Thursday, June 4, 2009

Time and Tiananmen

Remember how when we are young we think there is so much time? How adults – how teenagers, for god’s sake – seem so much older, a state we could never possibly reach? But then as we get older, time begins to speed up; it’s a race; it’s racing against us.

It boggles my mind that the massacre of Tiananmen Square was twenty years ago. I was in China in May of 1989, just before the second, great wave of demonstrations filled up the square. You may remember that they had first gathered to mourn the death of old boy Hu Yaobang, celebrated as a reformer. Then things sort of dissipated; when we were in the vast authoritarian square, it was largely empty. A big poster of Sun Yat-sen was up; in our ignorance we confused him with the more recently dead Yaobang. We waited dutifully in line to catch a very quick glimpse of the embalmed Mao, or the waxworks that passes for the monster, and moved on to the Forbidden City.

A couple of weeks later, I was back in Iowa (which seemed so blindingly green in comparison to dusty northern China), and Tiananmen was the place to be. Demonstrations were spreading to other cities. Finally, on the night of June 3rd, the military/party dictatorship, terrified of workers coming out to support the students, put their fist into it, punching into the square with columns of tanks. Most of the hundreds – if not thousands – murdered were workers in areas away from the square, a fact the corrupt slugs in power still suppress. In honor of the anniversary, the ruling kleptocrats have clamped down hard on the internet, as if that will kill off memories, while keeping their boots firmly on the necks of the peasantry. (So far the thugs, who are profoundly afraid of their own people, have succeeded in buying off the middle class with baubles and nationalism, but that is thin gruel for the spirit and will not last forever.)

What I remember is the bus ride back to the hotel we were staying in. We had visited my brother’s (since ex) wife’s family for dinner. One of the other guests, a brother-in-law – an expert in, of all things, Dada – announced that hunger strikes had started in Tiananmen. This was meet with profound silence by the old folks, people who had survived the horrors of China’s 20th century. From the back of the bus, we could definitely feel something in the warm spring air: electricity, hope, promise? Or just “time’s winged chariot hurrying near”?

I was visiting my girlfriend, who was over there for a year teaching English. We were engaged. She had fallen in love with her upstairs neighbor. Complications. One day we made love on the Great Wall, in an unreconstructed guardhouse (we were trespassing) with the smell of wild onions filling our noses. It was one of those spring mornings that is cool to begin with, then suddenly hot as the sun draws up over the rugged, scrubby hills, a morning that seems like it will never end.

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