June 4th marks 25 years since the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The following post was originally published last year and was titled “Three tellings of 六四.” The updated post title, “May 35th,” is the alternative date given in China for June 4th in order to evade China’s censors (of course the censors now know this and May 35th is now censored too).
In addition to Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, described below, I highly recommend reading this New York Times article from June 3, 1989 describing thousands Beijing citizens blocking city streets in order to stop the military from advancing on the students. This series of photographs posted by The Atlantic on the 2012 anniversary, Tiananmen Square, Then and Now, is also worth viewing.
My they were brave. Peaceful, youthfully disorganized, idealistic and brave. Let’s remember them.
Three Tellings of 六四
In Hong Kong 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.
In mainland China six years ago I asked my Mandarin tutor if she knew about 1989’s famous “Tank Man.”
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.
Ma Jian’s “Beijing Coma,” 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 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!'”
“[T]he 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?”