My parents are strangely silent around the beginning of June.
They look uneasy, avoid my gaze, speak in an unusually high pitch and sigh and shake their head. The Forbidden Word hung on all our tongues.
They are a generation of Chinese intellectuals growing up swaying with some of the most tumultuous economic, political and societal reforms of the last century. Born in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, they toiled in the countryside under the guidance of Chairman Mao, before China’s almost religious reverence for the Red Sun was dismantled overnight by Deng and his priorities for economic prosperity. Moving through college, they dutifully completed their courses in journalism and English language, and before graduation were already selected by a work unit as very promising young journalists.
With graduation happening in a few months, they had just enough time and energy to notice the discontent, disappointment and anger stirring in the air. Corruption ran rampant, while social order was nonexistent; the largest market reform saw opportunities but also rocket-high unemployment and plummeting social welfare. Officials fed off foreign ventures while loyal workers were sacked and left to starve. While economic based seemed tangible, the cultural superstructure was destroyed. The government decided for the people and democracy was but a hopeless dream. Promises were unfulfilled and every single day people felt as if they were merely the puppets for another empty political movement.
Everyday classmates were passionately delivering speeches with a malfunctioning loudspeaker, and some friends began protesting the Communist Party by camping in the square in front of the Forbidden City. They joined their friends, fueled by naïve idealism but also a foreign excitement of being part of something that could change the world. Tens of thousands of other young students conglomerated, with the same thoughts in mind. It did change the world, but not in the way they expected.
On June 3, 1989, my parents, then in their early twenties, decided to take a break from camping on Tiananmen Square and planned on returning later. They never did. Before they could return, the PLA soldiers had opened fire on their classmates, friends, teachers…in the clamor and chaos that ensued, the casualty remained unclear—what was clear, however, was the bullets, blood-stained shirts, broken limbs and tortured shrieks ringing through the night sky of Beijing. They did not step foot onto Tiananmen Square again, until many, many years later—taking their daughter to see Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.
Their daughter also grew up in a strange time—she grew up in a time of an extreme increase in material abundance yet an ever-narrowing monotonous narrative of history and the present. She grew up without having to worry about hunger or homelessness, always had money for books and clothes and could even afford to take lessons in music and painting. Her parents named her “flourishing under the rain,” hoping she could grow and grow, and never look back; they sent her to a top school in Beijing and then, encouraged her to apply to a top university in the United States. When she was accepted, they immediately planned out her major—economics, of course—and her already budding career in finance or consulting. In short, they were certain that material wealth could bring her happiness, and they were adamant on ensuring that she would never have to suffer the way they did.
They became irritated—furious, even—when she became a sociology major and started taking history classes; moreover, they just found it ridiculous and utterly incomprehensible when she enrolled in seminars on Chinese history—you go to the US to learn about China? What’s the point? They dreaded their daughter’s lectures on US political and social issues—that’s none of our business—and buried their heads in their hands when the heard about their daughter’s involvement in campus activism. Why can’t she be a self-serving elite, like the children of their colleagues? Why can she not major in something useful, focus her energy on her studies and her internships, use her network to land a lucrative job and live comfortably instead of getting brutally insulted and humiliated online for her activism? Why can she not just forget about history and society and these vague concepts with no tangible impact on the quality of her life?
—Well, in class, we read the works of Jeffrey Alexander, who rightfully pointed that the control of past is an exercise of political power, and that when we willfully forget our trauma, we are also forgetting a part of our collective identity.
—Daughter, I hope this isn’t the sort of education that your tuition is funding. I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t know what purpose this serves.
—Well, the other day I met Prof. Rowena He, who runs an annual seminar on Tiananmen, she’s truly an inspiration…
—And you want to be attacked and humiliated like she was by Chinese students and academics?
“There wasn’t really much going on, so your dad and I were kind of bored, so we left. Not all of us were warriors for democracy; some of us were just looking for a good time.”
Out of the few occasions that the family ever mentioned the Tiananmen Incident, this is all that was being explained. Nothing more. They went, they left; what more does she want? Yes, students were excited, passionate, determined; they were shouting slogans and some of them had been on hunger strike for days; yes the statue of democracy was there, along with their creators. Yes, they heard gun fire, there was screaming, blood flowed on the streets. They went, they left. They left Beijing, actually, and did not return until a few years later. What more does she want to know? More importantly, what good does it do to wonder about those things? What purpose does it serve?
They, like most of the young students sitting on Tiananmen Square that day, wanted their daughters and sons to forget. For forget is the only way to live. Pretend this never happened and focus on accumulating your material wealth under the reform policies of Deng Xiaoping, grab that black cat or white cat and have it catch some fat mice. Selectively become an army of 1.3 billion amnesiacs for a few days in June. Watch your mouth and censor your thoughts, for metaphorical tanks could roll over you at any minute and you would be forgotten, too. Serve yourself and only yourself, for no one else is to be trusted.
And no ideals of freedom, democracy or universal equality could worth so much as a grain of rice in my bowl.
Historian Louisa Lim, in her truly phenomenal "The Republic of Amnesia," describes a social experiment where she showed the famous “Tankman” photo to 50 college students in top universities in Beijing. Of those 50 students, most did not recognize the iconic photo of a man courageously rooting himself in front of a tank on Tiananmen, a few guessed it happened in Yugoslavia or Soviet Russia and a few recognized it, but were insistent that the photo was fabricated by “Western reactionary forces.” In the same book, only a few pages apart, Lim documents the extraordinary stories of survivors of the Tiananmen Incident—artists and writers who spent the rest of their lives depicting that one fateful day, former PLA soldiers who wrote extensively on the subject, lawyers and activists in exile, “Tiananmen Mothers” who, to this day, are still seeking justice for their children…to this day it is difficult to imagine that all of these people occupied the same world, perhaps even acquaintances to each other or just living a few streets apart. And, as government crackdown on freedom of speech and press tightens year after year, the latter group slowly fades out of the public sphere while the former—a new generation of young people born after 1989, elitist and well-educated, and entirely unaware of the Tiananmen incident—prevails.
In Chinese traditions, educated men and women are seen as “intellectuals” and have a social responsibility to constant worry for the future of the country (you guo you min). It is precisely this self-fostered sense of responsibility to society, known as the Spirit of the Shidafu, that contributed to the development of Chinese society over the last 2000 years, including the fervor of the student movement during 1989—that students are members of a developing society and, as beneficiaries of privilege, are expected to speak up on behalf of the more vulnerable. It is the most heartbreaking thing then, to see that less than 30 years later, the “intellectuals” of this age are told to forget and to never remember, to live off their privilege like leeches, to dwell on material gains and to cower, to never speak up. To become amnesiacs.
Yet trying to forget is like taking painkillers when there is a deep gash running through the artery on your neck. You know it will hurt and eventually take your life, sooner or later, yet you numb your thoughts and swallow your concoction of painkillers mixed with syrup and pray secretly to a higher being that this is but a nightmare or an illusion, except that there is no nightmare or illusion but the very reality you live in, and that so-called higher being could not care less about your pathetic pleas.
So you come out of your ivory tower and start reading eyewitness accounts from student protestors and from detained activists and lawyers. You take classes and attend lectures and try to relive a history you never lived and you try to remember a memory you never had. It is quite difficult—your parents are doing everything they can to escape from a nightmare that you are diving into, and you clash; they want you to apply ice to the deep gash on your wounded neck but you just want to pour a bucketful of alcohol onto the pink flesh and take some needles and threads to sew the wound back together and march on. And you know that as long as young people like you keep your memories alive, the students and innocent civilians and the young PLA soldiers would not have died in vain.
Last summer, I happened to be in Beijing on June 4, and decided to pay a little visit to Tiananmen without telling my parents. I lived only two miles away from Tiananmen Square, and on my way there it began to rain—the first rain in more than a week. The streets were a little quiet, yet car horns blared as usual from the perpetually congested Avenue of Eternal Peace. Two blocks away from Tiananmen, I was stopped abruptly by a PLA soldier, demanding to see my National Identification Card. After much scrutiny, he returned the card to me, and politely yet firmly instructed me not to proceed any further, for the Square was “under maintenance.” I looked up and failed to meet his gaze. He could not have been more than a few years older than me; he could not have been more than a few years older than the students or the soldiers in 1989. I thanked him and turned back, and the young soldier’s silhouette receded back into the mist.