How I Learned About Tiananmen

A ChinaFile Conversation

In April, ChinaFile put out a call, on this website and on social media, for young people who grew up in China to describe how they first learned about the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, and how they felt about it. Here is a selection of the responses we received, including several from authors who requested their posts be published anonymously. —The Editors


My first encounter with the Tiananmen Square massacre took place on a late afternoon in the late 1990s. I was in about sixth grade at the time. I came home quite late one day. When I opened the door, I found the house was dark with only a flicker of light coming from my parents’ bedroom. I went in and found my parents, my grandparents (my mom’s parents), and my cousin’s family. They were all crammed into this small bedroom and were watching something on a VCD on a small TV, even though we had a more comfortable sofa and a larger TV in the living room. It was dead quiet in the bedroom, so I just found a place to sit near a nightstand.

I did not know what was playing on the TV at the time. No one talked to me during the screening or explained what was going on, so I just sat and watched. It turned out to be a documentary on the Tiananmen Square massacre. I later found out my parents had borrowed the VCD from a friend. The documentary detailed everything that took place before, during, and after June 4, 1989, from the death of Hu Yaobang to the student leaders petitioning outside the Great Hall of the People, intercut with interviews of student leaders like Chai Ling, Wang Dan, and Wu’erkaixi.

Being naive and clueless, I didn’t think or feel much about what was happening on the screen. I was just captivated by the storytelling. After the movie, again, no one spoke about what they had just watched, to me or to one another. My mom only told me not to tell anyone outside our household what we had watched. However, I could feel the sorrow and anger in her and her father. I can still remember their despair to this day.

I didn’t think too much about the film until several years later, when my parents sent me to study abroad in high school. For the first time in my life, I had lots of free time and was able to access any information I found interesting. I started to gain an interest in taboo subjects about China, first from reading random posts on Chinese forums. Looking back, there was more freedom and less censorship in cyberspace in China in the early 2000s.

As the years went by, I kept reading and finding out more about the truth the Chinese government wants to bury and hide, about Tiananmen and everything else. Especially when my English got good enough that I was able to read original English sources, I spent years trying to un-brainwash myself, to get rid of all the lies that the Chinese Communist Party’s government put in my head. It was a quite painful experience, and to this day I still can’t block out the patriotic songs that occasionally play in my head unbidden.

Now, I have spent almost half my life in Canada. Every once a while, I think about that day I watched the Tiananmen documentary in my parents’ bedroom. I am grateful that I was exposed to the truth about what happened on June 4 at that age. It quietly opened a window in my subconscious. It gave me the nudge and courage to always be skeptical and critical about what to believe.

It was the summer just after I turned 12. I had been studying English for years outside of my Chinese public school, and my teacher often assigned projects that involved online research. China had blocked some international websites, but censorship was relatively loose compared to today. But when I searched for certain keywords, such as names of political leaders or the Wenzhou train collision, few results showed up.

I was too young to grasp ideas like censorship and propaganda, yet having seen the search engine alert—“according to relevant laws and regulations, certain results are not displayed”—too many times, I knew there were things hidden from me.

It is a curious child’s natural instinct to explore. With a few online tutorials’ help, I was tech-savvy enough to find workarounds to access the unfettered Internet—“to climb over the wall.” I started with Wikipedia pages on people and events that I had already heard of, but as entries are linked to one another I found paths to a new world: That summer, I learned about the artist Ai Weiwei’s house arrest, the barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s asylum in the U.S., and, of course, the atrocities of Tiananmen in 1989.

Having been in Chinese public schools for years, the 12-year-old me debated the historical metanarrative they taught. It took me years to resolve the contradictions in the clashing narratives regarding my birth country, and these questions still pestered me after I moved to the U.S. as a teenager. How does one confront a government that delivers strong economic growth, alleviates poverty, but refuses to admit its wrongdoing in killing student protesters who, if I’d been born earlier, could have been me?

What surprised me the most was the shocking change the Tiananmen protests produced. Growing up in the 2000s, I was accustomed to a politically illiberal China; the mere fact that students were able to protest in streets in the first place astonished me. The extent of political freedom in the 1980s was almost unimaginable. It was a part of China’s history so close to me, yet it felt distant.

Will the next generation of Chinese youth have the opportunities that I had to learn about their nation’s hidden past? One need not be an activist nor a dissident to commemorate those who dedicated their lives, liberty, or both to an honorable cause. But as China continues to crack down on foreign websites and penalize outspoken individuals, I remain pessimistic. Even many Chinese students abroad are reluctant to confront this effaced timestamp in their history.

At the age of 12, I had little inkling my encounter with the 1989 massacre on a censored web page would permanently change the path of my life. I became interested in politics, and years later I am still reading and writing about modern China, often in an attempt to answer my unresolved questions about the bloody massacre that forever changed the nation of my birth.

I was born in a remote rural area of Shandong province. On June 4, 1989, I was four. The first time I learned about “June Fourth,” it was not called “June Fourth,” but rather the “Tiananmen disturbance.” I read about it in my history textbook in middle school. At the time, I didn’t know much about it, and there weren’t many resources in the village, so we didn’t really discuss it.

Not until I entered college did I begin to think more deeply about June Fourth. I had a teacher who was excellent at the job and also a very decent person, but one thing I found strange was that his title had always been “lecturer.” Normally, someone his age and with his knowledge would have been a professor or an associate professor. That puzzled me. Later, my friends told me that it was because the teacher was an activist during June Fourth. He participated in it, and was probably even a leader. That was when I realized that June Fourth was something that could actually affect people around me. It would affect his work and his future opportunities. I was a history major, but I couldn’t find any books about June Fourth.

In 2014, I went to study in Hong Kong. The first thing I did when I landed there was open YouTube and search for “June Fourth.” I found a documentary on it, and I didn’t agree with everything in it, but I remember thinking, “Wow, now my eyes are open.”

I immediately told my friends in mainland China what I had just learned. I also started to write an article on my online personal blog, trying to explain what really had happened on June 4. But, I found that I wasn’t able to post it. I thought I was a nobody, and I never expected an article I wrote to be blocked just because of two sensitive phrases: “June Fourth” and “Tiananmen incident.” I realized the power of government control was so strong it would even notice a nobody like me.

2014 was also the year the “Umbrella Movement” protests took place in Hong Kong. I followed the movement and did some historical research on June Fourth. A professor had experienced June Fourth, and he supported the protest. He told me about his personal experiences.

I personally disagree with the narrative that the younger generation, especially the generation under 25, does not know or is not interested in June Fourth. It is not true from what I have observed of the young people I know. I am studying in the U.S. now, and my young friends are very curious about and eager to know the truth.

If the Chinese Communist Party-led government could approach this history with a more open attitude, it might ease the misunderstanding and the mystification around it. Sealing off information can’t undo what has already happened, it will only postpone the time until people learn about it.

I was searching “carrot” online, but got a “404 Page Not Found Error” instead. It was late May in 2007. I was in high school in Hangzhou. Internet in China was widespread, and censorship was not yet a buzzword. I asked my parents what was wrong with the Internet. “Maybe because it’s approaching the anniversary of liusi,” they said, using the numerical shorthand for the date of the massacre. “You should be careful talking about it.”

“Carrot” in Chinese is huluobo. The first character, 胡, happens to be the family name of Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, whose death set the 1989 protests in motion. Hu is also the family name of Hu Jintao, China’s leader from 2003 to 2013.

Ironically, the act of concealing eventually revealed the truth. That was the first time I heard about liusi.

Anything banned had a halo for me. Summer Palace, a 2006 film directed by Lou Ye, was among the most discussed yet hardest to find films due to its candid sex scenes and provocative political undertone. After digging through countless online forums, I found the film. I locked myself in my tiny bedroom and anxiously watched it. Halfway through, a group of university students jumps on trucks and sings Cui Jian’s famous rock song “Nothing to My Name,” the unofficial anthem of the protesters in 1989. Historical footage of the protests shows people glowing with optimism, chanting and holding signs like “I Love Free Press.” Eventually, the screen fills with police, fire, gunshots.

I was born in 1990. This was the first time I had seen protesters with Chinese faces. The movie left me speechless. It is still hard for me to believe my parents belonged to that generation. They rarely talk about it.

I tried to mark the film on Douban, a website where users can keep records of books, films, and music. It’s known for its comprehensiveness, and welcomes users to supply missing information. But Lou and his films were nowhere to be found on Douban. I later learned Lou’s unapproved screening of Summer Palace at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival had led China’s government to ban the film and its director.

Again, ironically, it was the government’s effort to hide this history that prompted me to learn about it.

Last year, I filmed an interview with Liao Yiwu, a Chinese dissident author and poet. He was imprisoned in 1990 for four years for publicly reciting his poem “Massacre,” which was written on June 4 and dedicate to its victims. Liao described the gruesome details of life in prison. But he had still chosen to fight back by continuing to write. It made me wonder whether without the violence of his punishment he would have devoted his life in writing to that moment of history. “I want to be a recorder for this time,” Liao said. “I write out of desperation. People will forget, but something will remain for sure.”

I was a journalism student interning with a city newspaper during the summer of 2007. Over lunch one day, my dad, a local journalist, asked me, “Did you hear what happened at the newspaper in Chengdu? That young editor was clueless. How did she publish an ad referring to liu-si (June Fourth)? You’d better not do that! Be careful!” I was confused. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “What is liusi?”

That year, The Chengdu Evening News had published an ad that read “Paying tribute to the strong mothers of June Fourth victims.” No one had censored it because the editor, who was young like me, didn’t know what it meant. News of the harsh repercussions for the paper’s staff traveled fast online.

My dad wanted to make sure his daughter wouldn’t make the same mistake.

He was shocked his 17-year-old-student daughter had never heard of June Fourth. He stared at me like I had said something terribly wrong. My parents assumed I already knew about Tiananmen because it was such an important time for them. The next day, after giving me a quick crash course, my father left a stack of books he had bought over the years from his trips to Hong Kong and Macao near his desk. From those poorly copyedited and printed books, I read about Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang for the first time.

At family dinners, the three of us started to talk about what had happened during the first two years of my life. 1989 hadn’t just been the year of my birth, it had also permanently changed the trajectory of my dad’s career. He had openly supported the student movement and was forced to leave his factory publication to take a lower-paid job at a city newspaper as a result.

Maybe because of the trauma they’d been through, my parents had chosen not to talk about politics with me. Our teachers hadn’t either, because it wasn’t in our textbooks. Our history books ended after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in 1978.

I had seen the “tank-man photo” somewhere on the Internet during high school, but it hadn’t registered as anything significant.

When I arrived in New York for graduate school, I watched YouTube videos of June Fourth banned from the Chinese Internet again and again. At first, it was difficult for me to imagine my parents and their generation had had the same dream of democracy for China I have now.

It comforts me somewhat when links to articles and documentaries circulate among my friends’ social media accounts each June. What confounds me is that the Party expects people who don’t even know about June Fourth to nevertheless strenuously suppress mention of it.

This year, my 18-year-old cousin learned about June Fourth from an independent bookstore owner. That night, he video-called me on WeChat to ask whether what he had just learned was true. I told him when he visits me this summer, we’ll watch YouTube videos, just as I did the first month I was in the U.S.