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by Paul Levine

June 4, is the 25th anniversary of two events that changed the postmodern world. In Poland, citizens voted in the first free elections since the establishment of the Polish People’s Republic in 1952. After a year of mounting protests and strikes the Communist regime reluctantly agreed to partially free elections for a new parliament. They permitted 161 of the nearly 500 seats to be openly contested. To everyone’s surprise, candidates from the independent labor union, Solidarity, won 160 seats in the first round of voting. Timothy Garton-Ash, a British historian who witnessed the election, noted: “Three things happened at once: the communists lost an election; Solidarity won; the communists acknowledged that Solidarity won. That might sound like a syllogism. Yet until almost the day before, anyone who had predicted these events would have been universally considered not a logician but a lunatic. Moreover, the three things, while logically related, were also separate and distinct.”

First, as Garton-Ash explains, the communists lost the vote but they did not lose power. “They still had the army, the police, the Party apparatus and the nomenklatura.” Second, voters overwhelmingly supported Solidarity candidates who handily defeated better-known independent candidates and Party hacks. “The third thing that happened was, in its way, almost as remarkable. The Party told the truth. On the Monday evening, when the first results were known, the spokesman for the Central Committee, Jan Bisztyga, appeared on the television evening news, sitting side by side with Solidarity’s Janusz Onyzszkiewicz, and Mr Bisztyga said: ‘The elections had a plebiscitary character and Solidarity won a clear majority.’” After that, the Communist Party imploded and the regime was swept away.

“Sunday, 4 June 1989 was a landmark not only in the post-war history of Poland, not merely in the history of Eastern Europe, but in the history of the communist world,” says Garton-Ash. But it is only half the history of June 4, 1989. As Poles celebrated their victory, a very different story was emerging on another continent. Near Tiananmen Square, Chinese soldiers were killing and maiming hundreds, perhaps thousands of students, workers and unarmed demonstrators. Garton-Ash says, “It was an uncanny experience to watch, with a group of Polish opposition journalists, on the very afternoon of the election, the television pictures from Peking. Martial law. The tanks. The tear-gas. Corpses carried shoulder-high.”
The now infamous Tiananmen Massacre was the tragic culmination of months of conflict between protesting students and an intransigent Party apparatus. When the students refused to leave the Square, the Party, haunted by the decline of communist control in Poland and the Soviet sphere, decided to act. Led by its unofficial leader Deng Xiaopeng, the regime declared martial law. When the students defied the edict with strong local support, Deng called in the troops. The nominal Party leader, Zhao Ziyang, a liberal reformer, urged restraint and refused to issue the directive calling in the army. Zhao resigned from office and was placed under house arrest. When a colleague cautioned Deng that a military action would cause a severe international reaction, he replied: “They will soon forget.”

Forgetting is a fundamental part of Chinese Communist thought.* All the Party-inspired blunders–Mao Tsedong’s failed Great Leap Forward, the disastrous Great Famine that followed, the catastrophic Cultural Revolution–have been air-brushed out of history. The Tiananmen Massacre cannot be publicly commemorated, except in still partially independent Hong Kong where a hundred thousand mourners gather every year. In the last month the Chinese authorities rounded up civil society activists, human rights lawyers, journalists, academics, artists and other potential “trouble-makers” to ensure that no public demonstrations would disturb the surface calm of what Hu Jintou called the “Harmonious Society.” How, then, does memory survive in this miasma of forgetting?

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One way is through literature. “The past is not dead,” said William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” It may seem odd in American Diplomacy to turn to fiction to illuminate political realities but here it is necessary. Recently, two younger Chinese writers have stirred controversy by returning to the forbidden past. Though Chan Koonchung lives is Beijing and Yiyun Li resides in California both have written novels that in different ways address the issue of the Tiananmen Massacre and China’s forgetting.

Chan Koonchung, a Hong Kong-based journalist, moved to Beijing in 2000 with the idea of writing a novel about China. Eight years later, during the Beijing Olympics and the global economic crisis, his vision of the new China came into focus. “I sensed the mentality of many Chinese shifting in that eventful year,” he says. “They would argue China was doing alright after all and even its sometimes repressive system might have merits, while the West was definitely not as attractive as it used to be.”

To gain a certain distance, Chan set his novel, The Fat Years, in the near future, 2013. While the West has suffered a second economic crisis, China has somehow survived and prospered. It is now the dominant economic power, enjoying “the fat years.” But something is amiss. Chinese society is suffering from Collective Amnesia and a whole month of 2011 is missing from the public memory. Chan’s intrepid characters set out to solve the mystery by kidnapping a high-ranking Party official. He explains that in the missing month of February some terrible things happened as the regime took violent measures to secure public order and its own survival. Not for the first time had the Party acted in its own interests and rewritten history. As the Chinese official explains: “In the last twenty years, Chinese official discourse has hardly ever mentioned the events of 1989, as though not mentioning them would make them disappear from history. In order to avoid trouble, popular discourse also avoided discussing the entire year of 1989. Even when recalling events of the 1980s, discussions always ended with the end of 1988. So everybody joked that in China 1988 was immediately followed by 1990.” Then he asks, “One year was not to be mentioned. Had it disappeared?”**

The Fat Years was published in Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2009, causing a major sensation, but it was banned in China. Some mainland publishers approached Chan. “I told them to read the novel first and then we would talk. None of them came back.” But the novel gained an underground reputation and became the most talked about book in Beijing salons. Then the inevitable happened: the novel was pirated and placed on the Chinese internet. “That is how it spread around,” says Chan. “Most of my readers in China read “The Fat Years” by downloading it as free content before it was deleted.” The novel was published in English in 2011 but it is still banned in China. However, Chan continues to live in Beijing and is reportedly working on a new novel.

The Fat Years has been read as a political satire. Some reviewers compared it to Orwell’s 1984 as dystopian science fiction. But there is this significant difference: whereas Orwell’s future society is grimly miserable, Chan’s China is brightly affluent. But the difference is only apparent. Chan cites Lu Xun, the iconic Chinese writer of the 20th century, who contrasted a “counterfeit paradise” with a “good hell.” Chan explains, “In a good hell, people are aware that they are living in hell and so they want to transform it, but after living for a long time in a fake paradise, people become accustomed to it and they actually believe that they are already in paradise-” Chan’s vision is closer to the “repressive tolerance” of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man than the oppressive terror of Orwell’s 1984.

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Yiyun Li is a more finished novelist than Chan though she did not intend to become a writer. In 1996 she left Beijing to study immunology at the University of Iowa. Instead she gravitated to Iowa’s famous international writer’s program and began to write in English. A decade later she published her first collection of prize-winning short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Since then her reputation has soared. In 2010 she won a coveted MacArthur “genius” award which put her in the elite company of Joseph Brodsky, William Gaddis, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers and Susan Sontag.

Her new novel, Kinder Than Solitude, is more elliptical than The Fat Years. Its inspiration is an actual crime. In 1995 a scandal erupted at Beijing’s élite Tsinghua University. A talented and beautiful chemistry student, Zhu Ling, was mysteriously poisoned with Thallium, a highly toxic heavy metal. Though her life was saved, she was severely handicapped. The prime suspect was her roommate, Sun Wei, a chemistry student who had access to Thallium. Though Sun was never charged with the crime, many continued to harbor suspicions of her guilt. Tsinghua withheld her degree. There were rumors that Sun’s politically connected family acted to block the investigation but the unsolved case soon disappeared from view.

Ten years later, in 2005, the case re-emerged as the new social media offered netizens an alternative voice to the government-controlled media. It was framed on the Internet as another egregious example of how powerful families manipulated the Chinese legal system. The case continued to stir interest online though the government remained silent. By now Sun Wei had changed her name to Sun Shiyan and there were rumors that she was living in the United States. Last year Zhu Ling’s overseas supporters initiated an online White House petition demanding an investigation of the major suspect which gathered 100,000 signatures in just three days. The online petition returned Zhu Ling and Sun Wei to the spotlight. “It’s the lack of justice, the unfairness and the feeling that people with privilege can get away with anything,” said a Chinese engineer who lives in the United States. “People have just had enough.” Even in China where a repressive government controls the flow of news, it seems that nothing is ever lost.

The Zhu Ling poisoning provides the basis for Kinder Than Solitude. Li invents a similar case where a young Beijing college student named Shaoai is mysteriously poisoned and invalided for life while no one is prosecuted for the misdeed. But Li has significantly changed the date of the crime from 1995 to 1989, just months after the massacre of students and workers in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The change is crucial as the connection between the two events is made explicit. Li writes: “One day, the neighbors in the quadrangle would refer to this time as the days when Shaoai had been mysteriously sick, as they would speak of the May afternoon when an army tank was overthrown and burned down at a nearby crossroads, or the day in June when Teacher Pang’s cousin pedaled three bodies on his flatbed tricycle from the Square to the hospital.” The connection between the personal and the political is made elliptically. “Life, in retrospect, can be as simple as a collection of anecdotes, and anecdotally we live on, trading our youthful belief in happiness… for the belief in feeling less, suffering little.”


More than the date has been changed. Unlike Zhu Ling, Shaoai is a rebellious student who participated in the Tiananmen protests and has been discharged from the university, thus destroying her hopes for the future. Her fate is entangled with the lives of three younger friends, high school students who are the focus of the novel. The two girls are implicated in Shaoai’s tragedy. Ruyu is an orphan raised by two stern, religious great aunts for whom the “world was a bleak stopover.” Ruyu “deemed what she perceived in their formidable shadow the only life worth living, sterility mistaken for purity, aloofness for devoutness.” Moran is also suffused with loneliness. “To be able, at any moment, to pull up roots minimally put down, to be able to exit without being noticed or missed—these things gave her an odd sense of virginal freedom. Anything concerning the heart leaves it in confusion; she had found this motto in one of the Buddhist books she had read after Shaoai’s poisoning; to desire nothing is to have no vulnerability.”

After the poisoning both young women emigrate to the United States. Their friend, Boyang, stays at home and helps to care for the severely handicapped Shaoai. He becomes a successful entrepreneur in the new China after Tiananmen where, as Deng Xiaopeng said, “it is glorious to be rich.” His success is a caricature of the new Chinese tycoon, complete with an expensive foreign car and a materialistic young mistress. All three marry and divorce, unable to find a solid footing in their brave new worlds. Boyang recognizes the shallowness of the new China while Moran finds American life superficial. At a Thanksgiving dinner she feels out of place in the easy familiarity of family life. “At times the back-and-forth had become a verbal game among the siblings or between a couple, and the ease with they had carried on had given Moran an unreal sense that they lived in a TV show.”

Moran is confounded by the facile optimism and emotional intimacy she encounters in her new environment. “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in,” she complains. “She had seen the phrase often in the newspapers around that time and had found it more than baffling, though only Moran seemed to have doubts about what it meant for the country, for its people, to move on.” But when Shaoai finally dies in 2010, all three friends must confront their inability to “move on” because they had repressed the tragedy. Each discovers there is something “kinder than solitude.”

Yiyun Li is writing about a personal tragedy but the subtext of her novel is clear. By placing the events in 1989 she points to the fatal failure of the Chinese to confront the Tiananmen Massacre. Without that recognition the whole nation cannot “move on.” In an interview Li made clear the connection between the personal and the historical. “If you look at the older generations of characters in the book, they are very attached to Chinese history,” she explains. “They talk about history, they talk about the famine, they talk about the cultural revolution. But this generation of the three friends, they’re a younger generation. You realize they want to detach from history. You know, 1989 happened when they were 16. Tiananmen Square, the massacre there happened during their lifetime. But none of them would admit it played a huge role in their life. So that, I think, really is what has been happening in the past 20 years in China. I think the country’s becoming richer and people are less attached to memories, these certain parts of memories, historical memories.”

The satirical Chan Koonchung makes the point more explicitly. For many who had experienced June 4, 1989 directly, the date would never disappear. But for young Chinese born after 1989 the date has never happened. Chan writes: “For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have had it explained to them by their family or teachers. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history—because no one says anything about it.”

“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” But in the official view, the Tiananmen past is dead because the Party has erased it from public memory. I can attest to the accuracy of this version of today’s China, as I have explained before. In 2010 I was still teaching in Shantou. On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, I showed an English documentary about 1989. My young students, most born after 1989, were stunned. They had never viewed the iconic images so familiar in the West. They had never even seen an image of their disgraced leader, Zhao Zayang, who had been erased from history. Afterwards, when I asked them what they thought of the images they had just seen, a young woman replied that the students of 1989 were very different from her generation. “They were romantic. They had hope,” she explained. “But today we are realists.” I asked her to finish the thought. She was puzzled. I said, if the generation of 1989 were “romantics” who had “hope” what did they make her generation who were “realists”? Did they lack hope for political reform? She brightened when she saw the connection. Yes, she said. Though I knew that many in the large class agreed, nobody said a word.bluestar

* The Party is committed to forgetting but it has a long memory. Among the last to leave Tiananmen Square on the night of June 4 was Liu Xiaobao, the Nobel Prize-winning activist who now sits in prison.
** Chan is not far from the truth. Some years ago I attended a large exhibition in Macao devoted to the life and achievements of Deng Xiaopeng. Missing from the chronology was the year, 1989.



American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Paul Levine is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Copenhagen University. He was born in Brooklyn, attended Wesleyan and Princeton and received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. Levine taught at Wesleyan, Rochester and York (Toronto) Universities before becoming the first Professor of American Literature in Copenhagen (1975-2006). He also held the Salgo Chair in American Studies at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest (1986-9) and directed the annual Athens American Studies Seminar for fifteen years (1994-2009). He publishes widely on literature, art, film and culture. He collaborated with E. L. Doctorow on a volume of the novelist’s Screenplays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and a new edition of America Since 1945: The American Moment, (with Harry Papasotiriou) was published by Palgrave in 2010. He has twice received royal honors in Denmark and holds the title of Ridder af Dannebrogorden, 1st Kl. (2000).Levine first went to China in 2001 at the invitation of the State Department to help create a graduate program in American Studies at ECNU (East China Normal University, Shanghai). In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship at ECNU for three semesters. After retiring from Copenhagen in 2006, he served as director of regional studies and the new Center for International Studies (2007-11) at Shantou University in Guangdong Province. He and his wife, Lily Varidaki-Levine, now live in Copenhagen and Athens.


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