Three tellings of 六四

In Hong Kong yesterday a Cantonese speaking construction engineer visited me to schedule work. He spoke as much English and Mandarin as I spoke Cantonese, so it was a conversation laced with body language.

He said they’d come back “luk sei” (六四, six four, meaning June 4th), the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He said it again, “luk sei,” and laughed awkwardly. He asked if I knew the significance of the day. I nodded. He pretended to spray bullets from an imaginary machine gun to be sure I got the point.

Tonight in Hong Kong, as every year since 1989, there will be a candlelight vigil to remember the events of June 4th 1989. A record number of 180,000 are expected.


(Published by The Associated Press, originally photographed by Jeff Widener)

In mainland China five years ago I asked my Mandarin tutor if she knew about 1989’s famous “Tank Man.” I had heard that many in China were not aware of the image of the man with the bags blocking an advancing line of tanks.

She told me that she did know about this photograph. She told me that it illustrated the great restraint the People’s Liberation Army displayed when dealing with the Tiananmen protestors. She said, the PLA could have simply ran over him or shot him, but they didn’t, they carefully tried to maneuver around him.

Today in mainland China there will be no official commemoration. Students across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen have been warned not to wear “mourning clothes” and that any on or off campus demonstrations will be clamped down.


Last night I finished reading Ma Jian’s “Beijing Coma,” which tells the story of the build up to June 4th from the eyes of a fictitious Beijing University student. He remembers the 1989 protests as he lingers in the comatose condition. A condition he fell into after being struck in the head with a bullet in the early morning hours of the hardliner’s June 4th crackdown against the student protestors.

In his retelling of the protest, he lingers for pages over the inner workings, camaraderie and turf wars of the student movement. Knowing the outcome, working through the long read to the ultimate bloody end is as harrowing as it is gripping.

While remembering the past he also hears snippets of the changes sweeping through China throughout the 1990s. He hears about the deaths/imprisonments/lives abroad/money-making of his Tiananmen Square student compatriots. He learns of the crackdown on Falun Gong, the arrival of pagers and computers, the return of Hong Kong and then Macau to mainland China, and the demolitions transforming Beijing in advance of the Olympics.

It is a long, but worth-while read.

Some choice quotes are worth sharing (the book was translated into English by Flora Drew):

On opposition in China

“The whole world is watching us. The government wouldn’t dare use violence.”

“Fighting the government will get you nowhere. It’s as pointless as throwing eggs at rocks.”

“There’s nowhere to hide in this country. Every home is as exposed as a public square, watched over by the police day and night …”

On the student-erected “Goddess of Democracy”Goddess of Democracy

“She rose majestically from the middle of the Square, directly opposite Chairman Mao’s portrait, staring resolutely into the distance, her mouth tightly pursed. When I looked up at her, I felt a renewed sense of courage.”

“Chairman Mao was smiling wryly at the Goddess of Democracy, whose eyes were at the same level and were staring straight back at him.”

“In the last glow before dark [on the eve of June 4th], I watched the crowds rush frantically back and forth between Chairman Mao’s portrait and the white Goddess of Democracy.”

On the night of the crackdown itself, as the Army stormed central Beijing

“I got everyone to cry out to the troops, ‘The People’s Army loves the people! The Chinese people don’t shoot their fellow countrymen!'”

“But the girl in the red skirt was unscathed. She continued to walk towards the guns that were pointing straight at her. Then, when she was just two or three metres away from them, a shot was fired .. Her left foot stepped backwards, her arms and body tilted forward, then she lost balance and crumpled on to the ground.”

“As the smoke cleared, a scene appeared before me that singed the retinas of my eyes. On the strip of road which the tank had just rolled over, between a few crushed bicycles, lay a mass of silent flattened bodies. I could see Bai Ling’s yellow-and-white-striped T-shirt and red banner drenched in blood. Her face was completely flat. A mess of black hair obscured her elongated mouth.”

On China since 1989

“As society changes, new worlds and terms keep popping up, such as: sauna, private car ownership, property developer, mortgage and personal installment loan. … No one talks about the Tiananmen protests any more …”

“Ten years ago, I escaped from the nation’s political centre and retreated into my home [in a coma]. But soon my home will be a shopping centre. Where can I retreat to then?”


Please also see this riveting series of photographs posted by The Atlantic on last year’s anniversary: Tiananmen Square, Then and Now.


15 responses to “Three tellings of 六四

  1. Sounds like a very interesting read. I’ve a Caucasian high school friend who was living in Beijing (teaching violin) during the Tianmen uprising. She remembers being smuggled out of the city to the airport riding in the back of a car underneath some blankets. The whole city was in lockdown, she was getting chaotic messages everyday about what was happening. Can’t imagine how it must’ve been in Beijing then. Asking my employees now (all in the early twenties up) most don’t even KNOW about it and those who do don’t really care. I think that’s the real tragedy of the whole thing – the not caring.

  2. Thank you for the reminder. Now 24 years later people all over the world are “speaking truth to power.” The images from Istanbul this week are haunting in this regard. Wonderful post!

    • I’m glad you liked it. You are so right the the events in Istanbul have some strong parallels in terms of a government’s harsh over-use of force against it’s own people.

  3. How sadly often the people must “speak truth to power.” We watch it happening all over our planet now. Great post reminding all of the powerful voices of people who are dedicated to changing the world . .

    • It’s utterly disheartening to think how much the students and other protestors lost when they made their critical voices heard. It reminds us all how important it is to commemorate this event (in Hong Kong and elsewhere) since it is all but erased in mainland China.

  4. Wow! Thanks for the reminder. Victoria Park is a beautiful sight; dark and silent in the middle of the city, save for the candels. The most gut-wrenching thing is when the parents who lost children on that day speak about their pursuit of justice all these years and still no apology, let alone acknowledgement.

    • The thought of what the students (and other protestors and their families) gave up is completely chilling. Especially when one looks at key mainland China news sites today and sees no reference or acknowledgement at all.

      I wish I could make it to Victoria Park tonight. Sounds like you have been there before.

  5. Wow. I’ll have to look that book up. I ashamedly didn’t know anything about the Tiananmen Massacre until I moved to Taiwan… It happened when I was really little and had no concept of what China or communism even was… I wish I could have gone to one of the vigils while in Hong Kong. This is something no one should ever forget. I can’t believe the government won’t allow people to wear mourning clothes.. Jerks.

    • I really love these clever attempts to skirt the censors! They underscore how ridiculous it all is, since there is always another way to represent June 4th. I particularly love calling it May 35th!

  6. So glad to find someone who has read Beijing Coma. I really loved that book and learned a lot from it about the on the ground organization. Those Atlantic photos are incredible.

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