A protestor pleads with a People's Liberation Army officer not to attack students assembled in the square, 1989. Photograph: Peter Turnley/Corbis
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Tiananmen’s hungry ghosts: 25 years on, the massacre still haunts modern China

The events of 4 June 1989 continue to generate new crimes – the crime of remembering, and the crime of forgetting.

In the past few weeks, more than 20 apparently unconnected individuals have been detained in China. They include lawyers, gay rights activists, ordinary citizens, journalists and one ex-soldier-turned-performance artist and the tally is still rising. What all these people have in common is that they have committed a crime in the eyes of the Communist Party of China (CPC): each one was suspected of planning to mark the events of 4 June 1989, when Deng Xiaoping sent tanks and more than 200,000 soldiers to crush unarmed citizens in Tiananmen Square, the hallowed central space of China’s capital city, unleashing what became a nationwide act of revenge against all who had challenged the state.

Since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Tiananmen, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” and the southernmost gate into the Imperial City, had been the site of inter­action between the emperors, hidden deep within the Forbidden City, and the Chinese people. Here, people could gather to hear the reading of decrees issued by the emperor. The emperor himself would emerge periodically through the gate to perform his duties, as the son of heaven, at the various temples that surrounded the Imperial City.

In those times, the view south from Tiananmen was of a processional avenue leading to a further series of gates, but when the Communist Party took over China in 1949 they cleared this to create one of the world’s largest public squares, said to be capable of accommodating ten million people, a space that would become a vast stage for political theatre. For China’s rulers, this was where the power of the state would be displayed in military and political parades on ritual occasions such as the annual National Day on 1 October or at Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution rallies by Red Guards.

But create a political stage, and there is the risk that it can be occupied by other actors. In 1976 people gathered in the square to pay tribute to the recently deceased premier, Zhou Enlai, and to support Deng Xiaoping, then embattled against the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. It happened again in 1986 with student protests and, most notoriously, it happened in 1989, at the end of the most liberal decade the People’s Republic had enjoyed, when students from Beijing’s most prestigious universities congregated to mourn the death on 15 April that year of the reforming party general secretary Hu Yaobang, a man who had spent his final years under virtual house arrest.

The students’ script was radically different from that of the state: they talked of official corruption and pleaded for the Chinese constitution to be enacted, with its guarantees of rule of law and freedom of speech. They wanted democratic accountability, if not democracy itself. Thousands of citizens came out to support them and demonstrations spread across the capital and the country as workers, journalists and sympathisers rallied. The subsequent military crackdown killed and injured many (the numbers are unknown) and generated one of the world’s most potent images: that of a young man carrying shopping bags and standing his ground, fragile and unarmed, in front of a column of tanks, bringing the might of the state to a halt for a few, unforgettable moments. Beyond Tiananmen, even worse violence took place in the western suburbs of Beijing, where hundreds of workers were reportedly gunned down in the streets.

Today, the events of 4 June 1989 continue to generate new crimes – the crime of remembering, which is prosecuted as fiercely as ever, and the crime of forgetting, an ethical and historical crime that has been imposed on the generations that have grown up in the China created by those events.

There is, of course, a third category: those who remember but say nothing. As Rowena Xiaoqing He writes in the opening chapter of her oral history, Tiananmen Exiles: “Every year, on its anniversary, the government clamps down with intense scrutiny and meticulous surveillance. Tiananmen mothers are still prohibited from openly mourning their family members, exiles are still turned away when they try to return home to visit a sick parent or a loved one’s funeral, and scholars working on the topic are regularly denied visas.”

Silence is perhaps the CPC’s greatest success from Tiananmen, a silence achieved by the rigorous scrubbing of any word or number that could be associated with the events of 1989 from the digital and print record. All references are blocked (online, any mentions of “June 4” will be quickly censored; as will more inventive ways of expressing the forbidden date, such as 6-4, 64, 63+1 and 65-1), raising the price of speech and memory. Scholars in China largely conform, and academics abroad hesitate to research or teach the events of 4 June lest they lose their access to visas, as did the American scholar Perry Link, who writes the foreword to He’s book.

Dr He describes her own struggles between apprehension and curiosity, and the hostility of some of her Chinese students to the content of her university course. Many of those who were in the square in 1989 have chosen silence as the price of making a post-Tiananmen life. Despite heroic efforts to document the dead by the likes of Deng Zilin, whose son was killed in the suppression of the protests, and the persistence of individual defiant acts of commemoration (Ai Weiwei gives the finger to the square in his photographic series Study of Perspective, a work that obsessed the captors who questioned him when he was detained in 2011), this shocking act of state violence that made headlines around the world has been painted over in the public memory. Only its outlines are visible beneath the gloss of post-Tiananmen China.

Rowena He was a schoolgirl at the time. She grew up in Mao’s China, the daughter of an intellectual father who had always refused to join the party and who greeted the news of the student protest with the words, “At last we have hope.” In Guangzhou, the day after the crackdown, he sent his daughter to school wearing a black armband. Her teacher told her to take it off.

The author describes her decision to leave a good job in China and emigrate to Canada as an inchoate pursuit of personal and intellectual freedom. Once abroad, she was drawn to explore the history of Tiananmen, which eventually led her to Harvard, where she now teaches. The new book is an oral history, built around her personal story and interviews she conducted over many years with three former student leaders, all now in exile in the United States: Wang Dan, who was arrested shortly after 4 June and was finally released on medical parole in 1998; Shen Tong, a student leader who became a businessman and controversially reached his own accommodation with the regime; and Yi Danxuan, one of the leaders of the 200,000-strong protest movement in Guangzhou, in the far south of China, who was detained for 20 months and served a further two-year sentence before leaving for the US and a life of activism in exile.

Like tens of thousands of others, they were in their late teens or early twenties in 1989. They had been born into the chaos of the Cultural Revolution; their parents and grandparents had endured history’s worst man-made famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward produced mass starvation. They were adolescents in the reform era that followed the death of Mao. They had grown up inspired by the heroic mythology of the communist revolution and, as the author writes, “Their idealism was fostered by the very powers that ultimately crushed it.”

What led them to protest, at a time when Deng Xiaoping was dismantling the ideological carapace of Mao’s legacy and releasing a surge of pent-up intellectual activity as people tested their new freedoms, was not a desire to overthrow the party’s rule, but the hope that the party would finally put an end to its own corruption and grant the freedoms that the country’s constitution promised. Wang Dan was there, he said, “not because of hatred but because of hope”. They were, in He’s words, “following the long-standing tradition of Confucian dissent to help the rulers improve”.

The students were naive, as it turned out, though they had sympathisers, such as the party general secretary Zhao Ziyang, in the highest ranks of the leadership. They were not afraid, Yi explains, “because we thought we were doing what we had been taught to do – to shoulder responsibility for society and the nation”. The outpouring of support for their actions demonstrated that they spoke for and inspired millions more. The CPC, however, fearful above all of the anger of the thousands of workers who had joined the student cause, felt the foundations of its power giving way beneath its feet.

In today’s China, the names of the leaders of the 1989 movement are either reviled or forgotten, as are the names of those who led earlier protests. Some call them traitors for being in exile, although many have tried to return only to be turned back at the border. After the massacre, 80,000 Chinese who were studying in the United States were given green cards, but few turn out for the annual meetings, organised by other exiles to commemorate the massacre that eased their passage into American life. Those who came by the harder route, from activism via imprisonment, live a different dilemma, caught, as Rowena He writes, between “sacrificing for an unfinished cause and living an ordinary life”.

Back in China, the families of the victims still live in the shadow of Tiananmen, in a kind of internal exile that subjects them to a spectrum of coercion, from routine surveillance to denial of jobs and passports, house arrest and criminal charges. Subsequent generations of Chinese know little about the student movement and, as the regime’s pre-emptive response in this anniversary year demonstrates, they are unlikely to learn about it at home.

Yet the China in which these young people now live is a nation profoundly shaped by the 1989 crisis. The myth of a revolution to serve the people died in Tiananmen Square along with the victims of the massacre. The party that had justified its eternal grip on power by citing its mission to make the poor the masters of the country, the party that had liberated them from oppression to lead them to a socialist utopia, was now the party that murdered its own citizens in front of the world’s television cameras. In the wake of Tiananmen, the CPC needed some other justification for its role in history.

It found it in a new history of China, invented and imposed after 1989 and now widely accepted outside China as well as at home. This is a story of Chinese exceptionalism which casts the Communist Party as the contemporary embodiment of a uniquely ancient and peaceful state, victimised in the 19th and 20th centuries by hostile foreign forces that continue to circle, ready to snatch away the future at the slightest sign of weakness. Without the party’s eternal vigilance, this story goes, China will again be undermined by its enemies.

Two years after the crackdown, Deng Xiaoping relaunched his reform project; China opened up to huge foreign investment and put its patient, hard-working people to work in factories as cheap and docile labour for global capitalism. As long as it was not challenged politically, the CPC promised, everyone would grow richer. This latest phase of communist rule is a state-managed capitalism that has delivered on many of its promises: most incomes are much higher than before, and because the state controls the country’s resources it can offer great material rewards to its core political supporters. As a result, the party and its cronies are now hugely rich, most public intellectuals are compliant, the press remains censored and, despite cosmetic adjustments, the law remains an instrument of party coercion. Twenty-five years on, the CPC might count this a success.

Yet this is a state founded on the proposition that one account of history will always prevail, a proposition that obliges the regime to jump at shadows of the past, condemned to fear the voice of an ageing mother who will not forget the violent death of her son. There is a tradition in China of hungry ghosts, unappeased spirits of the dead that continue to cause trouble for future generations if their needs are not met. Today’s China is like a palimpsest, its modern cities built over layers of buried secrets. Under its shiny surfaces run the murmuring of restless ghosts.

The abuses about which the students complained in 1989 are more evident than ever and find new challengers in the lawyers who defend poor petitioners, religious dissenters and those abused by the corrupt excesses of servants of the state. Protesters have returned to the streets, to fight for their expropriated property and the rights to clean air and water. The digital world has created a public square where the state must engage in a perpetual guerrilla war with its own citizens. The trade-off of greater prosperity in return for civil rights is now a fragile one, as the ineradicable corruption of the party continues to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens.

Those who have chosen, or were forced by circumstances, not to live the official lie, including Rowena He, are condemned as traitors to China rather than as critics of the regime. For the three student leaders interviewed in her book, the events of 1989 and their subsequent exile created a permanent post-traumatic state. Much the same could be said of the nation they left behind, a nation that is waiting for the moment when the legacy of the tragedy suffered a quarter-century ago can be faced. l

Isabel Hilton is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain