That Year, These Years: Stories of Tiananmen
By Li Xuewen
Translated by Little Bluegill
Original text here.
That Year, I was twelve years old and in the fifth grade. The happiest part of my day: I would come home from school, turn on our battered black-and-white TV and listen to my older brother, who was a student at the local teacher’s college, passionately detail the day’s happenings in Beijing. Scenes of waving flags, young faces and screeching ambulances flashed across the screen, brimming with energy and a feeling of meaning and weight.
That Year, the summer was especially hot.
After school, my friends and I walked through the pockmarked roads of our village. We no longer goofed around like before. By that time, a few of us buddies had started to talk about the big affairs of the country. “Let’s write a letter to Zhao Ziyang,” I suggested. My friends replied, “You write it. Your essays are very well written.” But I had no idea what I should write. I just had this vague notion that we should do something.
My father came home from our county seat. He said that someone had tried to hand him a flyer as he was riding his bike down the street. He didn’t take it. It was not long before he had peddled away.
Father was the principal of the village elementary school. In the past, he had never been admitted to the Party because of his poor family background. He cried loudly about this in the past. He was afraid.
Later, the youthful energy on TV became a bloody scream.
July was torrid. My older brother, who had graduated by then, hadn’t come home. Father became worried and went to the school to look for him.
As Father stepped off the bus, the head of my brother’s department was there waiting for him. The department head’s first words when they met were, “Your son was sent to be re-educated.” When he heard this, Father collapsed on the ground, foaming at the mouth.
Holding my father in his arms, the department said over and over, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
When Father came home, he told the family that my brother was a student leader and had taken students to protest in the streets. Five students from his college were sent to be re-educated, and my brother was one of them. He would probably not receive his diploma and wouldn’t get a work assignment.
I had a vague sense of pride for my brother, but the despair in Father’s voice troubled me.
A month later, my brother came home. He wasn’t the cheerful person he once was. Rather, he was silent. Everyday he would wander around the village fields, brooding with a furrowed brow. No one knew what he was thinking about.
Father forced my brother to go to the County Board of Education every day to inquire about work assignments. My brother was the first person from our village to attend college, and Father had endured many hardships. Father wanted my brother to leave the village and get a job.
My brother often quarreled with Father. Later on, my brother was finally assigned a job and went to town to be a middle school teacher. Eventually he tested into graduate school, got his doctorate and became an assistant professor at a prestigious university.
Some time later, as my brother and I were reminiscing about the past, he told me that during the protests, they were passing a military district. Many of the students wanted to rush in, but as student leader my brother did everything in his power to stop them.
Perhaps it is because of this that he was eventually assigned a job.
By chance, I once ran into the head of my brother’s department. He told me, “Your father is a good person. Your brother and the others are hot-blooded youth.”
That summer, something took root in the heart of a twelve-year-old boy.
The memories of that year influenced the rest of my life.
One day in 1995 when I was at university, I ran into an old classmate and started talking about Tiananmen. He mentioned he had a whole batch of photos from that time, all taken by his brother. I was excited and asked him to bring them for me to see. I saw the Goddess of Democracy standing gloriously aloft the square, and a sea of people wearing white bandanas. “These pictures are treasures. You must take good care of them,” I implored my classmate. He didn’t seem to feel the same way. “If you like them, take them.” I hurriedly stored them away, as if I had discovered rare jewels.
After graduation, I was assigned to be an elementary school teacher back home. Once, as my colleagues and I were chatting about the events of That Year, a female colleague noticed how impassioned I was on the subject. She snorted, “You’re so excited. You know, in ’89 I was a senior in high school. None of us could take the college entrance exams because of the student protests. I went back home to work on the farm. Now I’m just a private tutor.”
I was speechless. It was only then I realized the events of that year had altered her entire life.
It was also at that time I began spending entire nights listening to the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. I heard many more Tiananmen stories. I also began reading books like He Qinglian’s The Trap of Modernization and the Liu Junning’s edited volume Public Forum. I became a liberal.
In 1998 my younger brother opened a bookstore. He sold pirated books from Hong Kong and Taiwan that he bought at a market in Wuhan, including titles like The Real June Fourth, Tiananmen and the memoirs of people like Wang Dan and Feng Congde. Those books sold like crazy. Most of the people buying them were retired workers from state-owned enterprises. They never haggled. My younger brother was quite brazen about it too, strutting about as he put those books on the shelves. Eventually, a teacher reported our store in a letter to the Hubei Daily, saying we were selling vast numbers of reactionary books.
People from the cultural center stormed in holding copies of the Hubei Daily and confiscated all of these books.
Since we couldn’t sell them in the open, we started selling them discreetly. In the winter, my younger brother and I hid copies of the illegal books in our thick cotton coats. Whenever an old worker would come asking about them, we would slide the books out of our coats make a sales pitch. We sold many books this way, and my younger brother was very pleased with the money he was earning.
It wasn’t long before my brother came back from a trip to Wuhan looking very dejected. The book market had been shut down for selling pornography. We had no way to bring in new copies.
Our store never sold those books again.
Around the dinner table one day, we were discussing June Fourth when my brother-in-law, who worked as a local government official, said, “You read those reactionary books every day, crying out for justice, but do you ever think about what it would be like if the crackdown never happened? What about this decade of economic growth and the life our family enjoys today? Stability trumps all!”
I left the table, furious.
On June 4, 1999, I fasted and wrote an essay titled “Thoughts on the Tenth Anniversary of June Fourth.” This marked my passage into spiritual maturity.
In 2000 I moved to Hangzhou. Living in a dormitory at Zhejiang University, I took the graduate school exams. On the school web forum, students were downloading a documentary titled Tiananmen, which had gone viral.
In Hangzhou I met Fu Guoyong. In his simple apartment, I listened to him recall his story. That Year, he joined the student movement. He gave a public speech on Tiananmen Square. He met his wife. Then he was arrested, put on a train, shackled from hand to foot, thrown in jail. His mother went gray overnight. His wife, who was a top student at Beijing Normal University, never gained recognition at school because of her anti-revolutionary family. He showed me pictures of his wife and child visiting him in jail, the three of them with pure, resplendent smiles on their faces.
It was the most beautiful photo I had ever seen.
One day in 2002, a friend arranged for me to visit the student leader Wang Youcai. Wang was sent to jail for organizing the Democratic Party of China. His wife, Hu Jiangxia, was at home. Making wide detours to avoid being followed, my friend and I wound our way to Wang Youcai’s house in Hangzhou’s Emerald Garden neighborhood. At last we met Hu Jiangxia and had a lively conversation. Not long afterwards, I heard Wang and Hu filed for divorce. Some time after that, Wang was sent to the United States through negotiations between the Chinese and American governments. Eventually, Hu Jiangxia also made her way to the U.S.. I heard that they remarried.
In Hangzhou, there was a boss of a large company who asked to borrow my copy of Wang Dan’s prison memoirs. He kept it for a long time. Only later did I realize that in That Year he had been the chairmen of Zhejiang University’s autonomous student council. The summer of That Year, one of his toes was broken off. He changed course and went on to become a successful businessman.
In 2003 my friend and I began hosting an academic salon at Sanlian Bookstore in Hangzhou. According to Fu Guoyong, this was the first time since the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement that an open, grassroots activity was publically hosted in Hangzhou. We invited Fu Guoyong to give a lecture. That was the first time he spoke at a public gathering since leaving prison.
In 2005, I started graduate school in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. During class one day, the teacher suddenly began speaking to us dozen or so students about June Fourth. He said some of the events of That Year were perfectly pure, others extremely foul. Our teacher was a graduate student in Beijing at the time of the crackdown. He personally experienced all that happened that summer. I was shocked to hear this. He wasn’t merely a professor. He was the principal of the school—a bona fide official. This was the first time I heard someone from inside the system speak openly about June Fourth in a classroom.
After class, I excitedly shared my own June Fourth story with several classmates. A few female students born in the 80s listened to me wide-eyed, as if they were listening to fantastical stories from some strange, far-off land. “Is it true, what he’s saying?” they asked the class monitor, who had been standing nearby listening. He nodded his head. “It’s true. It’s all true. I was there at Tiananmen at the time. I even slept there a few nights.” Our class monitor was born in 1968. He had taken part in June Fourth.
Still, those young classmates couldn’t believe it. “How come we never knew anything about this before?” they asked with a sigh.
My roommate Old Yang was a graduate student in the Fine Arts Department. He was born in the 70s, a party member and a university lecturer. One night, as we lay awake talking, he told me about a student from his village who went to Tsinghua University. During June Fourth he disappeared. Twenty years had passed, and no one knew anything about what had happened to him. If he was alive, no one had seen his face; if he was dead, no one had viewed the body. He was the only student from that village to ever attend a prestigious university. “I hate the Communist Party,” Old Yang spat.
That Year, a professor from my department supported the student protesters in Yunnan. He shared with me what happened when he lead the students. They scaled the university walls and took to the streets, shouting protest slogans. After the June Fourth Massacre, the professor organized Yunnan Province’s first protest march. As autumn came, his actions caught up with him. He was suspended from teaching and put under investigation. With documents piled before him, his investigators demanded he admit his crimes. His students protected him, saying they marched of their own volition, without any encouragement from their teacher. He kept his job, but he began to fall in love with one female student after another. He divorced several times, becoming dissolute. Although he should have been made department head long ago, he was never promoted. Once, at a banquet, he berated the Party in front of all the university leaders. “The Chinese Communist Party should have collapsed back in 1989! They should have died out a long time ago, damn it!”
The room fell silent.
The other professors say he turned into a different person after June Fourth, cursing the Communist Party and womanizing his students.
My graduate adviser was an old professor and a member of the Democratic Party. After June Fourth, the Yunnan Provincial Party Committee organized a forum with democracy advocates. “I’ve never understood how June Fourth was handled,” he said in a speech there. “Why did the government have to do what it did?” Twenty years on, he still couldn’t make sense of it.
In 2009, I graduated and stuck around campus to take the university’s employment test. I received the top score. The Yunnan Security Agency opened a political investigation on me because I had previously published a few articles on foreign websites. That was the first time I ever dealt with security officials, and it filled me with dread.
A deputy director from the security agency asked me, “What are your thoughts on June Fourth?” I paused, then said, “June Fourth doesn’t concern my generation. It’s very complicated.” He stared at me for a long time, then retorted, “You mean you don’t think the decisive action taken by the Party in that year was the reason for our prosperity and success today?”
I remembered the argument with my brother-in-law. They had the same logic—the same inhumane logic. I stayed silent. I didn’t dare refute him, afraid of losing my chance at a teaching position.
Regardless, I failed to pass my political investigation. The university Party committee rejected my application on the grounds that I “did not fervently love my country and socialism.”
To this day, I still feel guilty for the cowardice I showed when confronted by the stability maintenance system. June Fourth is not just a matter for the generation that came to age in 1989. It’s a matter that relates to every person on Chinese soil. It is blood spilled by tyranny. It is an open wound on the body of this nation that will never close. Whatever you think of June Fourth, you cannot have a muddled opinion on it, you cannot make haphazard excuses for it. You must say no to atrocity, you must say no to the truth written in blood and the lies written in ink. One’s opinion of June Fourth is the most basic measure of the morality of every Chinese person, the touchstone that torments every Chinese person’s conscience and humanity. Any action or expression that crosses that bottom line is an injustice that violates one’s very conscience.
After my expulsion from the university in 2009, I made my way to Beijing. Since then, I have met many teachers and friends, and I heard even more stories of Tiananmen.
When I first arrived in Beijing, I became a reporter for a Party-affiliated magazine. One day, an older female colleague recounted a story from her university years. It was the early 90s and a soldier had an eye for her, was courting her, but she had no feelings for him. One day, as they were walking together, the soldier asked her, “Do you college students still hate us soldiers?” She didn’t respond. The soldier continued, “I didn’t fire my gun.”
Another female colleague of mine, born in the 80s, held an advanced degree from Wuhan University. Her boyfriend was an army officer. One day she heard some of us chatting about June Fourth and was shocked. When she got home that night she asked her boyfriend about it. He told her that the guns were not loaded that day. She called me late that night and yelled, “Did people really die or not? Who should I believe?” I answered her question with a question of my own. “If there were no bullets in their guns, how did all those students and ordinary citizens die?” After arguing for half an hour she still didn’t know if she should trust her boyfriend or me.
She broke up with her boyfriend. I don’t know the reason why.
In a restaurant in Beijing’s Haidian District, professor Yu Shuo, who had arrived in Beijing from Hong Kong, shared with me her own June Fourth story. At that time she was a young lecturer in Renmin University’s sociology department. She and Liu Xiaobo came from the same hometown and were friends. That whole summer, she carried a camera and tape recorder around Tiananmen Square, interviewing students, intellectuals and city residents. She wanted a record of everything. On the night of June 3, she was preparing to evacuate the square with the last wave of students. Liu Xiaobo had told her his bag was left at a corner of the Monument to the People’s Heros, with his money and his passport that he would need to travel to the U.S. still inside. While the students were retreating, Yu Shuo ran over to the monument to retrieve the bag, but a student patrol grabbed her and threw her to the ground, yelling, “Do you want to die?” After she returned back to campus, she showed her photos to a leader from her department. One of the photos showed the body of a student who had been beaten to death near the gate of China University of Political Science, his brains spilling onto the ground. The department leader began to wail. He grabbed a pile of blank letterhead and stamped them all with his official seal. He gave them to Yu Shuo, saying, “Child, run away, quickly. This is all I can do to help you.” Yu told me she’d always remember that department leader, who risked a great deal to help her. It’s ordinary people like him whose souls shine.
With these letters in hand, she scrambled her way to Guangdong and then Shekou, preparing to look for Yuan Geng. She hid on and island for half a month, then went to Hong Kong as the first person rescued through Operation Yellowbird. She later moved to France, where she married a French citizen. She earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and became a professor. Today, she works to facilitate academic exchange between China and Europe.
While visiting his home in the Beijing suburb of Songzhuang, Yu Jianrong shared his own story with me. During June Fourth, Yu was in his hometown of Hengyang in Hunan Province, where he worked as a secretary for the municipal government. Yu had a classmate, the child of high-ranking cadres, who was a flag bearer on Tiananmen Square. After June Fourth his classmate fled home and Yu found him a place to stay. Finally, security officials found Yu. His classmate was left unscathed, but they investigated Yu. The investigation scared Yu enough for him to quit his job and become a businessman. He went on to earn over two million yuan, after which he moved to Taiwan and became an academic, earning his doctorate. He eventually became a well-known scholar. June Fourth changed his entire life.
Late one night in a Beijing bar, the artist Gao Huijun shared his June Fourth story with me. He was a college student at the time. On the night of June 3, Gao and his classmates were on Changan Avenue, bullets screeching past their ears. Suddenly, a stray bullet bounced off the ground and struck one of his classmates in the chest. He died at the scene. He collapsed to the ground, then crawled for a few hundred meters before falling still. Old Gao spoke breathlessly, as if it were transpiring before him. A crystal teardrop flickered from behind his thick eyeglasses.
Once during a banquet at a restaurant near West Fourth Ring Road in Beijing, my good friend Wen Kejian introduced me to a middle-aged man sitting at the table. “That’s Ma Shaofang,” Wen said. Stunned, I asked, “You’re Ma Shaofang from the June Fourth wanted list?” Ma, nodding his head, replied, “I never thought, after twenty years, there would still be young people like you who remember me.” I immediately took up my glass and toasted him, saying, “There are certain people and certain things that are unforgettable.”
Ma Shaofang was the first student leader I had ever met. After his release from prison, Ma became a businessman. He is staunchly determined never to leave China.
In Tianjin’s TEDA Arts Center, I once conversed with the renowned collector Ma Huidong over drinks. As the wine warmed us up, Mr. Ma told me that after he graduated from China University of Political Science in the late 80s, he entered a re-education center. After he’d been washed clean, he escaped from the center and began doing business. Twenty years after June Fourth, he’s still never been back to Tiananmen Square. Whenever he’s about to pass it in his car, he takes a detour. “After the gunfire of June Fourth, reform died,” Mr. Ma said.
The famous philosopher Li Ming is my good friend, despite our age difference. In the 80s, before his hair had turned gray, he was already known for his work on the editorial board of the Walking Towards the Future series. He told me he was the research director of Youth Political College during June Fourth. After the crackdown, he was fired from his job, then arrested. In all these years, he never received a single penny from the Communist Party. His pay suspended, Li Ming scraped by with translation and writing.
At the artists village in Songzhuang, I once shared drinks and conversation with the renowned poet Mang Ke. He told me how he returned to Beijing from abroad in early 1989 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Today magazine. Along with Bei Dao and others like him, he added his name to an open letter calling for the release of Wei Jingsheng. After June Fourth, Mang Ke was detained at his home. A black bag was placed over his head and he was taken to a place he didn’t know. After two days, he was released. The people who took him said he was detained for his own safety. Afterwards, Mang Ke relied on painting to make a living.
Once at a teahouse, I spoke with a middle-aged businessman who had served twenty years in the army. When the topic of June Fourth came up, he couldn’t stop talking. At that time, he worked in the basement of the Tiananmen Square command center. He was in charge of intelligence collection. Hundreds of informants were sent out from the center every day. Every avenue and alley of Beijing was closely monitored. He said during that time, Mayor Chen Xitong would visit the command center almost daily.
Mr. Yu, a publisher in Beijing, is a friend from my hometown. He also told his June Fourth story to me. That Year, he was teaching middle school in a remote village in Hubei Province. He was extremely depressed. During his time there, he wrote an essay titled “Where China Is Going?” He made ten mimeographed copies and gave them to his classmates and friends. As a result, he was reported to the authorities and arrested. He spent a year in a detention center before being released without ever having stood trial. “China’s detention centers are the cruelest places on earth,” he told me. “I crawled out of there.” After he left, he learned his grandmother, whom he loved dearly, passed away the very day he was detained. Some time later, his wife divorced him. He began to wander aimlessly.
The author Li Jianmang lives in Europe. I once met him during one of his trips back to Beijing. During June Fourth, a classmate of his, He Zhijing, who also happened to be the cousin of Beijing Film Academy professor He Jian, went missing. Later at the hospital, Li was saw He Zhijing’s body. He had been beaten to death. Li Jianmang said before all this his father wrote him a letter. “Don’t be a hero. When you hear the guns, hit the ground,” his father wrote. “My son, you do not know their ruthlessness.”
After the advent of Weibo I made many new friends online, some famous and some not. One of them is a Beijing girl named Keke who maintains a government website. She told me that during June Fourth she was in second grade. Keke’s birthday happens to fall on June 3. That Year on June 3, her family celebrated her birthday at her grandmother’s house. Afterward she walked from Hujialou to Gongzhufen. On the road, she saw buses on fire, roadblocks, twisted bicycle frames and pedestrians navigating their way through the carnage. It was a terrifying, unforgettable scene. Memories of June Fourth have lingered in her mind ever since. After getting on Weibo, she frequently posted images and documents from June Fourth. Her account was quickly shut down. She is reincarnated all the time.
My friend Hai Tao is a writer from the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou. He recalled to me that after June Fourth, the older men and women of town were sent to downtown Beijing everyday to dance and sing patriotic songs. When they became tired they wanted to buy popsicles, but the streets peddlers wouldn’t let them buy any. “You have no conscience,” the peddlers would say.
* * *
There are still many stories of Tiananmen to tell.
That year, the author Ye Fu worked as a police officer in Hainan. Facing the massacre, he cast away his uniform, submitted his resignation letter and bid farewell to the system forever. Then he was reported to the authorities in Wuhan and imprisoned. Then his mother drowned herself in the Yangtze River. Then he wrote his famous work, My Mother on the Yangtze…
That year, my friend Du Daobin left his hometown for the provincial capital of Wuhan to participate in the protests. Then he published some critical political commentary online. Then he was arrested. Then he became a famous dissident…
That year, many parents couldn’t find their children, many families lost their loved ones. That year, many talented people left the country, many people died away from home, never to return. That year, China became a broken world, a world of life and death, a watershed. That year, China’s twentieth century came to an end.
One afternoon in Spring 2010, I passed through the heart of Beijing on the subway, traveling from the eastern suburbs to the western neighborhood of Muxidi. Sitting on the side of the road in Muxidi, I thought about all the blood and tears shed some twenty years ago right there. I thought about the Tiananmen Mothers. I thought about the countrymen we lost forever. For a very, very long time, with a heavy heart, choking back tears, silently, I sat there until dusk. That afternoon, I quietly wrote this poem:
At Muxidi, Thinking of Someone
—for the Mother Ding Zilin
Today, I am at Muxidi
Thinking of someone
I don’t know him
But I will remember him forever
At this moment, I miss him
Like I would miss a long lost brother
That was twenty-one years ago
Right here, at Muxidi
An unforgettable place
That merciless summer
A single bullet
Passed through his body
His sixteen-year-old body
He let out his final scream
And then bid farewell to this world
This evil, gory and lie-filled world
This sixteen-year-old youth
This eternal youth
He’ll never grow up
But we, in this world without him
Grow older by the day
Until the present
All these years
Seem like a century
No, many centuries
We watch ourselves grow old
But are powerless
We tell ourselves, we are alive
We need to live
And we tell ourselves we need to make peace with this world
But we know
We are not fated to make peace with this world
For no other reason
Only because of this young man
He will never grow up
So we must grow old
To grow old, is really to die
Today, at Muxidi
I am thinking of someone
I miss him
Like I would miss a long lost brother
A brother lost twenty-one years ago
I miss him
This eternal youth
I want to cry, but I cannot
I know we have no more tears
Even worse than having no tears
We don’t even have any blood
Our souls were hollowed long ago
In the gunfire, among the bullets
In twisted, hidden history
All we can still do
Is come here
Thinking of this youth
Like missing a long lost brother
A brother lost for 21 years
He never left
But we’ll never have him back
Time is like a murderer. Twenty-three years have flashed by. Countless countrymen have forgotten, countless others have remembered. I am from the post-June Fourth generation. On this twenty-third anniversary, I earnestly write this record, like putting my heart on an altar of blood. I do this for nothing more than the justice we are yet to receive. I believe blood was not spilt in vain. Judgment will surely come.
June 4, 2012, on the banks of the Xiang River, Hunan