Remembering Tiananmen Square

It’s been 25 years since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

The forces behind the protests had been in motion for several years. However, I think it is safe to say the April 15, 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader, who had become a symbol of reform was the tipping point. Three days later, thousands of students, mourning Hu Yaobang and calling for more democracy, marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square, and it was there in the city, in the capital of China, in the square known as Tiananmen or “gate of heavenly peace,” that Chinese students took a stand and participated in several weeks of demonstrations.

A rally at Tiananmen Square in mid-May drew 1.2 million people. The Voice of America began broadcast coverage of the demonstrations. Then the BBC and CNN. Tiananmen Square became a world event.

I remember rushing home from work each night, eager to catch the news of what happened that day in the Square. I was so excited by what the students were doing, thrilled by their spontaneous yearning for democracy. After they erected the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, who bore a striking remembrance to the Statue of Liberty (and perhaps Kuan Yin), I think if I had had the money, I might have caught a plane and gone over there. It seemed like the most potent place in the world at that moment and I wanted to feel it, touch it.

It was shorty after 1am on June 4 when the Chinese troops entered the square with AK- 47s and the tanks with machine guns. They fired upon the protesters indiscriminately, and the tanks reportedly ran over groups of students. No one knows exactly what happened that night or how many people died, but estimates of the death toll range from 500 to 2700.

The iconic photo taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press.
The iconic photo taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press.

On the morning of June 5, a lone man stood in front of a column of tanks moving out of the square. Like the shot heard round the world, this was the photo seen around the world. As the driver of the lead tank tried to go around him, “Tank Man” moved into the tank’s way, and continued to defiantly halt the progress of the tank column for some time, eventually climbing up onto the turret of the lead tank, speaking to the soldiers inside. To this day, no one know the identity of this man.

Writer Ma Jian, who took part in the protests, says “The Chinese people have been forced to forget the Tiananmen massacre. There has been no public debate about the event, no official apology. The media aren’t allowed to mention it. Still today people are being persecuted and imprisoned for disseminating information about it.”

Here is the poem I wrote the night after the massacre:

when the dragon comes

my brother
handsome one
heart soaring with courage
like an hawk in the blue sky
holding aloft our banner of aspirations
in the midday sun
you will be crushed like glass
when the dragon comes

my sister
beautiful one
standing before the guards
like a rock
like a tree
sinking deep roots into the soil of liberty
face shining
in the twilight
your cheeks will be wet with blood
when the dragon comes

everything on earth tonight
is a return of paralysis
numb limbs dead fingers
reaching for that butterfly dream
that inevitably flits away so quickly,
so deftly

you –
the soft power soldiers
the students of democracy
will the world remember
when you have faded from our view?
will the camera lens stay focused
when you are no longer news?

handsome brother
beautiful sister
as fragile as autumn leaves
blown away
by the winds of oppression
trampled and scattered from our sight
when the dragon came
in the middle of the night

© 1989 dmriley


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