Four Is Forbidden

Finding My Way to the Truth about Tiananmen

Liusi. Six-four.

The two-syllable word, spoken nonchalantly by our teacher, was a stone cast into the tranquil pond of a classroom. From each ripple rose a gasp, a murmur, or a perplexed face, with only one or two enunciating the question on many of our minds, “What is six-four?”

It was the summer of 2002. I was 12 years old. At the extracurricular English course my mother enrolled me in, most of the students were college-age. Fresh off a growth spurt and buoyed by an English proficiency that exceeded that of most of my peers, I took great pride in blending in with the adults.

Our instructor, a graduate student at a local university, regularly peppered discussions of spelling and syntax with social commentary. That day, he brought up the most renowned institution in our city.

“The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) could never regain its past glory.” He said, “There are two reasons. One is nanqian (the move south). The other is liusi (six four).”

USTC was founded in Beijing in 1958, and forced to relocate to the southern city of Hefei during the Cultural Revolution. How the “Caltech of China” had ended up in our backwater province was common knowledge, but the second cause, expressed by only two numbers, was incomprehensible.

The only times I had heard this numerical combination was in liusi nian, 1964. It was the year my parents were born, and the year China successfully detonated its first nuclear weapon, the latter I memorized for my middle school history class. What else might have happened in 1964? I glanced around the room, when a voice behind me whispered, “’89.”

Six-four referred to a date, the fourth of June in the year 1989. I was born the following fall. “Not born yet!” I blurted out.

The young teacher stared at me and shook his head, “How did a post-89-er get in here?” With a light chuckle, the class moved on.

That evening, I struggled with posing the question to my mother. My maternal grandfather and father were both professors at USTC. If there had been an event of major significance to the university, my mother would surely know about it. My main concern was the date itself. In my household, the space between three and five was filled with silence. Four, or si in Chinese, is a homonym for death. Its utterance was forbidden.

As she cleared the table after dinner, I approached gingerly, “The teacher mentioned in class today, something called liu. . . si. . .” My voice trailed off.

My mother put down the plates. “Students protested in the streets.” Speaking in a voice so low it sounded foreign, she continued, “I heard that the government opened fire.”

“Certain things must not be said. Your teacher is too young.” With that, my mother returned to washing the dishes, and sent me back to my study.

It was the first and last time I asked about June Fourth while in China. For a Chinese family like mine, politics and death were the two biggest taboos.

Seven years later and 7,000 miles away, I finally understood the full meaning of the ominous phrase. Now, another decade has gone by since I moved to the U.S. 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.

* * *

I started elementary school in 1994. That August, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued the “Outline for Implementing Patriotic Education in China.” With an extreme culling of collective memory, the campaign painted China as a historically aggrieved nation still under siege from external foes, and the Party as its heroic savior and rightful guardian. Unbeknownst to me, “patriotic education” was the Party’s solution to its crisis of legitimacy after the Mao-era disasters and the bloodshed of 1989.

In classrooms and on trips to public memorials, I learned the heroic tales of men and women who sacrificed their lives in defense of the motherland, their blood giving the national flag its crimson shade, so the narrative went. As “successors to the revolution,” my classmates and I wore red neckerchiefs to school, a corner of the blood-soaked glory pulsing in front of our childish chests.

In the spring of fourth grade, when I was eight years old, I witnessed the first major Chinese leadership transition of my lifetime. Remembering their names from the evening news, I was excited to hear the monikers of power mentioned over dinner at a family gathering. “Grandma said she did not care for Li Peng, and welcomed Zhu Rongji as the new Premier.” I dutifully documented in my diary.

When I opened the dainty journal with an ornamental lock the following day, the sentence on the leadership transition was crossed out in the darkest of ink. Before I could express my anger that she had broken her promise of respecting my privacy, it was my mother who gave me a stern scolding: “You cannot write this. One must not speak ill of the government.”

“You never know when the Cultural Revolution might happen again.” My mother warned me. She recounted the fervid years of her childhood, when neighbors and family members turned against each other, and the slightest deviation from official doctrine led to the severest punishments. For as far as I could remember, the phrase “wenge”, “Cultural Revolution,” had existed in my consciousness. It was the reason an elderly neighbor was demoted from an esteemed government post to teach middle school, and why a distant uncle of my mother’s went mad. I had thought wenge was only a thing of the past, like emperors or women with bound feet, but apparently I was wrong.

At the next family dinner, my mother alerted everyone at the table to be more careful now that I was old enough to listen, but too young to understand. “In the speech of a child, nothing is forbidden!” The adults laughed, repeating the Chinese idiom on forgiving youthful blunders. Then they told me to never mention the government in writing again.

My eight-year-old self knew nothing about Li’s decade-long tenure. I didn’t know that in his second year as China’s Premier, he declared martial law and ordered the People’s Liberation Army to crush the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. But now I did know that politics was taboo.

A product of “patriotic education,” my earliest notion of death was that of a red martyr. As I grew older, the grand yet abstract concept gradually walked off textbooks and stone monuments, and onto the black armbands my classmates occasionally wore. When the strip of dark cloth was pinned to my left arm, I asked why it appeared different from what I was used to seeing. Instead of a red dot, the center of the armband had a character written in white, “xiao” (“filial”).

“The red dot is for grandparents,” a friend of my mother’s told me. All my grandparents were still alive, but my 36-year-old father, who never had so much as a cold, went to sleep one night after a hot shower and never woke up.

“All men must die, but death can vary in its significance. . . To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.” I had recited these words of Mao Zedong in class, eulogizing his former bodyguard Zhang Side, who died in a charcoal factory accident. At age ten, all the premature deaths I knew of served a purpose, but none of the lofty polemics I had learned could give meaning to the sudden loss of my father, which crushed down on my family like the mighty mountain to the east.

How does one go on living after such inexplicable tragedy? For my mother, it meant banishing everything that reminded her of the cruel hand of nature. The color black was anathema, and not a speck of it could exist in our wardrobes. Nothing must appear in repetitions of four, even if it meant stuffing down a fifth meatball at dinner. Thursday, the fourth and 14th and 24th of each month, the entire month of April: dates containing the portentous figure were treated with dread, their schedules kept as blank as possible. It was on a fourteenth that my father died. If only the calendar could have skipped a beat.

After burning all of his clothing and putting away all the photos, my mother stored the remaining memories of her dead husband in the smallest room in our apartment. His bicycle leaned against the wall. His computer sat lifeless, a pile of metal boxes. His books stood silently behind sliding panes of glass on the shelf. The windows of the room faced north. In the cramped space where the sun never shone, every item contained a portal to the other dimension, too powerful even to touch.

I spent a lot of time in that room when at home alone. I fought the urge to push the power button on the computer, afraid of causing irreversible damage to the aging machine. Mostly I stood in front of the bookshelf, looking up to read the names on the spines. At some point, the titles leveled with my eyesight if I stood on tiptoe. Soon after, I no longer needed to lift my heels.

My father had been a professor of mechanical science and engineering. On one level of his shelf were new editions of popular science books in sleek dark covers: black holes, extraterrestrial life, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The sections below and above were filled with books from another era, yellowed pages inside fading soft covers. There were volumes of the Chinese and Western literature canon, from Romance of the Three Kingdoms to Divine Comedy. There were works by Chinese writers of the 20th century, from collections of Lu Xun to Bo Yang’s The Ugly Chinaman. There were Chinese translations of European philosophers: Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. And then there was poetry, from Tagore to Shu Ting.

One evening when the mood at home was exceptionally lighter, I told my mother how impressed I was by my father’s book collection.

“Oh, it was the ’80s,” she replied. Instead of praising her late husband, my mother gave credit to a bygone decade, “Students at the time were very idealistic.”

After the ideological rigidity of the Mao era, the 1980s in China was a time of intellectual ferment. At college campuses across the country, passionate young students devoured books that had previously been banned, hosted salons, and debated everything from art to governance.

Of the many literary figures who emerged from those years of hope and possibilities, few continued to capture the imagination of the Chinese public as much as Hai Zi. Born the same year as my parents, the poet constructed verses of everyday imagery with mythical allure, often returning to his village roots in writing about the earth, the moon, and the wheat field. Included in our high school textbook was one of Hai Zi’s classics, “Facing the Ocean, Flowers Blossom in the Warmth of Spring.”

One early spring day of 1989, the 25-year-old poet walked to the outskirts of a city not far from Beijing, where the Great Wall meets the sea, and lay down on the rail tracks. Before I learned of the events at Tiananmen, Hai Zi’s suicide was the violent bookend to that romanticized decade, when youthful dreams were crushed by a merciless force.

* * *

I visited Beijing for the first time in the summer of 2003. The ancient capital had just come back to life from the SARS crisis. The pulmonary virus claimed hundreds of lives, partly due to the government’s initial attempts to cover up the epidemic. Standing in Tiananmen Square on a scorching July afternoon, I had no idea the very place was connected to the mysterious numerical combination I remembered from English class.

The retired military doctor who blew the whistle on SARS had been chief of surgery at a Beijing hospital on the night of June Fourth, and witnessed the bloodshed firsthand. Hailed as a national hero for speaking the truth about SARS, the doctor would endure seven weeks of detention and prolonged house arrest when he later petitioned the government to acknowledge wrongdoing for its actions at Tiananmen. To the Chinese Communist Party, admitting its own killings is more fearsome than confronting a deadly virus.

Two years after my first trip to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, I enrolled at USTC as a college freshman. “Three self-inventions” was the phrase school officials used to summarize the history of USTC: the first being its founding in Beijing, the second referred to the move south during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilding in Hefei, but what was the third? We were given a vague explanation of new initiatives in higher education the central government issued in the early 1990s, which hardly matched the significance of creation and rebirth. What went unsaid was were the tremendous setbacks the university had suffered at the end of the 1980s, and the person at the center of the saga: Fang Lizhi.

As a physics major, I knew Fang was an internationally-renowned astrophysicist who pioneered this field of study in China. I also knew he served as Executive Vice President of USTC in the 1980s, when he was involved in pro-democracy activism, and as a result was exiled to the United States.

During one meandering late-night conversation in our dorm room, shared by four girls, the topic of Fang came up. We tried to imagine what the campus was like under Fang’s leadership, and threw around names of our professors who might have known him well. We marveled how an astrophysicist had so much courage to stand up against the Chinese government, and wondered what exactly his activism entailed. None of us said Fang’s name. Instead, we referred to him as “former Vice President.” Dozens of people from USTC fit that title, but there was no ambiguity about who was the source of our forbidden pride.

Occasionally, a post containing Fang’s initials, or a candlelight emoji on a nonexistent anniversary, would pop up on USTC’s electronic bulletin board, the subtle message amplified by a string of comments below. “So bold.” “Let’s see how quickly this gets deleted.” “Beware! You might get invited for tea by state security.” By observing the blurry contours of censorship, I sensed the gravity of what remained unsaid, but never poked inside the forbidden space myself. It had always been my dream to go to the U.S. for graduate school, and I did not want any trouble with the Chinese government to complicate my plans.

The first time I saw visuals from that unspeakable date, it was on the computer screen of my new classmate at the University of Chicago.

“When I hear ‘Tiananmen,’ the first thing I think of is Tank Man,” said the boy from New Hampshire.

“What is Tank Man?”

“You gotta be kidding me.” He pulled out his laptop and typed into Google. “You have never seen this before?”

I explained how the Chinese government blocked websites and censored information, and that politics was taboo in my family. Nevertheless, I felt a deep sense of shame. I had just been taught something new about my own country from an American who had never been to China.

That September evening in 2009, when the heat of summer still lingered in the air, I sat in front of my computer and entered into the search bar the string of numbers that had haunted me since middle school. Despite having just seen my classmate do the same, I felt anxious, like the moment a few days earlier on Michigan Avenue, when I had tried on the first item of black clothing in my life, a sleeveless dress from United Colors of Benetton. The dress looked great, and no crows fell from the sky. My computer screen did not go dark, and no government agents came knocking on my door. Sometimes, the only power of a taboo is fear itself.

I started with Wikipedia, a site that was nominally blocked in China. What I had pictured as a one-day event was a six-week-long movement: June Fourth was only the date of the crackdown. I recalled my mother’s hushed voice from over a decade ago, “I heard that the government opened fire.” I never dared to ponder where the bullets had gone, but I had thought it was only a few shots. Reading the casualty estimates in the hundreds up to thousands, I felt a cognitive dissonance so great it rendered the rest of the Wikipedia page almost incomprehensible.

I opened YouTube. I needed visuals to fill in the gaping void behind the figures I had just seen.

I found the acclaimed documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace, and clicked on the link. I watched footage of the demonstrations start in April with the death of Hu Yaobang, the reformist General Secretary ousted in the “struggle against bourgeois liberalization” two years prior. Students held public memorials in Tiananmen Square, laying wreaths next to a black and white portrait of Hu. The scene reminded me of my father’s funeral. Tears welled up in my eyes. I started to cry as I watched the students on a hunger strike tie white ribbons around their foreheads, and citizens of Beijing swarm army vehicles, begging the soldiers not to shoot. I cried at the sounds of gunfire, the spilling of blood, and the silhouette of bayonets proceeding through a burning square.

Having lived 19 years in China, I had no illusions about its authoritarian government. But that night, a dam broke inside me. I finally learned what my government had done and was capable of doing to its people.

(Associated Press)

People’s Liberation Army troops march down Chang’an Avenue, firing indiscriminately to clear the street of citizens, as the army faction occupying the center of Beijing prepares for the rumored arrival of opposition troops converging on the city, Beijing, June 5, 1989.

* * *

There was a Borders bookstore near the University of Chicago campus that I frequented on weekends. One day in the fall of 2009, a special edition of TIME on the magazine stand caught my attention. Contrasted against a dark background, the top of the cover read in giant red letters, “1989,”and below it, “The Year That Defined Today’s World.” In the center of the page was an image of the lonely figure in a white shirt, standing in front of a menacing metal beast. The 20th anniversary issue recounted the momentous events of that pivotal year, from Beijing to Berlin, from Tehran to Warsaw.

I had learned the basic facts of the Tiananmen protest by then, but did not realize its significance beyond China, or the wave of freedom that swept the globe in the same year. In a moment of juvenile indignation, I messaged my mother, asking why she never told me the importance of my birth year, hence depriving me of a sense of my place in history.

My mother responded with a verse of prayer. After my father died, she had sought solace in the Bible, and became increasingly devout as time went by. Whenever I stumbled over one of her many prohibitions in life, she would call out to her lord and savior for forgiveness and blessing.

Towards the end of my second year in the U.S., my mother came for a brief visit. We spent some time with her younger brother’s family on the west coast, and went to a local church at her insistence. After the service, an elderly Chinese lady with short, curly hair chatted with us.

“How did you come to the U.S.?” I was curious.

“June Fourth green card. At that time, it was $50 and you have a green card!”

In 1992, then President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Chinese Student Protection Act, granting permanent residency for Chinese nationals who came to the U.S. in the year after the Tiananmen crackdown.

“Why didn’t father apply for the same card?” I asked my mother when we got back that evening. It takes years if not decades for a foreign student like myself to become eligible for permanent residency. I envied the second- or 1.5-generation Americans around me, whose parents walked the long, harrowing path of naturalization so their children could enjoy freedom as a birthright.

“How could you ask such a thing?” I did not need to wait for my mother’s incredulous response to recognize the cruelty in my question. Back in China, when asked about her husband by unknowing people, my mother used to say that he was working overseas, and I had told the same story to my teachers and classmates. I suspect many quickly saw through the clumsy deception, but no one breached the unspeakable truth.

“If we were living in the U.S., would your father still be alive?” My mother has asked me this question many times over the years. If only one variable in the complex equation were different, would it have led to a completely opposite solution? If the events in the spring of 1989 had ended peacefully, would China be free?

* * *

On the sixth day of the fourth month in 2012, Fang Lizhi sat down for a Skype meeting at his home in Tucson, Arizona. A few moments later, he was gone. The news quickly spread across the USTC community in and out of China. Articles of remembrance filled alumni forums and electronic bulletin boards.

For the last two decades of his life, Fang worked as a professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona. Some of his former students were colleagues of mine. I had thought it was only a matter of time before I met Fang in person at an academic conference, but I was too late.

I asked my mother if she had recollections of Fang during his time at USTC. Without mentioning his name, I wrote in my email “former Vice President.”

“Yes. I was young, but I remember seeing him on campus.” My mother responded, “He was very brave. Very outspoken.”

A few years after his death, Fang’s memoir was published in the U.S. with the title The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State. Fang had written the manuscript during the 13 months he and his wife took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government had placed the physicist couple on top of their most-wanted list, before finally granting them permission to leave the country and never return.

With grace and wit, Fang told the story of his life, from growing up in Beijing during World War II, to the numerous political persecutions he endured for his science or advocacy. In 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Fang was sent to construct a railroad that connected Beijing to its neighboring Shanxi province. In the crowded tent at night, Fang slept next to Cheng Fuzhen, another physicist at USTC. Two decades later, the same railroad would be used to transport troops that forced their way through civilian bodies to clear out Tiananmen Square.

I have known Cheng since adolescence, when he coached our middle school science camp every summer. Later, as a student at USTC, I took his course in electrodynamics. I tried to picture the distinguished-looking professor on a construction site, hauling concrete and gravel. I wondered how he felt on each fourth of June, in all those years I learned physics from him. Cheng never spoke of his storied life in class. Part of me wishes he had. Another part of me feels guilty for such selfish thoughts. For every person in China of Cheng’s age, who lived through wars and famine, who survived Mao’s campaigns and witnessed the massacre at Tiananmen, who am I to ask that they relive the trauma of a nation for my education?

In the tumultuous 1920s, Lu Xun, arguably the greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century, stated that once a person has abandoned “the state of numbness,” the only alternative is “increased suffering and pain,” when even “hope for the future” brings little comfort. On March 18, 1926, during an anti-imperialist demonstration that started in front of Tiananmen, dozens of student protesters were gunned down by the Nationalist Government, including Liu Hezhen, a student of Lu Xun’s.

“The truly brave among us can face the bleakness of life and the spilling of blood.” Lu Xun wrote in a eulogy for his fallen pupil, “But the laws of nature are often designed for the cowards, using the passage of time to wash away old stains, so only faint colors of red and mild sorrow remain. In faded blood and grief, one may continue to stay alive, sustaining this inhumane world.”

Fearing death is human. 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. Remembrance becomes an act of resistance against state power and time itself.

“Fifteen years/ despair/ for a murderous regime/ more despair/ for a people who tolerate the regime and forget its victims/ the most despair/ for a survivor of the massacre who could not find justice.” The poet and literary critic Liu Xiaobo wrote on June 4, 2004. In the spring of 1989, Liu flew back from his teaching position at Columbia University to join the student protestors. “We are not seeking death! We are looking for the true meaning of life!” Their hunger strike declaration exclaimed.

As soldiers closed in on the square in the early hours of June Fourth, Liu helped negotiate a peaceful retreat for the remaining students. Every year following the night of carnage, he wrote a poem in commemoration, sometimes from a jail cell or detention facility.

Liu’s last entry in his “June Fourth Elegies” was dated May 18, 2009. Later that year, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for drafting “Charter 08,” a human rights manifesto. Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and died in Chinese state custody in 2017.

“In the depth of despair/ remembering the dead/ is the only hope. May darkness transform into stones/ scattered across the wilderness of my memory.” Liu concluded his poem on the 15th anniversary of the massacre with these words.

Another 15 years have passed. Liu’s ashes were scattered in the darkness of sea, and the subject of June Fourth remains forbidden in China. But as Lu Xun wrote almost a century ago, “as long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire will never die.”