By a history teacher from Heilongjiang
In 1989, I was in my last year of senior high school in a small county town in northern China. It seemed that year was particularly cold. The school dormitory where I was staying had no television or radio, and we were studying hard, so I didn’t get much news from the outside world. I remember that once when I went back home, my older brother told me over dinner that he heard that the Communist Party leaders were having a meeting, that Li Peng had harassed Hu Yaobang into an early grave, and that the students were going to start making trouble.
After that, I went back to my studies. By the time May came, the students coming back from their work experiences were bringing more and more news with them. They said there were demonstrations happening in Beijing and major cities in other provinces. Later, some of our more passionate classmates suggested supporting the hunger-striking students in Beijing. Suddenly, the atmosphere throughout the school became very tense.
I don’t know whether the school leaders panicked, but we got a talk from our class director, who told us: “We can’t stop other people causing trouble, but you people have your university entrance exams coming up. This is a big deal, because it will affect the rest of your lives. No matter how China changes in the future, exams aren’t going to change. So I think you should wait till you have got into university before trying to imitate the students of the May Fourth Movement.”
Our class quieted down a lot after that. Perhaps we all got a sense of how little power we had, and how distant the fate of our country was. The university entrance exams were a more pressing concern, linked to our personal futures. Around this time, on a lunch-hour walk to a local shop, I saw on television those iconic images of Zhao Ziyang being convicted of trying to split the Party, and thought he looked utterly defeated. In the black and white pictures, Zhao could be seen telling the students, “You are still young, not like us. We are old!”
I got through the university entrance exams and arrived at a certain university the following autumn. It was three months after the June 4 crackdown, and yet the campus was still full of the traces of the student movement and its atmosphere. You could still make out the white-painted slogans that had been daubed by students on the dormitory walls, such as “A cry on behalf of the people” and “Down with the dictators!” although the autumn rains had begun to wash them away.
The new students were being organized into political study sessions by a student in the department surnamed Jiang. They probably wanted us to show that we supported the actions of government and Party in “pacifying the turmoil.” They didn’t expect one brave person to stand up and say, “I think the 1989 demonstrations were like the May Fourth demonstrations of 1976, and that sooner or later they will be reappraised.” That made that young secretary guy—we referred to him as Teacher Jiang—hem and haw for a good long while.
It was also around that time that we began to pass around River Elegy, a book that was rumored to have been dubbed a “masterwork of bourgeois liberalism.” The language it used was very different from the language of the textbooks in the high school we had only just left behind us. I still remember a line in it by heart, from near the end of the novel. “The Yellow River, after 1,000 years of solitude, has finally flowed into an azure civilization!”
The battleship that is June 4 is steaming farther and farther away from us, but it has inflicted a wound on our people that is very hard to erase. I only regret that I wasn’t there in person. I have always held the deepest respect for the generation of pioneers who made sacrifices then, even though we are now as far apart as the heavens.
Before the grave-sweeping festival this year, I changed the last four digits on my cell phone number to 6489, in memory of a national tragedy, and my ringtone to a song used to commemorate great disasters: “The Wounds of History.” The lyrics are:
Close your eyes, and you think you won’t see.
Block up your ears, and you think you won’t hear.
But truth is found in the human heart, in an injured breast.
How much longer must we bear it?
How much longer must we keep this silence?
Yes, 20 years have passed, and those lost souls have yet to find rest. If we still retain any human decency, we will not try to suppress these memories but will turn back once more to look at the wounds of history.
A history teacher from Heilongjiang. March 31-April 4, 2009
RFA’s Mandarin service asked its listeners in China to submit essays of up to 500 words related to the Chinese government’s deadly June 4, 1989 crackdown on protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These are some of their recollections.