This is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.
But most important of all, I realize now that the spring of 1989 was the only time I fully understood the words “the people.” Those words have little meaning in China today.
“The people,” or renmin, is one of the first phrases I learned to read and write. I knew our country was called “the People’s Republic of China.” Chairman Mao told us to “serve the people.” The most important paper was People’s Daily. “Since 1949, the people are the masters,” we learned to say.
In China today, it seems only officials have “the people” on their lips. New vocabulary has sprouted up — netizens, stock traders, fund holders, celebrity fans, migrant laborers and so on — slicing into smaller pieces the already faded concept of “the people.”
But in 1989, my 30th year, those words were not just an empty phrase.
Protests were spreading across the country, and in Beijing, where I was studying, the police suddenly disappeared from the streets. You could take the subway or a bus without paying, and everyone was smiling at one another. Hard-nosed street vendors handed out free refreshments to protesters. Retirees donated their meager savings to the hunger strikers in the square. As a show of support for the students, pickpockets called a moratorium.
If you live in a Chinese city, you’re always aware that you are surrounded by a lot of people. But it was only with the mass protests in Tiananmen Square that it really came home to me — China is the world’s most populous nation. Students who had poured into Beijing from other parts of the country stood in the square or on a street corner, giving speeches day after day until their throats grew hoarse and they lost their voices. Their audience — whether wizened old men or mothers with babies in their arms — nodded repeatedly and applauded warmly, however immature the students’ faces or naïve their views.
When I made a trip to my home in Zhejiang at the end of May, I had no idea when the protests would end. But I took the train back on the afternoon of June 3, and as I woke the next morning on our approach to Beijing, the radio was broadcasting the news that the army was now in Tiananmen Square.
The protests quickly subsided amid the gunfire. Students began to abandon Beijing in droves. When I left for the station again on June 7, there was hardly a pedestrian to be seen, only smoke rising from some charred vehicles and — as my classmates and I crossed an overpass — a tank stationed there, its barrel pointing menacingly at us.
By that time a train in Shanghai had been set on fire and service between there and Beijing had been suspended, so my plan was to take a roundabout route to Zhejiang. I have never in my life traveled on such a crowded train. The compartment was filled with college students fleeing the capital, and there was not an inch of space between one person and the next.
An hour out of Beijing, I needed to go to the toilet. But the toilet itself was full of people —“We can’t get the door open!” they shouted back. I had to hold on for the full three hours until we got to Shijiazhuang. There I disembarked and found a pay phone; I appealed for help from the editor of the local literary magazine. “Everything’s in such chaos now,” he said. “Just give up on the idea of going anywhere else. Stay here and write us a story.”
So I spent the next month holed up in Shijiazhuang, but I had a hard time writing. Every day the television repeatedly broadcast shots of students on the wanted list being taken into custody. Far from home, in my cheerless hotel room, I saw the despairing looks on the faces of the captured students and heard the crowing of the news announcers, and a chill went down my spine.
Then one day, the picture on my TV screen changed completely. The images of detained suspects were replaced by scenes of prosperity throughout the motherland. The announcer switched from passionately denouncing the crimes of the captured students to cheerfully lauding our nation’s progress.
Today, few young Chinese know anything about what happened at Tiananmen Square, and those who do only say vaguely, “A lot of people in the streets then, that’s what I heard.”
The people. Still, it was not the rallies in Tiananmen Square that made me truly understand these words, but an episode one night in late May. Martial law had been declared by that time; students and residents were guarding major intersections to keep out armed troops.
I was then living in the Lu Xun Literary Institute. Practically every lunchtime I would ride my rickety old bike to Tiananmen, lingering there through the evening and into the early hours.
In Beijing in late May, it’s hot at midday but cold at night. I was wearing only a short-sleeved shirt when I set off after lunch, and by late that evening I was chilled to the bone. As I cycled back from the square, an icy wind blew in my face. The streetlights were dark, and only the moon pointed the way ahead. Then as I approached the Hujialou overpass a wave of heat suddenly swept over me, and it only got hotter as I rode further. I heard a song drifting my way, and a bit later I saw lights gleaming in the distance.
Thousands of people were standing guard on the bridge and the approach roads beneath. They were singing lustily under the night sky: “With our flesh and blood we will build a new great wall! The Chinese people have reached the critical hour, compelled to give their final call! Arise, arise, arise! United we stand …. ”
Although unarmed, they stood steadfast, confident that their bodies alone could block soldiers and ward off tanks. Packed together, they gave off a blast of heat, as though every one of them was a blazing torch.
That night I realized that when the people stand as one, their voices carry farther than light and their heat is carried farther still. That, I discovered, is what “the people” means.
Yu Hua, the author of Brothers. This essay was translated by Allan Barr from the Chinese.