Memories of A City With A Square, Tiananmen Square

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF wrote a sappy Op-Ed piece at today’s New York Times: The Tiananmen Victory. It brought flood of memories back to my mind, and tears to my eyes.

Those months leading up to that fateful night was such a surreal experience for me, a high school junior then. For the first time I experienced something larger than life, as the entire city bonded together to show the will of one, to laugh as one and to cry as one. Looking back, I realized that must be what had taken hold of the millions of people in China during Culture Revolution, or the Parisians during French Revolution. The seduction of power was irresistible. The possibility that our voice was heard and we were in charge, and it seemed things were going to change because of us!

The city and everyone in it was drunk with giddiness and excitement, despite the martial law. So what the city was surrounded by tanks and all public transportation to the suburbs were stopped? We had free public transportation all over the streets of Beijing and the bus drivers, for once, actually were smiling as they picked up random people on the streets, and happily delivered them to wherever they’d like to go. Everyone was accommodating to each other’s needs. There were no fights on the streets, and no one threw a temper. The city has been transformed to some place I’ve only seen in the movies.

During that early summer, the air was dry. Emotion sparks were flying up. Our high school was in the heart of Beijing and happened to be surrounded by three hospitals. As the students’ hunger strike continued on in the hot sun, ambulance sirens were blasting non-stop day and night. Some of our teachers would choke in tears in the middle of their lectures.

It was a boarding school. Usually, we had curfews after evening study. Some of the girls in the dorm would sneak out and spent the night in the square with the college students, came back in the pre-dawn hour, all bright-eyed and recited to us all the exciting things that happened there. Even the strict Mrs. Night Lady didn’t scorn them like they used to, rather, she would express wariness about their lack of sleep.

Politically, teachers were divided. Some of them wanted to go to the square and show their support for the students. The more cautious ones kept quiet. We students picked up the mixed signal and got excited, too.

Fueled by the newly acquired “freedom of speech”, during one of our political science class, a student raised his hand and asked the teacher to comment on the fast approaching collapse of Soviet Union Communist Government. Everyone in the class turned up their alert radar, the class was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. We held our breath waiting for our poli-sci lecturer to give an answer. At the time, Political Science is synonymous to forced “Communism Bible Study”. It was a rather liberal high school and we were encouraged to question authority in many classes, but never in Poli-sci. It could result in real political prosecution. We knew it. The Lecturer knew it. But if things were changing as we expected it to be, then this was the ultimate test.

Our lecturer was a serious middle-aged man, with a typical Chinese Intellectual appearance. Wearing glasses and non-descriptive uniform jackets, with Cerulean Sleeves. He could refuse to answer, he could scorn the student for being out of line, he could punish him and the whole class for daring to ask this question. Instead, he was thoughtful for a long time and finally said, ¡°We had to wait and see.¡± After a pause, he added, “But a stable environment is the key for any kind of social progress. Chaos or civil unrest will only result in destruction. Chaos won’t help anyone. The ordinary people usually end up suffering…”

We didn’t really fully grasp what he has said, but the fact that he did offer an answer to such a daring question made all of us ecstatic. It just confirmed one more time for us, “Wow, things are changing!”

The older generation wasn‘t so naïve.

Even though the city was under martial law, the soldiers were all stopped at the city gates by crowd of residents. The interactions were largely peaceful. The residents informed these soldiers sitting in their tanks of what had happened during the last few months, how college students were on hunger strike at Tiananmen Square because they would like to have a more democratic society. Inside the city, there was not much law enforcement present. But there was no looting either. A utopian air was prevalent.

One day on campus, we heard a very loud and unfamiliar mechanical sound over head. It was a military helicopter. My first reaction was one of fear, should I hide? I thought it was going to shot. But it was doing something very novel. It was dropping flyers. Hundreds of them landed everywhere on our campus like paper birds. The slogans printed on them made as much sense as a science fiction from an alien world. It claimed that students were counter-revolutionaries, and residents should stay away from Tiananmen Square. Since every living person could see with their own eyes that those poor students were as ordinary as you and me, certainly they weren’t anything close to some monstrous counter-revolutionaries. No one paid attention to these flyers. During Afghan war, when the US military employed similar tactics, dropping flyers to communicate with the local residents; I remembered those flyers in my high school campus. I wonder if those US flyers embraced a more useful fate than the ones of Beijing’s summer in 1989.

Only later did I understand this kind of civil unrest was almost a chronological disease of the country. Periodically something similar to this kind of student/people movement would happen, and they always ended in violence and mass murders. The only difference, this time, it was caught on camera and was broadcast for the world to see.

After being shut in for a month, we were all told that public transportation from city center to the suburb would resume in the first weekend of June. Almost all of us boarding students decided to go home and replenish material supplies. It was a little odd that the traffic opened was one-way only: going out of the city. There was no traffic in the other direction. No one thought it was odd. At least, no one commented on it.

The evening news on Sunday said there was a revolt on the square and it had been put down by the military. No one mentioned any blood-letting. It sounded like a very small thing. I thought maybe they finally managed to get the students camped on the Square to leave. The square had started to become rather filthy and started to smell. I was still preparing to go back to school. Only then was I learnt that no traffic was allowed to the city for the following day. I was told to turn on our short-wave radio and listened to VOA. That was how I spent the rest of the week, crouching by the radio, crying and crying. Occasionally the telephone would go through to the city. I talked to my cousins, my classmates who were in the city that dark night. They all lived in different parts of the city and their accounts of what had happened all fit. Almost everyone mistook it for firecracker at the beginning. Because no one could believe it was actually gun shots, “they were too dense. They resembled our new year’s eve celebration when the entire city erupted in firecracker storm as the clock struck midnight.” They told me that the authority was busy cleaning up the bloods and human remains on the streets.

A week later, schools reopened. I came back to a somber city, where people stayed quiet in public, where streets were lined with soldiers with their machine guns, where so many people were teary eyed and brooding anger in their hearts, where we kept our faces blank when approaching any soldier, but made angry faces and mouthed obscenity at them once they turned their backs on us. The city was of a color of doom, eveloped in a quiet yet violent kind of anger.

The only memory I had of the remaining of the school year was us scribbling angry quotes and poems from earlier generation: Lu Xun’s essay, Bei Dao’s poem “from bullet holes of the stars, pouring out the bloody dawn”, class after class. The exam didn’t matter, the grades didn’t matter, even the teachers were mainly going through the motions. Something in us was shattered. We were one step closer to being cynical. Our teenager years were coming to a close.

2 thoughts on “Memories of A City With A Square, Tiananmen Square

  1. Thank you for the story. So that is what happened.

    I always remember a plot in A Hundred Years of Isolation, or Boring, 🙂
    About a put down revolution, slaughter. It is on a dust road. And very quickly, everything is erased, very professional, only dust remains on the road. Then everyone said nothing happened. Memory vagued. At last, the one is so scared by the slaughter begin to doubt his memory. Finally, nothing happened.
    When reading, it feels so weird and chilling.
    And, deep in mind, I feel so familiar. The history of Latin America is so much assemble the one of China, the recent a hundred years.

    Jean’s Reply:
    Luan Kan, I love this quote you used. It sounds very poetic. Tragedy, yes, but that was such a poetic way to put it.
    I agreen with you, to forget is unforgiveable. History is the most clear headed of all. It won’t let us forget.
  2. Thank you Jean for sharing your memories.

    After a discussion about this I’m somewhat amazed at how little I know about this incident. I haven’t researched it but neither have I avoided reading news articles about it. The famous images and sound bites are drilled into my memory but the words and understanding are not there.

    Jean’s Reply:
    You are very welcome, mfd.
    Our discussion makes me wonder how much we’ve learned reading journalist’s account of world events. How much do we really know what had happened there, in Afghan, in Iraq, in Middle-East? Maybe that’s why it is so great to have weblogs, by the common people. Then we get to see how the local people feel, rather what a journalist from a western media feel.

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