Memories of a Massacre: Recollections of June Fourth Beyond Beijing

Despite near absolute censorship of any mention of the Tiananmen Massacre within China, memories of June Fourth still persist. On the 35th anniversary of the 1989 student movement’s suppression, a number of people who lived through the era published personal recollections to overseas websites. CDT has archived their essays and translated selected excerpts from each. 

Jiang Xue, a leading Chinese journalist now reporting from exile, published a mix of reportage and memoir in Wainao (WHYNOT), a Chinese-language online magazine. She recalled how the events played out in her small hometown in Gansu, hundreds of miles from the events in Beijing. She remembered solidarity and initial permissiveness, followed by a crackdown on public mourning: 

That summer, we all gathered anxiously to listen to Voice of America, straining for any and all news out of Beijing about the student movement. One day in March, our class leader brought our entire class to a blackboard at the school gate and posted our school’s first big-character poster. To this day, I remember the crude blue characters written in a fountain pen on a large white paper: “Down with corruption, punish profiteering bureaucrats, support the student sit-in.” 

[…] Before the massacre, the movement on the square was in full swing. One day, my classmates entrusted me to go to the town post office to donate our 14.5 yuan student fund. Writing on the post office’s crude desk, I put down the address: “The Tiananmen Square student sit-in.” The postal workers helped me fill out the remittance, which went smoothly. Nobody said, “This address is unclear, it won’t arrive.” That day, all of us, including the postal workers, knew without a doubt: The students on Tiananmen Square would receive the money.

This all happened in my hometown in 1989. It’s one scene from a small town in Gansu. 

Just as everything was beginning to change, “June Fourth” happened. The TV ran daily broadcasts on how rioters had hurt Liberation Army soldiers. “Counter-revolutionary turmoil broke out in Beijing.” A monotonous, high-tenor voice repeated that again and again, for nearly a month, day after day. 

My classmates got in touch with a few of the university students at the local teachers’ college and made plans to do something. So, one day, we pinned on homemade white florets, one blossom per person, and walked from school to home. In the end, we were forced to cancel our memorial while still in the planning stages. We had no way to express our rage and grief. Later, suppressing the fact that “June Fourth” ever happened became an important political task. The flames of resistance were extinguished and the remaining embers swept away — “June Fourth” became this country’s greatest taboo. [Chinese]

The Substack blog WOMEN我们 published recollections submitted by readers from within China—all members of the “post-80s” generation. In three pseudonymous essays, they recalled a childhood marked by the protests, in one way or another, despite not growing up in Beijing. The first essayist recalls the shock of their parents, both Party members, at learning of their child’s participation in a protest march in their northern Shandong county. In the second, the essayist recalls how their father became a target of post-crackdown persecution in order to protect his students. In the third and final essay, a woman recalls jumping the Great Firewall in 2020 to teach her young daughter about the student movement: 

We Are The True “Reserves” of the Democracy Movement


In about March, our teachers announced, out of the blue, that the following day we would not have class and instead march. I had no idea what “march” meant. I also had no idea why we would do so. But I was very excited because it meant we didn’t have to go to class. 

So the following day we marched around the city. Our path took us right by the intersection of the county government’s office. I remember that at the front of our ranks, we were displaying a banner. I was in the middle of the pack so I couldn’t see it—and I wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway. We all chanted slogans, none of which I understood, but which I repeated by copying the sounds. 

I don’t think my classmates understood the slogans either, but we were all so excited we were chirping as we walked and laughed. None of my classmates nor I realized exactly what we were doing. 

When we passed by my front door, I told my teacher, “I’m headed home.” That way I could play for a few hours before afternoon classes. Not long afterwards, my parents told me, in panic: “there are also people marching in the county.” I told them that was us. 

The Aftershocks of “June Fourth”: The Liquidation of A Family of Intellectuals 

By 南冥乌鹭 (nánmíngwūlù)

1989 is the year my memories begin. I was living on the old campus of XX University. After earning undergraduate degrees, my parents had remained on campus to work as young instructors. They were outstanding academics among their peers. They were very young then, even younger than some of the undergrads they taught. They brought me, young as I was, to march alongside the students. (“June Fourth” spread across the entire country. Marches were not limited to the capital.) My parents were so enthusiastic, telling me: “Look how the big kids get so excited chanting slogans, you should chant along with them.” Does that make me the youngest participant?

[…] To make all this blow over, the government publicly made many promises including “democratized governance,” which they broke one by one later. Many years later, when I began to understand how things work, my father and I talked about those days. I asked: “What were you and the aunties and uncles talking about?” He said: “Back then, to be honest we actually all knew it was hopeless and that a promise without any collateral is worthless. But too many students had participated in the protests and there was going to be a reckoning afterwards. We had to protect the students. Otherwise many of the students wouldn’t have been able to remain at school.” 

After “June Fourth,” XX University’s means of score-settling was far more sophisticated than the “campaign”-style of the Anti-Rightist Movement and Cultural Revolution. They did it by “proxy.” It’s possible that the former’s reputation was too sullied, or the costs of implementation too high, or that the latter was more secretive and it was thus easier to target the small minority of people who spoke up. The school’s leaders labeled intellectuals with “hardened positions” as activists based on their “performance” in the movement, and used this as a “liquidation tool” to torment the specific teachers and students who’d stood out in the movement. 

The director of the departmental teaching and research office, who was in charge of assigning classes, was thus a key position. University instructors stand on the two legs of “teaching + research” to advance their careers. The director kicked one leg out from under them by not assigning them classes. As assistant professors and lecturers, no matter how many papers they published, they would never reach their teaching goals, making it impossible to earn a promotion. And that’s how they “took care of” my father. 

Hopping the Firewall to Tell My Daughter About “89”: We Will Never Forget

By glacier

When I was in second or third grade, I began reading the newspaper. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there were two main topics in “People’s Daily”: the “June Fourth” incident and the Gulf War. Of course, most of the reports on “June Fourth” were lies about “the heroic actions of the defenders of the republic” and remonstrations about American and European interference, alongside essays summarizing the lessons learned from the experience. Although I was slightly skeptical, there was no way for the ten-year old me to distinguish between truth and lies. For the most part, I accepted what the paper told me. Those lies are my earliest memories of June Fourth.

At this time [after downloading a Falun Gong-provided unrestricted internet browser while in college around 2008], I did the following things. First, I used the internet to get in touch with the Sunshine Charity Organization, and joined them in conducting interviews with the petitioners living by Beijing South railway station while closely observing their living conditions. Second, I registered an overseas internet account and became part of the 18th class of “Charter 08” signatories. Third, I used my personal blog to share information about Liu Xiaobo, which eventually led to my blog getting shut down. Fourth, I shared theories of democracy and freedom with my colleagues, with limited success.  

[…] [Since 2020, I’ve again decided to jump the Great Fire Wall.] I talked to my daughter about all of this, with a YouTube documentary and the Tiananmen Mothers website as my aides. While watching a video on the Czech democracy movement, I connected “Charter 77” to “Charter 08,” and Havel to Liu Xiaobo, and the “Velvet Revolution” to “June Fourth.” I became overwhelmed by the tragedy and wept tears of sadness. [Chinese]


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