at the time. I didn’t know that students had already demonstrated in previous years, that youngsters — indeed, entire cities — dreamed of political change and that Hu Yaobang was a potent symbol of China looking ahead, of throwing off decades of stifling Maoist thought.
When I bicycled to Tiananmen Square to watch the Chinese students my age place wreaths at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, I only knew that something vast, unexpected, and beautiful was unfolding before my eyes. It was an event not quite of this world, like standing at the foot of a volcano, watching it erupt with sparkling jewels.
I got sick at that moment, infected with a nameless malaise: Its only manifestation was an inability to shake off China.
A flotilla of nightmares accompanied my move back to Shanghai in the summer of 2006.
Outside our flat, a flock of pigeons circled and wheeled through mute clouds. Their wings seemed to brush the leafy plane trees and the low, tiled rooftops of the former French Concession, where my husband and I chose to live.
I dreamed of torture. That my fingernails were pulled out, that somebody drove a screw through my stomach. I stood in front of the mirror and my face was changing, becoming Chinese. My features were flattening, my eyes developing an epicanthic fold. The dream was charged with menace, as though I was drawn underground, with no way out.
I penciled this in a small, ringed notebook:
Deceit - Who’s telling the truth? Who’s telling lies? Who to believe? What’s real?
That year, Shanghai’s Communist Party Chief Chen Liangyu had just been sacked from his post and would later be sentenced to 18 years in prison for dipping into the city’s pension funds to finance vast projects, including a swanky tennis complex where the roof opened and closed like retractable petals over a giant bud.
To us foreigners — temporary residents who come to China for work — these were just some of the mysterious ripples underfoot as we made our way through this country — distant thuds and unseen booms. For those of us who were here 25 years ago, there was also a strangulated scream that echoed all the way from the spring of 1989.
In a few months my husband, my little girl, and I will bundle our belongings and leave mainland China. We will trundle south to live in Hong Kong, following a new job, a new life. The 1989 demonstrations were violently snuffed out, and by June 4, it was all over. I see that my life in China has been bookended by those long-ago events that centered on Tiananmen Square.
How do you look away after something like that? How do you not write? What initially was supposed to be one year of language study abroad turned into a career as a reporter, a writer.
My articles about student life in China and about Tiananmen Square, written for national and regional newspapers in India, were the first pieces I ever published. A few years later I worked as a news reporter for Reuters in Hong Kong. When journalism was no longer an adequate medium, I found a grant to travel and research Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang (Penguin, 2005). I followed the route of a Chinese Buddhist monk to India on the ancient Silk Road, thinking aching thoughts of home, weary of China, yet still infected to the bones.
On April 19, 1989, I biked to Tiananmen Square to see what was going on. For over five heady weeks, I kept going, to look. We all went.
Our parents overseas were frantic. Mine sent telexes saying “please come home.” Two days after the school’s final exams, I obeyed, but grumpily.
I boarded a train south, to Guangzhou from Beijing. In Guangzhou, I planned to cross the border into Hong Kong and then fly home to New Delhi. Leaving helter-skelter, I never collected my course completion certificate. (Over two decades later, another friend handed it to me, saved in his own papers.)
A friend, R., took the same train south with me. He remembers seeing another train going north, loaded with tanks. R. had continued to Hainan, for a holiday. The tension in Beijing was spreading even to Hainan. The police were knocking on doors, hunting for a Chinese student who had escaped there.
For R. and me, I suspect being a part of that spring in Beijing, at that age, functioned like fine spider webbing, sticky stuff that encircled our wrists and ankles and would not let us leave. Since Tiananmen Square, R. and I have spent the better part of our lives on the South China coast — popping in and out of each other’s days, in Hong Kong, in Shanghai. He was a witness when I married my husband at a civil ceremony at Hong Kong’s historic City Hall one February morning. I watched over the years as R.’s marriage to a Chinese woman fell apart. Although R. signed the divorce papers years ago, his ex-wife still drifts into the conversation, like an aging star unable to quit.
“She hadn’t heard of Tiananmen Square,” R. said, over dinner one night recently. These days, R. has to put on reading glasses to see the menu. “She came to the United States, and my mother had saved all these newspaper clippings and videotaped the news.” The young woman had sat up the whole night, leafing through the collected material, trembling and sobbing, in shock at what had happened, in shock at her ignorance of it.
All photographs by Adam Najberg. All rights reserved.
In the summer of 2000, deep within a journey through Xinjiang, my chatty Han Chinese taxi driver Li Jianjun sulked as he waited for me in the hot sun. I had nosed around all morning — too long for him — inside the Buddhist caves of Kizil. I privately hoped he’d stop his stream-of-consciousness exposition, but I had no such luck.
Tiananmen Square still nipped at my heels. I wrote in my book:
The midday heat swung like a gong against my head and Li chatted about Tiananmen Square, the way it was in the summer of 1989.
“It was an enormous loss of face, for Gorbachev was visiting. If you are a mother and your kids are misbehaving in front of an important visitor, wouldn’t you chastise them? Yes, some were killed, they killed some soldiers too. But a country can’t be too disorderly.”
The question of “face” drenches the modus operandi of Chinese society, and is rooted in Confucianism. (This question of face is true of other societies too, but China has codified it to a level of artistry.) It is a complex, delicate structure of favors and resulting obligations that has long permeated relationships — ranging from those between husbands and wives to between bosses and employees and a government and its people.
I give you this, this is what I expect.
“For an outsider looking in, it’s a crazy way of interpersonal relationships,” said M., an alumnus, like me, of the Johns Hopkins University–Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies, where they at one time offered foreign students an entire course devoted to China’s system of face and “guanxi,” or connections.
This is face: A man has fallen on hard times, his stomach growls with hunger. He rubs a last bit of lard on his mouth, to make his lips shine, as if after a rich, oily meal. He leans on his doorjamb, so others may see, and think he’s sated.
“Face is something that’s so outside of how we look at things, that if you can grasp even a little of it, you’ll go a long way toward understanding China,” he said.
Politically speaking, M. said, the government might say to Tibet, “We gave you economic benefits, you owe us loyalty. If it wasn’t for the Communist Party of China, you’d still be a feudal society. And protests is how you repay us?”
Were the demonstrations in Tiananmen disorderly and chaotic?
Were the students naive? Possibly.
A key part of the problem, I suspect, is that Deng Xiaoping lost face in front of reformist, liberal Gorbachev. It was an important geopolitical moment; a Chinese and a Russian leader were meeting for the first time in 30 years. Gorbachev’s welcoming ceremony had to be held at the airport, because the protesting students had refused to leave the square. Instead, they held up banners in Russian.
China’s hardliners could not permit this insolence.
My first Chinese New Year in Shanghai, 2007: Fireworks explode all around us with whistles and booms. The electric blue, neon green, fiery red of chemicals, sulfur, and smoke make beautiful starbursts that drift, distant and close in the brisk westerly wind. I shiver, taken by surprise. A little girl, in her bright red, knee-length coat, holds a pig-shaped plastic lantern, for it is the Year of the Golden Pig.
The guard in our building told me he did the same when he was small. If it was the year of the rabbit, then they’d have rabbit lanterns. If it was the year of the dog, then they’d have dog lanterns. Walking down Fenyang Road, by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, my husband and I stopped by a piano shop, with a Yamaha sign and three pianos. A man was sitting by himself at a piano, his thatch of grey hair stuffed under a baseball cap, he wore a bulky fleece, his stubby fingers were light on the keys, he teased melody from them. He’d taught himself how to play when he was 25 years old.
That’s how we greeted the Year of the Golden Pig, standing entranced listening to roadside Chopin, while fireworks peppered the Shanghai sky; it was one of those moments when I felt my life was a movie into which I’d stumbled.
For a long time, I avoided Beijing, for it was not the city I knew as a student, and I couldn’t face Tiananmen Square. But my husband persuaded me to set aside the novel I was writing and join him at the Olympics in the summer of 2008.
This new Beijing was tangled and knotted with skyways and flyovers. High roads strangled the city. I struggled to see a Beijing that existed only in my mind: A quiet, low-rise place where I could bicycle without fear of being knocked over. Of this image, nothing remained.
Instead, not far from our hotel, rose the newly built CCTV office building, which the locals call “a big pair of shorts.” Stunning in its unexpectedness, the ashy-glassy surface was scored like a knife across glazing. The asymmetry was profoundly pleasing, I couldn’t stop looking at it. There were blue skies and scudding clouds between the structure’s two towers.
Of course, I lost my way.
Clumps of elderly ladies with grey hair and crooked teeth stood in neighborhood pods. They were so proud to have been chosen for this task of assisting a foreigner. They carried official-issue torches and wore T-shirts with the Olympic logo. But the print on my hotel card was too small for old eyes. They held the card at arm’s length and turned it around and consulted each other. Although the hotel turned out to be around the corner, they could not help, for they’d never heard of it. They too, were stuck in a time warp. Which failed to dampen the good cheer.
A whole city had mobilized.
Privately, I wanted to do nothing but talk about Tiananmen Square, about the passionate students on hunger strike, the “bread loaf” vans that were ambulances that squealed up and down the square, back and forth from the hospitals, carting students that had fainted or sickened.
I remember Gorbachev’s visit that spring, and the emotional visit of another reformist leader, Zhao Ziyang, to the square. I remember the black wreaths that students placed against the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. The songs were still in my head — gen zhe ganjue zou, or “go with the feeling.” I remember the student outrage at the People’s Daily editorial condemning the fledgling movement. Zhi dao, zhi dao, Renmin Ribao, hu shuo ba dao the banners read, the “We know the People’s Daily speaks nonsense.” I remember an entire city circling in support of their best and brightest. I remember a briefly free press.
Beijing hosting the Olympics reminded me of Beijing in the spring of 1989: The festive atmosphere, the buzz of a city undergoing an immense transformation. Birth pangs, in fact, though it was hard to say exactly what was being born.
I was moved by the passion of the youthful volunteers in their sky blue shirts. A young man with a sash guided me through the bookshop on Wangfujing Street.
“I just wanted to do something for the Olympics,” he said.
I took a picture of the volunteers in their street-corner booths; they held up an American-Chinese dictionary.
A taxi driver and I fell into a conversation. His face was so smooth I mistook him for 35 but he was 51. I learned that when he was small, in summer, he and his family came to sleep on Tiananmen Square to catch the breezes, that the entrance to the Forbidden City cost one mao. I learned that he was terribly scarred by the Cultural Revolution, that he couldn’t finish his studies and as a result remained a driver all his life. But his son attends one of the city’s finest universities. He was so proud of this. We talked about June 1989, but in the most peripheral way. He didn’t say much and I didn’t press him. But then, at a crossing, he slowed down and said, “Here, this was a particularly chaotic corner, when the tanks came in.”
That he remembered was enough for me.
At a Beijing Starbucks, a former student leader and I met for coffee. She had escaped from China in the wake of Tiananmen Square, but she had long returned to Beijing to live and work. Over lattes, the leader spoke of an “open wound” but also of the possibility of redemption and salvation, maybe even a change of the official verdict at a future point.
“Maybe one day the student leaders will no longer be counter-revolutionaries,” she said.
In the meantime, she is a divorcee, and a mother. She makes good money. She is content with the life she has built. She has prospered. We didn’t dwell much on the past. I suspect she had too much at stake now, in this new China.
“There has been progress,” is all she said. “But there is a spiritual vacuum. The people need something to fill their hearts, ideals to aspire to.”
Then her elderly mother called, upset about a family matter. The former student leader punched numbers into her mobile phone, to call her driver.
“Can you come by and pick me up, I have to go to my mother’s place.”
One merry evening during that 2008 trip to Beijing, I met a friend and her friends for dinner at a newly opened Sichuan restaurant. The man sitting next to me happened to be an artist who, it emerged, had also been active at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Unlike the taxi driver, he looked much older than his years.
There was a brief pause when we stumbled on the common experience, as though the images of that spring hung in the air between us. He proffered a catalogue of his paintings.
I too, fell silent. Glancing at him, I thought about how artists develop a certain look around their eyes, how there is a peculiar density of their person. They seem to fill the air more deeply.
I leafed through his catalogue, aware of the sudden lapse in conversation, as though Tiananmen Square did not bear mentioning.
His paintings were of strange bird people, parrot faces with bulbous hooked beaks. Filaments floated on the sides of the head. They had naked human male or female torsos on bird legs, perched on stands that came from nowhere.
Then I realized that everything he had to say was in the paintings.
He had created intensely still backgrounds of peach or pistachio, backgrounds that echoed, if it is possible for a painting to have a sound. The parrot people sometimes lay face down, with a lotus pod drifting above. They were dreaming, or dead, or indifferent, or simply not there, as not-there as they could make themselves, given the obstacle of a physical body.
It felt like a rejection of reality.
It’s May 2014. Shanghai author Lynn Pan and I are talking over tea and pastries at a café in Shanghai’s former French Concession. She has a fearsome sweet tooth, unexpected, given the frail wisp of her person. I’m sure her bones are filled with air. Eight years of knowing her, and I have never asked the question, “So where were you during Tiananmen Square?”
It turned out that she had flown to Chengdu, as a fixer for a foreign TV station. The team could not get access to any other city, for the Chinese government had clamped down on foreign media.
Even in Chengdu, a British television crew had been arrested trying to film at a major university, so Lynn and her companions cast around for another place to gather news footage. They landed at the Sichuan Medical College. Lynn instructed her Caucasian colleagues to remain discretely in the taxi, while she crisscrossed the empty campus to finally accost a lone student crossing a field.
“What happened?” Lynn asked, in Chinese.
“There were demonstrations.”
“Were students hurt?”
“Where were they?”
“Over there,” the student pointed. It was the teaching hospital attached to the medical college.
Lynn ran over to the building. It had begun to rain hard; she was unprepared for this weather. Soaking wet, she fought her way through the crowd, ducked the brouhaha at the reception, wiggled her way to the desk and shouted out to the attendant:
Shou shang de xuesheng zai na li? [“Where are the students who have been hurt.”]
The attendant was fielding dozens of inquiries and barely looked up, instead she replied automatically, stating the floor and ward number.
Lynn pulled away from the throng, found the door to the stairs and ran up them. Her clothes were dripping wet. She found the cluster of bloodied students, just as the attendant had said. In particular, there was one youngster who had been so badly hurt, his entire body was bandaged up “like a mummy,” she said.
She made her way downstairs and outside to the waiting taxi. She fetched the men and led the crew to the hospital building. They kept their heads down, walked straight to the stairwell and slipped upstairs.
The hurt student’s father sat by the bed, staring at the youngster with a look of incomprehension. The man spoke not a word, but his clothes and shoes told Lynn that he hailed from the countryside. He was trying to process what had happened to his child.
Lynn stood at the door with the TV crew.
“Got it?” she muttered to the cameraman.
“Got it,” he said.
They found their way back to the taxi. Lynn was wet, shivering and now sobbing inconsolably. The sight of the peasant father, sitting powerlessly by the bed’s side, staring at his wounded child had pierced her.
“To this day, I don’t know how the cameraman did it. He had a rain poncho. The camera was invisible, somehow he got the images.”
Years later, long after he became a famous cinematographer, long after they had lost touch, the ex-cameraman recognized Lynn across a crowded room, for they were bound by the memory of that rain, of the damaged student, of the peasant father.
Each Tiananmen memory is a shard of the giant mirror that shattered in 1989.
It strikes me that memory is a broken tool that hobbles with its butterfly net and leaky wheelbarrow with a creaky wheel. In it, rusted objects rattle, they are small solid things, odd-shaped moments, an untidy basket, an unruly bouquet; the things that haven’t twisted away and escaped the mind’s trap. The rusted objects don’t add up to much; they add up to a story, they add up to history.
About a year ago in Shanghai, after lunch, another friend M. and I walked down Fuzhou Road, which runs east–west through Shanghai. It is an astonishing street, still littered with massive, dusty colonial buildings named the Metropole, the Hamilton. Now, they are restaurants or office buildings. Stepping westwards, away from the riverfront and the Bund, M. and I paused at a small, grimy old bookshop, and threaded our way through the narrow passage between the crammed shelves on the wall and a central island that was heavily stocked.
An elderly Chinese man in baggy clothes was so absorbed in what he was reading that he failed to notice that two foreign women had entered the tiny space. Being a head taller than him, I could causally peek over his shoulder — which I did — and noticed two things.
The first thing was that he was reading about the Battle of Fei Shui, with his finger under the sentences. (I looked it up later: It is a battle that happened in 383 AD, by the Fei River in Anhui Province. At that time, China’s power base was split into two geographical regions, centered in Nanjing in the south and Xian, in the north). The second thing I noticed was that at his elbow rested stacks of pornographic paperback books. The book covers featured full frontal nudity, showing ripe Chinese nymphs with swollen melon breasts and sparse pubic hair.
He paid them no mind.
The elderly man with the lumpy finger was utterly engrossed in a fourth-century war. That’s how important history was, for him.
My last Chinese New Year in Shanghai, 2014: The year of the Horse gallops in. It’s yuanxiao jie, when the Chinese gather en famille, but this gathering was a spontaneous dinner invitation.
“Here, fold it in half, then again, dab water on the edges, press it closed, fold backwards and pinch the ends together.”
My friend X. and her mother are making wontons; they tolerate my clumsy contribution. Their fingers flit over squares of flour skin, chopsticks nip and dab lumps of vegetable-and-pork filling into the center; they fold the assemblage in half like neat bed sheets over a body, twist the ends around so half the double edges are pressed backwards and the other corners flare out. The resulting shape, resting on a floury palm, is a doughy head wrapped in a nun’s wimple.
So striking is the resemblance that the old Shanghainese term for wimples is wonton hats, once a familiar sight in Shanghai, for many Shanghainese studied at English or French medium schools originally launched by the Jesuits, the girls’ schools staffed by nuns.
X.’s mother began a story of her past, the hardships under Mao, the famine.
“There were even stories of people eating people.”
Her eyes floated open in surprise that a foreigner should have heard of such old, dark things. We were speaking in Mandarin, for I only have a rudimentary knowledge of the local Shanghainese dialect. I could not say to her that this, to me, seemed the ultimate terror — to have undergone such things and to think the world doesn’t know, that there was no purpose to the suffering.
She limped to the kitchen to fetch more skins for the wontons. One doubtful foot, she said, was growing old faster than she was.
“Hey,” she said, turning to her daughter, falling into Shanghainese. “It’s easy to talk to her, she understands.”
But I emphatically did not understand. All I know is that Mao’s ghost still roams, like a cloud of dust with a mole on its chin.
the plaza of longing unfolds
a blind man gropes his way
my hand moves over
the blank paper, leaving nothing behind
I am moving
I am the blind man
— Bei Dao
The concept of forgiveness haunts me, these days, and when I think of forgiveness, I think of Mrs. Z.
She was an older, iron-haired woman I’d known a long time. She had crow’s feet around her eyes, an easy smile. Her hair was cropped short, and, unusually, it was a tad curly.
Mao’s era saw terrible material shortages, particularly in the early 1960s. Mrs. Z. remembers having to jog to school, for the family in those years could not afford a bicycle, or money for the bus fare. It was a 30-minute jog each way. Once, she jogged home for lunch and saw there was a single mantou on the table. Afraid that her sister had not eaten yet, she left the mantou on the table and jogged back to school on an empty stomach.
Before Liberation (that’s what the Chinese call October 1, 1949, the day the People’s Republic of China was set up), her father had been a rich businessman working with the Germans. With such an obvious capitalist background, she and her family were easy targets in the purge. Her students beat and tortured her.
“I like Mao,” she says, “But not the Cultural Revolution. He did some wrong things.”
The same students who beat her up now come to her and kneel in front of her, begging forgiveness, and she waves them away, saying, “You were young, I was young.”
Let it go.
It is her clawed-out forgiveness that frees her.
“I’m busy all the time,” said Mrs. Z. “My old students go to Beidaihe, they call me and say come along, and I say ‘okay.’”
After the terrible things they have done to her, here she is, going to a seaside resort. That’s what families do, I suppose: Wound each other profoundly and then go on holiday together.
She had never spoken of the Cultural Revolution to her children. She had never spoken about her childhood to her own children.
This is how history dies, or perhaps this is the ostensible gift of old people to the young: Go forth, unburdened. The tragedy is that the youngsters carry unspoken trails behind them; billows of untold stories waft like heavy, unwanted scarves. The young ones stumble and know not why.
“I’m getting old,” I said, to Mrs. Z., but she just chided me crossly, which is how I know she cares about me.
“You never say ‘I’m old’ in front of an older person.”
In her autobiographical account Tracing it Home, Lynn Pan writes: “To many Chinese what happens in history is not past, but all part of their now (and in that sense, China may be said to have no history).”
She might have added that in China, history is not for the fainthearted.
My dear friend Betty Barr was born in Shanghai in 1933, the daughter of a Scottish missionary father and a Texan mother. She married an eloquent, Shanghainese man, George Wang, who is an excellent cook and boasts baby-smooth skin which he attributes to cold morning showers, even in winter. Both are passionate about history, perhaps because they have experienced it. They have lived in Shanghai when it was controlled by foreign powers; they have survived Japan’s occupation of Shanghai; they made it through China’s civil war; they watched Liberation, experienced the Cultural Revolution. Their first jointly written book, Shanghai Boy, Shanghai Girl, is the story of modern China.
In his section of the book, George Wang relates a story from his childhood I cannot read without feeling sick to my stomach. He was a mere boy. His mother, who struggled mightily to support the family, had asked him not to go to school that day. George was mystified. He watched from a distance as his mother, beaded in sweat, supported herself with one hand from a cloth looped around a roof beam. She crouched over the chamber pot and strained. George thought his mother was ill. It was only when the baby cried that he realized what had happened.
Enthralled I went over to look. It was a fat little girl with beautiful features; she lay in a washbasin with some old cloth under her. Then, as I watched, Mother put something wet and slippery over the baby’s face; later I learned it was the afterbirth. The little creature began to struggle, her arms and legs beating and kicking desperately. I realized what Mother was doing.
“Mm ma, Mm ma, you mustn’t do that! You mustn’t do that!” Tears ran down my cheeks.
Her right hand still on the rope, Mother panted heavily, “Which …do you..want,…me…or...her?”
Tears went on running down my face, but I said no more. I understood mother; I knew what she meant. For the sake of our family, she had to go on working. She had to get up at two or three in the morning to go to the wholesale market. Who would look after the baby if she kept it?
Mother told me to keep it a secret. We told the others that the baby was born dead. Late that evening, Father rolled the baby in some old cloth and took her out. We did not ask where he took her.
A modern young Chinese girl studying in America read their book. She sat up all night and read their book. She wrote them a heartfelt email in the morning. Her catharsis is evident:
…The book is great. I have been crying and reading it at the same time. I have been thinking about the stories that Mr. Wang wrote about his childhood the whole day today. I haven't finished the whole book but I have been crying almost the whole time. I can't control myself [and am] writing you this email.
As a Shanghai girl, I am proud of Shanghai being a wealthy and glamorous city nowadays, but I knew there was a history that Shanghai went for. Shanghai people don't talk about it that often now. It was not the happiest memory one can share I believe. I have been searching for the history for a long time. I even took a history class about Shanghai last year. Shanghai Boy Shanghai Girl gave me an important part of history that I have been looking for, which is so precious and so touching…I love Shanghai and I am dying to come back to Shanghai. I am glad that Shanghai is developing so quickly and Shanghai people are becoming wealthy. However, I do feel that there is something precious that Shanghai and Shanghai people have lost or sacrificed for the fast development. And that's why I love the book so much because the Shanghai and the people you and Mr. Wang describe in the book are the best ones. For the development, Shanghai has lost its historical buildings and Shanghai people have lost some of their great qualities. I am so sad for the situation, but I also feel so helpless…
Thus, someday, a generation might find out about Tiananmen Square.
Let us be clear: This is not some facile China-bashing. All nation states rewrite history, or at least attempt to control the narrative, including America, Britain, Japan and India. That’s what politicians do. It is the job of poets and ordinary people all over the world to rip holes in that fabric.
In Hong Kong every June, crowds holding candles throng to Victoria Park to demand that the official verdict of “counterrevolutionary” on Tiananmen demonstrators be reversed. They gather to honor the mothers whose children died that year.
Meanwhile, all over China, those who know about Tiananmen Square are privately digesting — or at least trying to digest — the aftermath, even as a whole generation has grown up with a large bump under the carpet. A portion of those 25-year-olds may even have had their own children. So make that two generations who cannot discuss Tiananmen Square in public.
A well-known Hong Kong photographer once said that all over Chinese cities, hidden in boxes, under mattresses, there are countless rolls of undeveloped film, carrying photos of the 1989 demonstrations.
The time has simply not yet come to develop the film, he said.
Unrelenting rain in Shanghai. The February skies pressed down on my spirits. The rain gathered in sidewalk puddles; my child stamped her foot in them and fussed about going to pre-school. I couldn’t blame her. I dropped her off, made an appointment with my hairdresser, and thankfully the place was empty that morning.
Our favorite topic is China, which we never tire of snipping at and curling. We blow-dry it, this shifting bed of morality, this code beyond the law, an ancient visceral code that everyone appears to understand. It goes beyond socially written laws, and in this old law, the clan is king. We both feel the vague menace it creates, the stress of not ever really knowing what is going on.
My hairdresser used to work in the south and had a wealthy Chinese client, a rich businessman who was a factory manager. Years ago, he used to come in regularly for a hair trim.
“I saw my client on TV the other day, in handcuffs, being led off to prison. I called my wife, and said, quickly come and see, it’s so-and-so.” The camera had panned across a filthy river — pollutants disgorged by this man’s factory, belching smoke.
“I was puzzled,” he said. The client had in the past been awarded prizes for running the cleanest factory in the country.
The hairdresser soon realized that the man had probably paid off the government for years in return for the public accolades. One day, when the factory manager decided not to pay, or could no longer cough up the funds, that was the end of the game and the authorities came to arrest him.
This “morality of wolves” (Bei Dao), this easy sidestepping of laws, this spiritual vacuum is China’s most urgent problem. Like my student leader said over lattes in Beijing in 2008, people no longer have anything in which to believe. Religion, an age-old human pillar, was knocked away and replaced by Communism. Communism’s ideals have vanished and all that is left, at least amongst young people, is a desperate hunt to purchase the latest brands.
Not long ago, I attended a private lecture by a leading Chinese thinker. Private lectures are how foreigners learn things in Shanghai: Through talks in homes or restaurants, talks you only learn about if you belong to a particular group, or if you know somebody who knows somebody. The government does not allow participation by the Chinese.
Let’s call this speaker A Brilliant Chinese Doing Economics, or ABCDE, for the acronym is irresistible. The man is wiry, still black-haired, and darts about, but as though he stands on an unseen soapbox, for he never crosses that invisible periphery. His thoughts tumble out so furiously that each sentence has three beginnings.
“1989 was about ideals, people were all working for the country, not working for themselves or their kids. So now, basically, only a few government officials feel responsibility for the country.”
He said that China was in a much better position then, because the people then respected the country’s elite, the intellectuals, the teachers, the leaders even.
Particularly in the last decade, he said, China has seen a terrifying devaluation of society’s top tiers.
Professors have become business people; everyone is trying to make money. Doctors and teachers want red packets (cash bribes), government officials are commercial wheelers and dealers themselves, rather like America’s robber baron industrialists in the early 20th century, and corrupt Congressmen rolled into one, he said. As a result, people don’t respect anybody at the top. A Guangdong party official could easily be worth 40 million or 50 million US dollars.
I have to agree with ABCDE.
In April 1989, students had initially gathered in Tiananmen Square to express their sorrow at the death of cadre Hu Yaobang, the reformist leader. These days, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking to the streets to mourn a Chinese leader. Firstly, there is nobody who inspires that kind of affection. Secondly, people express themselves on social media, though this involves complex cat-and-mouse games with the authorities.
People demonstrate in China all the time, the rather venerable Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) said, a tad huffily. According to the May 11, 2014, edition of the Shanghai Daily, a CASS report counted 90,000 “mass incidents” annually. That day’s headline read “39 Hurt in Rally Over Waste Plant.” People were upset about a waste incinerator that was planned for their area. They didn’t want their children and grandchildren to get cancer, a netizen had commented.
Still, spontaneous political revolution is driven by demographics, ABCDE said. After 30 years of the one-child policy, China no longer has a youth bulge, and without this, you’re very unlikely to have a revolution.
ABCDE had great hopes for China’s premier Xi Jinping. He calls him — somewhat affectionately — Top Guy.
“Now, the Top Guy feels strongly about ideals,” ABCDE said. “He needs to deal with the corrupt elite.” Top Guy takes corruption very seriously. Once he takes down China’s rotten strata of greedy officials, he can take China to new heights.
“The essence of the political transition in the short term, is to turn Mandarins into civil servants, turn government from a business organization, to a service organization,” he said.
Besides, he argued, China is much more open than it used to be, and will be wide open once again, like during the Tang dynasty — the age of great ideas. It was also the age of great travels like those of my Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang who went to India.
“In the next 20 years you’ll see the world coming to China. China will have tens of millions of foreigners living here. To understand China, you should not look at it like a nation state. China is not a nation state. China is an empire. So, this empire, it doesn’t care who you are.”
To Top Guy, I am compelled to say: Forgive those kids who were out on the Square. They’re middle-aged now. Let them come home and have their say. Give your people back their history. Allow them to believe in kindness.
On that trip to Beijing in 2008, I had avoided going to Tiananmen Square until the last possible minute, until after the Olympics’ closing ceremony. In the cool night breeze, the crowds were light. The square had been fenced off and closing time was near. I went through security checks to enter the Square. Three police vans lurked, their blue and red lights flashing. Gingerly I walked on the familiar flagstones.
Around me, a little boy flew a kite. A youth sat cross-legged on a folded newspaper, sketching the cupola of the Numismatic Museum, rimmed with fairy lights. Workers had already begun to dismantle the hedge monument saying “Beijing 2008.” Even the policemen hurried to take pictures of each other against it, before it was too late. The Square used to be vast and airy. Now it was cluttered with fences, shut off and crammed with blocks of greenery to break up the space. But everyone was too busy taking pictures to bother much.
Just before 10 p.m., a loudspeaker from a police van announced closing time. People obediently ambled out of the gates.
China had moved on. Perhaps it was time I did too.
Mishi Saran’s articles have appeared in a variety of international publications including the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the South China Morning Post, and The Asian Wall Street Journal. Her short stories have won awards and been broadcast on the BBC. Mishi Saran’s first novel The Other Side of Light, (HarperCollins India, 2012) was shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. Her first book, a memoir-cum-travelogue Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang, (Penguin, 2005) was shortlisted for the 2006 Hutch Crossword Book Award. More information about her work can be found at www.mishisaran.com
Mishi Saran was born in India and spent the first 10 years of her life in New Delhi. Since then, she has lived in Switzerland, Indonesia, the United States, China, Hong Kong, and Korea. She moved to Shanghai in 2006. She is the author of the travel book-cum-memoir Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang(Penguin, 2005).To research the book, she spent a year tracing the footsteps of Xuanzang, a seventh-century Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled along the Silk Road from China to India, passing through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Her first novel, The Other Side of Light, is published by HarperCollins India (June 2012). She is currently working on her third book, also a novel, set in Shanghai in the 1930s.
Ms. Saran writes in English and is also fluent in Mandarin, French, and Hindi. Following an undergraduate degree in Chinese Studies from Wellesley College (United States), she worked in Hong Kong as a news reporter and as a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in a variety of international publications including the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the South China Morning Post, and The Asian Wall Street Journal. Her short stories have won awards and been broadcast on the BBC.
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