In March 2008, I returned to Beijing for a visit, the first in ten years. One afternoon, trapped in a traffic jam, I chatted with the middle-aged cab driver, a native Beijinger, judging from his accent. “This is no longer the city you knew,” he said when he learned about my visit. I had been repeatedly told that since my arrival.
“Is it becoming too modern for you?” I asked. The cab driver had told me that he grew up in a people’s commune next to the Summer Palace, and that his wife was a sanitary worker in the district.
“Beijing does not have its heart any more.”
I leaned forward, fascinated by this unexpected answer. The cab driver studied me in the rear-view mirror. “How old were you in ’89?” he asked. Old enough to remember it, I said. I was 16 when the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened. Did he remember it, too? I asked.
“Remember?” The cab driver raised his voice, and for a moment I worried that he was offended. “Every man in our neighbourhood went to block the tanks and army trucks. Would you be called a man if you didn’t go? My wife donated a whole month’s salary to the college kids on hunger strike at the square – not that she made much, of course.”
I was not prepared for discussions of Tiananmen Square on this trip. Old friends and neighbours whom I had seen earlier talked about, among other topics, real estate and stock-market booms.
“But what good came out of it?” the cab driver said, and honked at a car with a sudden violence. “In the early Nineties, when those provincial people came to town, my neighbours started to rent their extra rooms to them. I said, ‘Do not rent to the out-of-towners.’ Did they know what we Beijingers went through in ’89? All they wanted was to make money in this city. I told my neighbours: ‘Wait until their children grow up to take the bites out of our children’s mouths.’
“Guess what? It happened as I said. The out-of-towners gave birth to their children, the children went to school with our children, and now they compete for the best jobs, and feel they have the right to claim Beijing as their city. Let me ask you – do they care what happened in ’89? No, they don’t. All they care is about money. This city, I tell you: it doesn’t have the heart it had in ’89!”
The cab driver’s angry nostalgia moved me. I wondered if, 20 years earlier, he had been one of those young men pedalling flatbed tricycles to transport bodies on that night of bloodshed; perhaps he had helped push a bus into the street to block the tanks, had thrown bottles and rocks.
A few days later, I met an old friend, Lei, who grew up in the same apartment building as I did. Five years my senior, he was a college student when the protest broke out in April 1989. I remembered how he used to come to our apartment every week to report on the progress of the protest: parades, hunger strikes, slogans invented, new strategies of the students’ union, overnight dance parties at the square, romances between strangers. Yet, two weeks before the crackdown, he had withdrawn from the protest and announced his new goal: to prepare for the GRE aptitude test so he could go to the United States. He scored well enough in the test, but in the end he was not able to emigrate – for a few years immediately after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, only those who had relatives overseas were allowed to apply for passports, and Lei could not find such a connection to leave the country.
What did he think of ’89 now? I asked Lei at our dinner. In the past ten years he had become a successful businessman, with a consulting company and multiple real-estate properties to his name. He had gained weight, and looked like one of the plump, well-dressed men in the city, their cars and watches and clothes and wives showing off their status.
“It was all nonsense,” Lei said. “Aren’t we glad it was a failed revolution?”
Why, I asked.
“As a failed revolution –” he said, waving to dismiss the waitress standing next to our table. “There’s always that bit of history nobody can deny. Yes, the People’s Liberation Army opened fire. Yes, people were killed. But other than that . . . Let me ask you: if the college students – well, if we – had succeeded in ’89, what would China have become today? We’d have got a bunch of young, inexperienced corrupters to replace those old, experienced corrupters.”
“Was that why you left the square? That you thought it was not a good revolution any more?”
“Let me tell you this story,” Lei said, already a little drunk from the liquor he had consumed. “I was on my way from one part of the square to the other, where one of my best friends was on hunger strike. I was going to see him but the student security guard told me that I could not pass. ‘I have handwritten permission from one of the top leaders of the students’ union,’ I said to the guy, and he said the permission was no longer good, as the one who wrote it had just been ousted. He told me three other names and told me that only their signatures would count. Think about that. At the square the students’ union said that if one person refused to end the protest we would all stay with him and protest with him. See, there was no democracy there, only a wild party run by a few leaders. And innocent people died for the ambitions of those few.”
It was the first time Lei was telling me these stories. Perhaps, at 16, I had been still too young to understand the situation. I remembered people pushing buses into the street to block army vehicles in the late afternoon of 3 June. Shortly after nightfall the shooting began. My father locked my sister and me in while my mother went to the nearby intersection to gather news. At midnight she came home and cried. She had seen the body of a seven-year-old boy in his mother’s arms. A man had volunteered to drive the mother and her dead child to different neighbourhoods and military checkpoints; some of the soldiers had cried, too, he said.
“Of course I have ’89 to thank and ’89 only,” Lei said, more drunk now. He would have emigrated to the US, had it not been for the fact that he had not been allowed to leave China. “I don’t envy you because I live here, in my own city, in my own country, and I lead a good and successful life.”
I nodded, thinking about the cab driver who would not give up the memory of 1989. I suspected that most people in the country would be like Lei, ready to leave the dead behind and board the train, running towards a new, if uncertain, future.
When the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian gave a reading in New York City last year, a young Chinese woman angrily asked him why he would not let the Tiananmen Square Massacre go. Similar questions have been put to me: why do you have to write about the 1970s when China is no longer that country, the one of the 1970s? Why can’t you let go of the past and write about the glorious Olympic Games, or the strong and wealthy country that China has become?
My answer to the questions – imagine saying to Toni Morrison: “Why do you still hold on to history and write about slavery when America has long put slavery behind?”
In the past 20 years, China has grown into the China we know today partly because of 1989, and it is both fascinating and alarming that the refusal to revisit the events comes not only from the government, but also from the people, who seem to feel more at ease when they turn their eyes away from that history. Perhaps only those who lost their loved ones in 1989 will light vigil candles now. A line of an ancient poem, written in the 4th century, offers our ancestors’ wisdom on this: “The bereaved ones are still grieving but the others are already singing in happy oblivion. What is death but a journey back to join the mountain?”
Yiyun Li’s most recent book is “The Vagrants” (Fourth Estate, £12.99). Her debut short-story collection, “A Thousand Years of Good Prayers”, won the 2006 Guardian First Book Award
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