Six Questions and Four Articles About Tiananmen Square

Why can’t we banish history from our memories? The author Ling Zhijun titled his 2008 exploration of Mao Zedong’s disastrous people’s communes “History No Longer Lingers,” and it sometimes feels counterintuitive that we cannot forget past tragedies and concentrate on a better future. But in the time since People’s Liberation Army soldiers started shooting unarmed students in Beijing 30 years ago, thousands of witnesses, journalists, historians, and commentators have prevented that history from slinking away. In these four intense and moving articles, the authors wrestle with commemorating, understanding, and remembering that fateful time in June.

1. “The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square,” By Ian Johnson, The New York Review of Books, June 5, 2014

Xu Jue’s son was shot dead by a soldier. Within a few weeks, her husband’s hair had turned white. Five years later he died. Qisile, she explained: angered to death. On her husband’s tombstone is a poem explaining what killed both men:

Let us offer a bouquet of fresh flowers
Eight calla lilies
Nine yellow chrysanthemums
Six white tulips
Four red roses

Eight-nine-six-four: June 4, 1989.

In this 2014 article in the New York Review of Books, longtime China journalist Ian Johnson writes about the wrestling over memory and forgetting, the push and pull between the government and the people, and elements of the government and itself, over what to remember and what to forget about Tiananmen Square. “When I returned to China as a journalist in the early 1990s, the Tiananmen events had become a theater played out every spring,” Johnson writes. What is the right way to think about Tiananmen? Is it an “act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future?” Or is it “a sacrifice, unwitting and unwanted, that helped define a new era”?

2. “‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise,” By Pu Zhiqiang, The New York Review of Books, August 10, 2006

I recall the early hours of June 4, 1989. The few thousand students and other citizens who refused to disperse remained huddled at the north face of the Martyrs’ Monument in Tiananmen Square. The glare of fires leaped skyward and gunfire crackled. . . It was then that I turned to a friend and commented that the Martyrs’ Monument might soon be witness to our deaths, but that if not, I would come back to this place every year on this date to remember the victims.

That comment somehow turned into a vow—one that I may need to be fulfilling indefinitely. So far, I have. Every year on the evening of June 3, I have come back to Tiananmen to linger for a while.

In 2006, the lawyer and activist Pu Zhiqiang wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books about how he tried to honor the Tiananmen dead. “A certain lazy comfort attends . . . forgetting, and that is why I feel guilt,” he wrote. “If I just slouch along through life, taking the easy route, what do I say to the spirits of those murdered “rioters” of seventeen years ago?” In 2014, Chinese police arrested Pu Zhiqiang for trying to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen “was an excellent training opportunity,” he said recently. “But the distinctive characteristic of Chinese politics—this long-term totalitarianism—is that it cannot permit a political force or political party to take organized action.”

3. “Tiananmen, Inc.,” By Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 23, 1999

Chai talks about using the Internet to free China, and she is not shy about using her celebrity as a former student leader to get attention, but she is oddly reluctant to discuss the past. When I asked her to go over some of the events of 1989, she asked why I wanted to know ‘about that old stuff, all that garbage.’ She told me that she wanted ‘closure’ for Tiananmen. I felt the chilly presence of Henry Ford’s ghost hovering over our cappuccinos in that nice outdoor café in Cambridge. From being an icon of history, Chai has moved into a world where all history is bunk.

After the massacre, many student leaders went into exile in America. What moral responsibility do they have, in the years following the movement, to keep the memory of the protests and the massacre alive? In a May 1999 article in The New Yorker, the writer Ian Buruma profiled the controversial student leader Chai Ling, at the time a 33-year-old software entrepreneur with a Harvard MBA. “It is galling for older dissidents, who spent years in jail and are now living in often shabby obscurity in Queens or Long Island, to see the likes of Chai Ling and Li Lu [a student leader who founded an investment fund in 1997] celebrated as freedom fighters, and getting rich in the bargain,” Buruma writes. “To them, American success looks like a kind of betrayal.”

4. “Four Is Forbidden: Finding My Way to the Truth about Tiananmen,” By Yangyang Cheng, ChinaFile, May 30, 2019

Every time I see a mass demonstration take place, my mind rushes to that fateful night in Tiananmen Square, when the Chinese government sent three hundred thousand regular troops with tanks and machine guns to crush a student-led pro-democracy protest. Born after the tragedy with no family members involved, I am nevertheless a child of Tiananmen, its aftermath shaping my life and education from the moment they began.

The bloody crackdown wiped out hundreds, possibly thousands of lives, a date in the official record, the hope of a generation. My journey in finding out what happened in the spring of 1989 is a lesson in remembrance, both personal and political.

To the departed, I write to you across oceans and oceans of time. May my memory reach you where laws of physics fail.

In this essay, the Chinese physicist Yangyang Cheng, born in 1989, traces how she first learned about the massacre, and how her thinking on it evolved as she grew older. “When an authoritarian government fears the truth of its slaughter, mourning the dead is no longer only a matter of personal grief, but also a manifestation of moral courage,” she writes. “Remembrance becomes an act of resistance against state power and time itself.”