Tuesday, August 08, 2006

China Stories Pt 21: Mourning on campus

Note: At this point, my chronology may get a little iffy. I am trying to go chiefly by memory, though I'm occasionally doing some fact checking. Apologies in advance for any errors or omissions.

Returning to the Beijing University campus after our meeting at CBS, I started to sense that something was stirring. Posters started to appear in a small plaza near the center of campus, by the post office and the campus store. Hu Yaobang was a reformer, and was well regarded among the the "intelligentsia."* But this seemed a bit excessive.

Throughout the next day, more posters went up. Students milled about talking, wandering among the posters, reading and discussing them in hushed tones.

In the early evening, Bob and I went over to see what was happening, and ran into a couple of Chinese friends. One of them was actually one of my teachers, and I addressed him as such, which was customary, even informally. He shushed me, and asked me not to call him teacher. I think he did not want to be viewed as some kind of authority figure in the crowd. He didn't want any of the students to think he was The Man.

As we walked among the posters, our friends helped to de-code their meanings. My teacher was uncharacteristically animated as he translated the posters for us. This poster, he explained, is about a Ming dynasty century ruler, but is actually suggesting the current government is corrupt.

In typical Chinese fashion, the messages were elliptical, and were really only accessible to very well educated people - people who, let's say, had studied classical Chinese and knew Chinese history backwards and forwards. Imagine someone criticizing President Bush by quoting Shakespeare, or better yet Chaucer. Try that the next time you log on to Daily Kos or Atrios, and see how far it gets you.

One of the posters which generated a buzz in the crowd was a great deal more succinct, and so straightforward that even I could understand it. I paraphrase:

Those who should not have died already died;
Those who should die live on;
What is to be done?**

A ha. Mourning the death of a popular leader, and using the occasion to be critical of the government. The story my friend Jack had told me, not a month earlier, of the 1976 Tiananmen Incident, was still fresh in my mind.

Later in the afternoon, a student climbed up on a ledge and began to speak. He said said they were raising money for a funeral wreath, and that they planned to deliver it to Tiananmen Square. I'm not certain, but I think he also raised the demand that the government "reassess" Hu's career. At hearing this, the crowd erupted in applause and shouts.

Were they really going to do it? Were they really going to go to the square?

As evening turned to night, I was back in Shaoyuan, in my room. Around 9pm or so, as I sat studying, the quiet evening was punctuated by a distant roar coming from in the direction of the plaza by the post office. The cheers continued, and grew louder. What was happening? More speeches?

After a few minutes, there was a frantic knock at my door. It was Bob.

"They're going to the square!" he said breathlessly.

"Really? Wow." It was all I could think to say.

"Well?" Bob said. "Shall we go?"

In an instant, we rushed down the stairs into the courtyard. We grabbed our bikes and began walking over to the plaza. After a few moments, we heard another loud roar - we looked at each other, and hopped on our bikes. We didn't want to miss anything.

*By Chinese standards, any college student would qualify as "zhishifenzi," an intellectual.
**The pinyin, as best I can remember it, in case you're interested: bu gai si de dou yi si /gai si de shang wei si / zen ma ban?


At 4:38 PM, Blogger k said...

so exciting!

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous sweetone said...

yes, so exciting and suspenseful!!

ish, i'm sure you've already read tons of things on the topic, not to mention that you experienced it first-hand, but i thought i'd recommend this book -- The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement, by Dingxin Zhao.

i think he does a good job explaining what was happening with all of the symbolism and historical/cultural references...why certain things had such power and what they were meant to invoke (and evoke). and he has some interesting explanations for why there was such a massive disconnect between the state and the movement (like --what each side understood to be the premise of the movement, what kinds of responses from either side were considered legitimate), and so on.

zhao himself is kind of interesting because he was in the middle of getting a PhD in some engineering or science field (no idea which one... sadly, they're pretty much all the same to me!) but switched to sociology because of the tiananmen square thing. he felt compelled to figure out what had really happened and why. (actually, i think he still finished his science-engineering-whatever PhD, so he ended up with 2).

just thought i'd mention it in case you (or anyone else fascinated by your china chronicles) might be interested.

anyway...thanks for writing all of this -- it's great to read!

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Ish said...

k- thanks. Stay tuned!

sweetone - thanks for the suggestion, it sounds interesting.

I was just leafing through "Red China Blues" by Jan Wong. Her account of this period is eerily similar to mine. I started to wonder if I was subconsciously plagiarizing her, it was so similar. But I don't even think I've read her book.

More to come...

At 9:16 PM, Anonymous sweetone said...

Her account of this period is eerily similar to mine. I started to wonder if I was subconsciously plagiarizing her, it was so similar. But I don't even think I've read her book.

ha! so funny! but you were both watching the same thing happen... it makes sense you'd have similar accounts. if anything, it validates your recollection of what you saw and experienced, right? and maybe you had a similar lens anyway since you were both raised in north america.

At 9:29 PM, Blogger riseyp said...

whoa. this is very cool. you are a great storyteller :)

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Jenny said...


More! More!

At 5:50 PM, Blogger merideth said...

you are such a great storyteller. I cant tell you how much i'm enjoying this!

shandis on me!


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