Monday, October 27, 2008

Spider Web in Tiananmen

(photo from

Last week, many Chinese websites reprinted an article from China Newsweek titled "How the Tiananmen Incident was Redressed." This title is a bit eye-shocking because the term "Tiananmen Incident" in Chinese has also been used to refer to the 1989's June 4th massacre. This article, however, is talking about an earlier "Tiananmen Incident" that took place on April 5th, 1976, also commonly referred as the "4/5 incident."

Common Americans may not be aware of this first "Tiananmen Incident." It happened after Premier Zhou Enlai's death in January 1976 and before Mao's death in September that same year. In the name of the Qingming Festival in April, the traditional time to mourn the dead, Beijing people spontaneously gathered on the Tiananmen Square, placing flowers, wreaths, poems and essays on the "People's Heroes Monument," mostly to grieve the death of Zhou Enlai, some also (in subtle and obscure ways) expressed resentment against members of the "Gang of Four" and hopes for Deng Xiaoping's return to power. The government of the time responded to the peaceful, largely literary, activities with a curfew and armed repression. An unknown number of people were killed and many arrested or denounced. The incident was declared a "counterrevolutionary riot."

I was in the countryside then as an urban "sent-down youth." Some of the best Tiananmen poems and essays, hand copied on notebook paper, circulated through the grapevine to my hand. I still remember the excitement I had in reading those beautifully written poems. After Mao's death and the Gang of Four fell out of power, people began to demand a redressing of the incident. But that did not happen right away.

The China Newsweek article now cites a "thorough redressing" that came two years later. I don't remember the timeline of the redressing exactly, however my own experience contradicts this conclusion. After the Cultural Revolution I was a first-batch undergraduate student at Chongqing University, from spring 1978 to spring 1982. Through those four years I was the chief editor of the student literature journal published on the wall of our main classroom building. We were required to have every piece of prose and poetry approved by the university's Party authority. But knowing the authority's backward and bureaucratic view toward anything and everything, as the editor I always tried to "execute before permission," or 先斩后奏. Sometimes we got away with it, sometimes we got in trouble. One trouble resulted from a student's essay, I think it was either in1979 or 1980, praising the justice expressed by the participants of the "4/5 incident." A Party leader scolded and threatened me and required that I remove the essay, which was already up on the wall and had been read by numerous students. I made all the excuses I could to delay the removal, until two weeks later when a new issue was due. We got away that time, but were watched much more closely thereafter.

I mention this to say by the end of the 1970s or early 1980s, there still hadn't been a "thorough redress" of the 4/5 incident, at least that was the situation at Chongqing University. For all the years after, the topic of that incident remained sensitive. Authorities avoided any mention of it in public, as it wasn't a glorious page in the Party's history.

There are many similarities between the two Tiananmen Incidents that occurred 13 years apart. For example, in both incidents, people demanded political change. In the first one Deng Xiaoping was accused as the "behind-the-scenes backer" of the demonstrators, while 13 years later he made the same accusation against Zhao Ziyang. The surface difference is the lack of tanks in the first crackdown; guns were enough that time. It is a big irony that, in 1976 people called for Deng Xiaoping to return to China's political stage, and in 1989 it was the same Deng Xiaoping who ordered people shot. While Deng is certainly credited with China's economic reform, this is an unwashable stain on his name.

All the above is nothing new to my Chinese readers. However the purpose of this post is actually not a mere review of history. My question is, why does the sensitive term "Tiananmen Incident" - 天安门事件 - (instead of using the term "4/5 incident," for instance) appear in such a prominent way in an official magazine? Why has the report been published now, a time that has no relation to April 5th? Is this a foreshadow to the redressing of the second Tiananmen Incident?

Of course I might be fussing over nothing that has any actual significance. However one thing I learned growing up during the Cultural Revolution is to follow the thread of a spider and tracks of a horse in political weather change. Call it PCRPD (Post-CR Political Disorder). I rather hope I'm right this time though.


Foreign Student said...

For what it's worth, the political course at the university I'm currently studying at in Northern China (I'm friends with a few Chinese students studying for the grad tests) has said something about there being an incident at Tian'an men in the late 1980's that there was a mistake and bad things happened.
They go on to say that it isn't time to bring it up yet fully, but that it's being mentioned is interesting.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Interesting indeed! So how did you respond to this? Did you tell your Chinese friends what you heard from the West media?

foreign student said...

The Chinese friend I heard it from has places no trust in media of any kind, Western or Chinese.
I wasn't entirely sure how to reply so simply said that I'd heard that there had been a large protest in 1989 that had resulted in a number of deaths. I wasn't sure what else to say beyond that as many of the reports and stories I've read has been fairly contradictory on the actual events.
At the time I wasn't sure what eles to say.

Xujun Eberlein said...

I can understand why your friend doesn't trust the media, foreign or Chinese. But is he interested in learning the truth about this history though? If so you can suggest him to ask his parents, or relatives in his parents' generation, who should know perfectly well what happened in 1989.

I would be very curious to know what his parents might say. Thank you very much, foreign student, for communicating with me. Are you an American?

foreign student said...

If I get the chance to bring it up again, I'll ask if her parents have ever told her anything. I'm curious about that too.
I am an American student.

bien said...

It is interesting to see articles on Tiananmen Incident now during a time that is not relevant to neither 4/5 nor 4/6. I recently saw another similar article on Bing Dian (

I'm not sure if the wording of Tiananmen Incident rather than SiWu Incident is deliberate. I seem to see both being used in both Chinese and English (e.g. Wikipedia, Guanyuan Yu's book 1978:我亲历的那次历史大转折).

I hope your intuition is right.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks Bien. I'm going to read the Bing Dian article.