I want to capture the night before it slips away from me and becomes just another Friday in New York. They tore up Broadway, tonight, down in SoHo where the stores shuttered up early and tight. Friday’s usual victims were all just stepping out, all aflutter, clumping gorgeously in the streets with their high heels and blazers, pre-game faces on. But beyond them were great metal beasts, their maws tight against the ground as they chewed up the pavement, a layer of dust rising around them and blowing into the sidewalk. It swirled in the work lights hung low in the street, giving a blur to those holes punched in the darkness. I can’t quite capture what was ever so captivating, between the industry and the revelry, excess and renewal. But those great steel beasts giving Broadway a fresh skin of pavement drew attention to the scaffolding lining the streets, sometimes on both sides. It reminds me that this city is always changing, even if we don’t notice it at ground level, caught between sidewalks and skyscrapers, that it’s like a lizard that constantly sheds its skin. Let me remember that all things change around me, that they in turn change me.
NOTE: This post has been edited and a newer/improved version is here.
Also known as the “Unknown Rebel,” Tank Man is the unknown protagonist of a stand off with a column of Type 59 Chinese tanks. His stance, encapsulated in time on Beijing’s Changan Avenue, is determined. He is slight, wiry in the tradition of a wushu hero perhaps, but his great strength isn’t physical. We know so little about him. Any name we give him is hotly disputed. None of the surviving images even capture his face. We are left with the set of his shoulders and his angry strides as he climbs up that first tank, demanding to speak to the officer inside.
I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s important we imagine Tank Man complexly, or as well as we are able to with so little information about who he was and where he lives (or lived) out the rest of his days. Most people know him as a moment in time. The most widely circulated image of Tank Man comes to us from the AP’s Jeff Widener. It’s the one at the head of this post. It’s the one that accompanies all of these front page stories, once it was smuggled out of China by a young tourist. Shot from the balcony of the Beijing Hotel, it shows us an succinct portrait of what is essentially a civilian man (benign to the point of absurdity: he seems to still be carrying his shopping) standing against the state machine, here represented by four tanks. Outside the action, artifacts from reality remains: a cluster of lamps in the lower frame. That mundane street lamp gives this image a greater context. This is not a warzone; it’s a street in the very heart of Beijing.
Those unlit lamps draw us back into the day. While the nights of June 3rd through 4th were a burning hell of smoke and terror, June 5th experienced most of the bald-faced, daylight violence. Near the Beijing Hotel, security forces were shooting anyone who approached the Square—including people running away, doctors, nurses, and rescuers. No one could even come collect the dead. Those unlit street lamps remind us that we’re in a city, but not even just a city: Beijing has been the capital of China for hundreds of years. As journalist Jan Wong puts it, not even Mao had ever dared bring the military into Beijing. But the China’s then-leaders didn’t just mobilize local troops, they brought in soldiers from all over the nation—as far as Guangzhou province. Soldiers were using battlefield-grade weapons on unarmed civilians. Those Type 59 tanks the Unknown Rebel is facing off against remained the backbone of the Chinese army for over another decade. The situation is ludicrous. Dystopic. A precedent that can be repeated.
Want more context? Here’s the rest of that tank column.
Wow. I can’t attribute this photo because I haven’t been able to find credits anywhere, but while it may seem obvious that a column of tanks would be much longer than four, seeing it laid out for you is quite different. What strikes me is how easy it is to throw a cog into such a large machine. Because really, you don’t have to stop all of those tanks individually: you only have to stop the tank in front. How do you stop the tank in front? You stop its commander.
Have some raw footage of his interaction with that front tank. Unfortunately, the nat sound seems to have been lost.
Tank Man seems to taunt the authority of the state. While the commander of the tank tries to go around him, he steps in front of it again and again before finally climbing onto the tank itself. He actually bangs on the hatch of that commanding tank and converses angrily with its occupants: probably its commander and its gunner. In the end, he’s led away by a cluster of men, dissolving back into the crowd. Let’s remember that Tank Man isn’t just a lone rebel for a moment. He converses with soldiers that blazed their way to Tiananmen the night before, part of a group even responsible for shooting people inside their apartments—their kitchens—with battlefield grade weapons. Tank Man’s story is an interaction, and one we view from the outside. A conversation we can’t even eavesdrop in on because their voices have been lost to time.
Why did that leading tank stop? There are reports of disobedience in the military. One general lost his command and was subsequently jailed because he refused to carry out the violence the night of June 3rd without receiving written orders. (Only verbal orders were given that night, because, again paraphrasing Jan Wong, Chinese people have this thing about history: while whoever’s in charge tends to write the rules now, the next dynasty never forgets.) But literally on the other side of the Square civilians are getting mowed down, so why is this one guy such a big deal?
There are competing theories here. There were, like that aforementioned general, acts of defiance. Soldiers who later claimed they fired into the air rather than at civilians. There’s a theory, given to The Epochtimes by Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, that the commander of the tank column had been classmates with Tank Man. This seems like pure speculation, but the narrative power of this story is admittedly romantic. The Fox and the Hound recast in modern China. Two boys grow up together in the hardships of China during the Cultural Revolution and later end up on separate life paths. One becomes a military officer, the other is settled in Beijing. Both experience the most horrific nights of their lives and only one of them is trained to deal with it. Then, they are again thrown together under adverse circumstances at the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The telescopic lenses of the world are watching. There isn’t a dry eye in the audience.
It’s a cinematic narrative, and, like in all things of such a nature, we want the Hollywood ending. But there is none. A group of men talk to our Unknown Rebel before he gets hustled off by a few of them. Are they security forces? Do they mean him well? Again, no one knows. Some like to believe that they were benevolent bystanders, and that somewhere now Tank Man is going about his daily life: anonymous, still in China. Wei’s narrative ends rather badly. He says the gentlemen who hustled our hero away were in fact plain clothes security officers, but, under orders from the tank commander, they were in fact trying to keep Tank Man safe. Unfortunately, they lost track of him and he rushed in front of another column of tanks, the commander of which our hero hadn’t been schoolboys with. He was crushed to death, out of sight of the world’s media.
The veracity of either ending (the anti-climactic or the maudlin) cannot be confirmed at this time, if ever. So let’s end the series with a prequel instead. In 2009 Terril Jones of the Associated Press shared a gem of a photograph with the New York Times. It offers new angle on the Tank Man: street level, before the action.
There in the back left corner we see him. A tiny David, when our Goliath isn’t even in the foreground yet. Recognizable from the set of his shoulders, we will still never know his face. He’s not yet even part of the action, and yet we can see that ever-familiar determined stance. There is ambiguity here: is he on the edge of a premeditated leap? Or are we looking at the moment of calm right before a heroic impulse? Again, it’s almost impossible to know. But let’s linger over him a moment more before he walks into history, and out of our sight.
It’s June 4th again: the anniversary of the day tanks rolled into the Gates of Heavenly Peace. That’s what “Tiananmen” means in Chinese. Once a training ground for imperial soldiers and now one of the main tourist attractions in Beijing, twenty-four years ago this place became the epicenter of the most iconic massacre in contemporary Chinese history. Over the years Communist leaders have softened language around this bloody day when they even mention it at all. In the West, there’s a common misconception that the events were purely the work of college students, a now-irrelevant generation. In today’s China, the “June 4th Incident” or “June 4th Movement” is still heavily censored. There is no commemoration.
This morning The Atlantic ran an article entitled “How China Made the Tiananmen Square Massacre Irrelevant” which enrages me. I’m not disputing the content of the article. I’m just angry because my life has been shaped in the shadow of the crackdown, even though I wasn’t even conceived until months later. It isn’t irrelevant to me, and it shouldn’t be irrelevant to the international community or the Chinese nation itself. The Party is making this irrelevant. That’s wrong.
China in the eighties is a place that I know only from description. From pictures of my older sister as a toddler, living with my grandparents. It’s something I never learned from my father, as he left the country to pursue his PhD in Ohio in 1983, nor from my mother who followed a couple years later. However, the fact that they could even leave the country was indicative of a larger change in Chinese society. Then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “Reform and Opening up” meant students could start studying abroad, that economic policies went on the increasingly moderate track that have ultimately led to today’s diametric economy of foreign investment and extreme state control. A family friend spent a car ride explaining to me once that it was during the 1980s when he finally heard Western classical music—even the Russians had been out of his reach before. Another, a Chinese classmate of my parents’ at OU, described teaching English in Beijing as his carefree youth.
Exposure to new ideas is a hallmark of youth in this era, however they were by no means liberal times. Professional opportunities were slim and largely unbalanced. Political corruption was high, as was inflation. The citizenry had little voice in Party affairs and the Party, as it is today, existed mostly for its own interests. Self-expression was limited, never mind political expression. A few years ago, someone pointed out to me that there was still only a limited range of clothing available. If you look at photos of Beijing residents, white shirts and black slacks are the primary uniform of an urban male. This cocktail of new ideas and discontents ignited into popular protests in April of 1989, with the death of Communist leader Hu Yaobang.
Hu was seen as a more reform-minded leader who was ousted by his hardline contemporaries in a political struggle centered around an earlier round of protests in 1986. The day before his funeral, April 22nd, an estimated 100,000 students marched into Tiananmen Square. Revolutionary fervor had ignited in Beijing, and the youth were once again instruments of change. Student protesters formed organizations and their own leaders emerged. Similar protests in different cities turned into riots. Sympathetic leader, Zhao Ziyang, urged a conciliatory attitude towards students. He was pitted against hardliner Li Peng, who would go on to declare martial law in Beijing.
The discord of the events in May almost angers me to study or to think about. This is the point where I want to scream. Don’t you understand that you’re writing history? Why don’t you see that what you do has consequences for us all? The struggle in the upper echelon of the Party was mirrored by the clamorous voices of students in the streets. Protests weren’t enough: organized by student leader Chai Ling (who would, two decades later, controversially say she “forgives” the Party for its crackdown) hunger strikes began. Protests continued even despite a visit from Soviet leader Gorbachev, which was seen as a huge embarrassment by the Party. This coincidentally ensured that Western media were on the ground for the protests. (It’s also noted that Gorbachev took this experience with him, and was very moderate when dealing with protests of his own.) With disorganization rampant in the students, conciliatory gestures by more moderate Party leaders were met with suspicion and discordant demands. At the same time, the continuation of protests during the Gorbachev’s visit turned moderates within the Party conservative, and cemented the divide between China’s highest leaders: Deng and Zhao.
Zhao blinked first. On May 20th, the day martial law was declared in Beijing, he would deliver the speech that would define his career as a politician, at the very end of it. At closing in on five in the morning, Zhao spoke directly to students. He was visibly moved.
“You are not like us, we are already old and do not matter. Now in your teens and early twenties you are sacrificing your lives!” Did Zhao know how prophetic his words are?
For me, Zhao’s departure marks the point when events pile up and careen out of control. For one thing, this wasn’t just a Beijing movement anymore. By mid-May, the movement really picked up steam with protesters from across the country traveling to the capital, and more protests breaking out in hundreds of Chinese cities. Critically, this included Shanghai, where Jiang Zemin, then a municipal official, was given the opportunity to shine. With heavy-handed police action, a political purge, and total control of the local media he subdued his city. Obviously, this was prime leadership material. He would go on to destroy the lives of a hundred million people.
With the declaration of martial law, a first mobilization took place in Beijing. Protesters thronged around tanks, preventing them from advancing. A few days later, they made a withdrawal, but more trouble was brewing. A total mobilization had been called, and military from all across China were on their way.
The numbers of protesters in and around Beijing are unknown specifically, but at their height it is believed that 1 million people were in and around the square. Imagine the summer heat in Beijing. It’s sweltering, I can contest to that. So humid you can’t breathe. Imagine the pang of a week of hunger strikes. Imagine the unorganized revolutionary fervor of youth: those one hundred schools of thought that sprang up and fought for of the bullhorn. Imagine, in the air, an impending tang of violence. It’s there, and so is the weary disillusionment. Sanitation and hygiene have become serious problems. But compounded with that, there’s also a high of having “turned back” that first military tide. The determination of wanting to hold the Square, a symbol of China from its dynastic period, Chairman Mao watching from overhead.
On June 2nd, the Party moved to clear the Square. Tiananmen, it was decided, was to see…peace.
Events from here are again, complicated and tangled. There are reports that military divisions were also preparing against internal attacks from other units, of a general who would only accept written orders to complete the violence. But between June 3rd and 4th, high estimates say 3,000 protesters and residents were killed. You should know that any number from this point on is disputed. In later years, accounts show that most of the violence took place in Beijing residential areas, where residents had set up barricades to stop the advance of tanks. Eyewitnesses say that Beijing residents wanted to protect students. They were rewarded with live bullets. I am not inclined to believe the official account, which says that residents burned soldiers alive in their cars and threw molotov cocktails at them. But again, there is confusion. That isn’t to say there were no army casualties: there are reports of civilians reaching into tanks and beating soldiers to death.
Beijing residents gathered by broken barricades, wearing black armbands to show their defiance. And in the smoke and darkness, rickshaw drivers carried away the wounded to safety, sometimes being shot themselves. Roadblocks crushed, the military reached Tiananmen in the middle of the night. They didn’t fire immediately, under orders to initially tell the remaining protesters to leave. And those last protesters still there were divided: accept the military amnesty, or hold their ground. In the small hours, they left.
There is debate about whether there was actually violence within the Square itself. Conflicting contemporary reports say students were crushed by tanks and that soldiers unleashed indiscriminate fire, or that there was simply an empty standoff. Shooting happened in the aftermath: that is certain. Live rounds were apparently fired at students who’d already left Tiananmen. Anyone who tried to enter the Square the day after was shot, possibly in the back. As they ran away.
The aftermath lives on. We still feel Tiananmen. Not just from a human rights aspect. Tiananmen was a turning point for China. The whole contemporary history of China could have changed here: those who fell from grace could have changed the course of history. Most moderates, with the notable exclusion of Wen Jiabao, were out of the picture. Zhao Ziyang spent the last decades of life under house arrest, only emerging to play golf and attend funerals. Instead of Zhao, Deng Xiaoping picked Jiang Zemin to be his successor. And he controls China’s hardline faction to this day, clinging to influence even over a decade after he left office. His hands are scarlet with blood. In 1999, it was under his direct order that the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners was declared. I remember sitting around the dinner table at nine years old hearing about the first weeks of the persecution: clearly imbedded in my mind was the feeling of rice turning to lead in my stomach as my mother told me someone had died in police custody. So many have died since then. People who I called auntie and uncle were thought for a period to be among that number. We lost contact with them for years while they were in labor camps. The sheer scale of persecution in China means that someone was friends with a Falun Gong practitioner. Someone worked with a House Christian. Someone’s mother lost her house, or her land.
This has shaped me. I was on China’s blacklist before I even turned eighteen and I will be an activist until there is genuine change. It’s ironic, because it was the Tiananmen crackdown that allowed for me to be born, an accidental second girlchild, because my mother could stay in the US. She was on a student visa, which was, post-massacre, extended by an executive order from HW Bush. (Note: this was after he killed a Dem-led bill to the same effect.) I am a product of China as it is, someone who is for all intents and purposes an American girl, straddling the gulf of two cultures. Someone who can never go home.
And so that it is today, I don’t just commemorate those who died. I mourn the China that never was, the one that we lost in the smoke and the confusion. Because “the revolution begins in the heart” and really, that’s something we can’t afford to lose. Tiananmen has to stay relevant to show us the China that should have been.
Neil Gaiman offering a little bit of inspiration up in here. You’d think the solitude would make the words come to me more easily. Untrue. My greatest distraction has always been myself. It’s how it always was: that blank page staring so accusingly, crushing your rosy dreams with its stark truth.
My friend recently talked to me about the jamais vu phenomenon, which is best explained in relation to deja vu. Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve been somewhere before, even though you’ve never actually been to that particular locale in your life. But it’s not so much that the place is familiar to you seeing as the location is still alien. Rather it’s that the emotion it evokes from you, that rises like a treacherous serpent from your chest, is familiar. Jamais vu is the opposite, sometimes more sinister phenomenon. It’s when a familiar place suddenly seems foreign.
I’ll admit that it has come to me amicably. Notably, on a clear, cloudless morning on my way to The Strand bookstore. Union Square wasn’t its usual eyesore. The farmers’ market blanketed the earth with its early harvest. And the city didn’t feel like home suddenly, like my old stomping ground, but rather as a place wholly unfamiliar and utterly foreign. It was amazing. I should explain that I was suffering a great deal of wanderlust at the time. For me, that morning was a chance to leave while my feet were still tied to the ground. If I could bottle that feeling to take with me and give the world just a light spritz whenever I feel too stuck in one place, then maybe I wouldn’t have the urge to travel every few months: to tie up my scarf and roam like a nomad over the packed earth.
Still. There are times when it’s not so pleasant. Like my mother’s whole apartment after her passing. All of its home-like qualities vanished, and an unnerving darkness settled there instead: as bleak as the River Styx. It was clearly and irrevocably not ours anymore, or familiar except in surface. If it weren’t, you know, actually sharing three walls with other people’s homes I would have wanted to torch that place to the ground. When I’m writing, in the future, and I need a genius loci or two I will have a model for one that is wholly unpleasant to the point of being evil—not in the double double toil and trouble sense necessarily, but in the twisted sense of reality gone horribly, awfully wrong. Of the world careening off axis. Of the familiar becoming alien to the point of incomprehensible. Jamais vu.
I have that feeling now, slightly, sitting on the floor I actually spend the majority of time at at school. I’m technically working, actually. It’s Friday night around ten o’clock and I am seriously wondering why I’m still here, seeing as it’s become abundantly clear to me this evening that no one else will be showing up. And in the quiet stillness, there is a slight sense of jamais vu. Not for any sinister reason, merely because in my mind, except for in the very, very early mornings, this floor is always packed. At least one of the buchlas is always screaming like a theramin, music and AV clips are always leaking out of different studios, and there’s always a bunch of stupid undergrads like me with our feet blocking the aisle, cursing ourselves blue. To be honest, it’s a bit unnerving not to have all of that. It sounds kind of stupid but this place has been my bedrock this semester. While I’ve been losing my last parent and burning my childhood and leaving home, it’s been kind of constant. Unwaveringly alive. To feel alone here is foreign.
Nothing like a little jamais vu to spice up your Friday night.