Thursday, June 04, 2009

Commemmorating the Twentieth Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

Tomorrow (today in China) marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China, and the New York Times has been doing a great job covering the event leading up to today/tomorrow. Among other stories, they have an amazing story from one of the soldiers involved in the massacre, Chen Guang, who was only 17 at the time. Chen has turned photographs of the event into paintings that are rather powerful. More importantly, though, Chen is one of the few soldiers who has begun publicly relating the events of that night from a soldier's point of view. Up to now, the student leaders who escaped and the foreign press members who were present have dominated the way the events of June 5th (and beforehand) have been narrated, and understandably so. However, stories and impressions like those from Mr. Chen are as important and, given the military's and government's efforts to whitewash the event, rarer than any others. Thanks to Chen's bravery, a much richer view of Tiananmen has begun to emerge.

That's certainly not to take away from students' and foreign press eyewitness accounts, and Nicholas Kristof's memories and testimony of the events he witnessed in 1989 is worth listening to in its entirety, and the article about the various paths that students and protestors in 1989 have taken is worth reading in full, as well, for it really does a great job getting at the ways China and the leaders and participants of the 1989 movement itself have changed in the last 20 years, and the difficult issues many former protestors face between getting on with their lives and reconciling the events and their beliefs from 20 years ago.

There's also a discussion among various dissenters and scholars about what dissent means in China today, how dissent is manifested, and the lessons the Chinese government itself learned from 1989 when it comes to dealing with dissent.

Finally, yesterday, in their photojournalist blog, they talked to the four photographers who took variations of the famed "tank man" photograph that came to be associated with the massacre. The insights of the four man vary, but one of them, Charlie Cole, raises an interesting and important point:

In my opinion, it is regretful that this image alone has become the iconic “mother” of the Tiananmen tragedy. This tends to overshadow all the other tremendous work that other photographers did up to and during the crackdown. Some journalists were killed during this coverage and almost all risked being shot at one time or another. Jacques Langevin, Peter and David Turnley, Peter Charlesworth, Robin Moyer, David Berkwitz, Rei Ohara, Alon Reininger, Ken Jarecke and a host of others contributed to the fuller historical record of what occurred during this tragedy and we should not be lured into a simplistic, one-shot view of this amazingly complex event.

He's absolutely right. One of the things that led to me becoming a historian was the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When I was still trying to decide whether I was going to focus on literature or history as my major, I took the introductory historiography class, in which we were expected to write a paper. Remembering and having been intrigued by the "tank man" since 1989, I opted to write about the Massacre. While researching, I learned just how complicated and complex the events leading up to June 5th, 1989, had been, involving not just student rebellion and a repressive governmental response, but complex internal dynamics, conflict and cooperation between students and workers, internal disagreements within the government of Deng Xiaopeng, and even generational issues dating back to the Cultural Revolution and beyond. I was so fascinated by all these complexities, twitsts, and processes at play, that the die was cast - I opted to be a historian. Even while working on Brazil in the past few years, I've repeatedly returned to Tiananmen and the similarities and differences between that student movement and others in Latin America and elsewhere (and hope to maybe make that a book someday). In that regard, Cole is absolutely right: the tank man image, while amazing, ultimately simplifies "this amazingly complex event," and one that people will hopefully stop and reflect upon this week, even while China continues to fight to prevent any commemmoration or historical remembrance of the event.