Opinion: Tiananmen frames Chinese political life

by Lionel Jensen

Across the more than 100 acres of paved expanse, and among the heroic monuments of the Chinese revolution, myriad tourists and city residents saunter, some carrying lattes from the Starbucks a block away.p. Three-wheeled bicycle peddlers hawk their wares.p. Lines of spectators are seated around the northern core of the square for the start of the evening flag ceremony. Friends jostle to have their photographs taken against the backdrop of Chairman Mao’s portrait. Multicolored dragon and fish kites extend upward above the yellow-glaze tile double-eaves of the rostrum at Heavenly Peace Gate (Tiananmen).p. It is the close of another day on ‘’The Square.’‘p. The activity at today’s touristic and entrepreneurial square is a far cry from the heady days of peaceful democratic protest and celebration of 15 years ago, when for more than six weeks the world watched Tiananmen became a symbolic site of the people.p. By the middle of May 1989, millions — city dwellers, peasants, television personalities, bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, students, police and workers — were on parade, filling the square and its adjoining arterial streets and calling in strident chorus for an end to government corruption, for the institution of democratic representation stated in the constitution, and for official recognition that the student-led democracy movement was patriotic rather than counter-revolutionary. Carnival-like demonstrations erupted in cities around the country as millions protested in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Kunming, Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Xian.p. Even as troops pushed inward from the outskirts of Beijing after the declaration of martial law on May 20, numerous citizens — parents, children, grandparents, passersby — moved en masse into city streets blocking the advance of the convoys. This occurred within 48 hours of a historic televised meeting of the leaders of the student protest with Li Peng, premier of the State Council and other party luminaries. Not since the revolution had the nation witnessed this magnitude of willful popular resistance.p. Nevertheless, barely two weeks later on the night of June 3 and morning of June 4, the protesters in the square were violently cast out by a despotic belch of tanks, trucks, jeeps and personnel carriers, leaving this ‘’broad field’’ empty of people but filled with shell casings, burning hulks, twisted wrecks of bicycles and the bloody, scattered detritus of tents, make-do shelters, personal effects, and the ‘’Goddess of Democracy’’ (Minzhu zhi shen), the defiant 30-foot plaster and polystyrene testament to the popular hope.p. For victim and victor, memory endures but does not speak.p. In the minds of some who drift along the avenues of today’s state-sponsored nostalgia, the square remains synonymous with those days of joy and sorrow, but that Tiananmen is a memory or a murmur barely audible beneath the din of tour guide patter breathlessly reciting a selective documentary record: the size of the space, the years and hundreds of thousands of workers it required to construct it, the physical dimensions of the Great Hall of the People, the Museum of Chinese History and the Chinese Revolution, the Mao Zedong Mausoleum (eternal home to the square’s only permanent resident), the tons of Qingdao marble sculpted to form the obelisk of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and the 9,600 rooms, pavilions and offices of the Forbidden City that housed the families, servants and officials of the last two imperial dynasties: Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911).p. Yet, because the powerful pageantry of its past is embedded in its stone, the square has a risky multiple significance that cannot be overcome by the escalating volume of commercial pulp produced in honor of its capacity to generate revenue for the nation’s most successful growth industry. So, soldiers are always in evidence, agents of the Public Security Bureau are never far away, and of course public demonstrations are not allowed. Memory endures.p. Today, the physical evidence of the massacre — most of which occurred off-site along Changan Street, just south of the gate and the parade grounds — is gone. It is a compelling, grandiose, empty but famous space that for the 2008 Summer Olympics will be the site for beach volleyball.p. For the history that has been lived there, etched into its rough cement paving stones where numberless bloodstains have long been scrubbed clean, and the myth that reaches far beyond it, Tiananmen frames the architecture of modern Chinese political life. For this alone, the square always will resonate with the triumph and tragedy of the nation’s struggle with itself, as if the vertical and horizontal planes of its hybrid architectural history meet in an unstable fault that runs the full length of its 14 hectares.p. p. Lionel Jensen is chairman of the East Asian Languages and Literatures Department at the University of Notre Dame and the author of three books on China.

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