NPR logo Too Soon To Tell: 20 Years After Tiananmen Square


Too Soon To Tell: 20 Years After Tiananmen Square

Commentator and writer Rachel DeWoskin lived in China and starred in the Chinese soap opera Foreign Babes in Beijing. Her new novel is Repeat After Me. Courtesy of Rachel DeWoskin hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of Rachel DeWoskin

Twenty years ago on June 3 and 4 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the People's Liberation Army forcibly cleared the square of pro-democracy protesters who had gathered there.

But June 5 saw one last act of defiance: a solitary man who placed himself in the way of a row of tanks, as if — with nothing but his skinny body and two shopping bags — he might take on the entire military. The tanks tried to reroute around him, but he stepped back into their line and continued to block them. He climbed onto the first tank and knocked against its hull — in an act at once staggeringly defiant and yet oddly pleading. Then he disappeared into the crowd, never to be identified. Twenty years later, the impact of his actions remains as uncertain as his name.

When I lived in China during the 1990s, there were no words for what happened that day. What the West called a massacre, incident or uprising, China referred to only by the simple digits of its June date, 6/4.

At every anniversary of 6/4, I hear Westerners make the strange claim that the passion in China is now for making money, as if forging ahead and remembering history are mutually exclusive. The Chinese people I know care deeply about freedom. But for the children of Cultural Revolution parents, being free has many facets, only some of which are overtly political. People can now move and travel, dress uniquely, study and work at what they want to. They have possessions, international passports and foreign friends. From 6/4 there emerged an unspoken compact between the government and its citizens: We do the politics the old way; you do your lifestyles any way you want.

One of my best friends in Beijing once said that answering questions is the work of propagandists; asking is the task of writers and artists. She meant that there is no agreed-upon vocabulary for 6/4 and that she can live with that ambiguity, as long as a nuanced dialogue continues.

Something about that demand for nuance and the very impossibility of knowing an event's exact meaning, or who its heroes are, makes fiction a compelling way to explore history. Two decades after Tiananmen, I've just finished a novel about how historical moments burrow and regenerate in individuals, whether we're driving, blocking or watching the tanks. The way we make sense of our lives and cultures is by collecting, sorting and creating images and sometimes words.

The true legacy of June 4 is of course still being written. Even 20 years later, it remains like that man we all remember, known everywhere and yet unknowable.

Often, tragic events are markers of time for countries and peoples — 6/4, 9/11, Kent State, the King and Kennedy assassinations, and Katrina. It's the nature of historical thinking that we reach consensus on the markers far before we can agree on their import. The classic Chinese view of history has its set dynastic cycles: founding, glory, decline and fall — the meaning of eras can be evident only in long retrospect. As Zhou Enlai said when asked 200 years after the French Revolution what its impact was: "Too soon to tell."