DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago, the world was shocked by footage of Chinese soldiers opening fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. This morning, we have a chance to view what happened there from a completely different perspective, through the eyes of one of those soldiers. NPR's Louisa Lim met him as she was revisiting the events in Tiananmen while researching her new book "The People's Republic Of Amnesia." Louisa found this soldier's role on the square has informed his new life as an artist.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A small girl shines a flashlight in a darkened room. The pool of light hits the walls, which have been painted over with numbers, years in fact. When the lights come on, an artist, his mouth muzzled with a mask, whitewashes the walls, obliterating the dates. The years on the wall begin at 1989. It was, in a way, year zero for the artist Chen Guang. Then he was a 17-year-old from a small town, who happened to be one of the soldiers sent to clear Tiananmen Square on June the 4, 1989.

CHEN GUANG: (Through translator) They said clear the square. But we didn't know how to clear it. There were so many people there. How do you make them leave? We were just waiting for orders. Whatever the higher-ups said, we do.

LIM: When we met last year, he told me how the troops had waited for hours, guns in hands, standing behind the doors of the Great Hall of the People, waiting for the order to deploy into the square. Outside, a broadcast warned people to leave the square immediately. Earlier, Chen had traveled to the square dressed in civilian clothing, in a public bus packed full of guns and ammunition. Now the nervous, young soldiers were waiting to use those weapons. As the door opened, a murmur passed down the line from soldier to soldier.

GUANG: (Through translator) There wasn't a clear, direct order or anything like that. But the guys up front would tell the guys behind that, if you run into danger, you could open fire. And that was an order from above. No one said it directly.

LIM: As he stood there, facing the students, Chen Guang was saved from having to use his gun. His hands were shaking from nerves and bad health. And officers saw Chen struggling and gave him a camera, telling him to take photos instead. Chen climbed up onto the roof of the Great Wall of the People. From there, he could hear the continuous rattle of gunfire.

GUANG: (Through translator) At this time, it wasn't clear where the gunfire was coming from. It was coming from everywhere. I could see the shooting, but I couldn't see if it was aimed at the students. I was high up and they were far away.

(SOUND BITE OF SONG, "THE INTERNATIONALE")

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language).

LIM: He watched as the students, tiny as ants far below, clustered around a monument, singing the communist anthem, "The Internationale." Finally, at 4 in the morning, the students negotiated their exit from the square. They filed out, weeping and exhausted. As the students left, they were applauded by Beijing residents, the same people who shouted abuse at the soldiers, calling them dogs and fascists.

But at that moment, Chen Guang's main emotion was relief. He believed the soldiers had been firing warning shots into the air. And he still thought there'd been no major loss of life. It was only later that he discovered how people had died on the approach roads, as the news spread that troops had opened fired on unarmed civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: Darkness has fallen over China's capital of Beijing, after day of anguish, disbelief and violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: We should live peacefully. We don't want army. We don't want gunshot and the fire - and the army firing on the innocent people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: The most tragic event happened in the Chinese capital, Beijing. Thousands of people, most of them innocent civilians, were killed by fully armed soldiers.

LIM: That last broadcast was made by an employee of Radio Beijing, who spent four years in jail for telling the world what had happened. No one knows how many people died that night. But almost immediately, the atmosphere in Beijing changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: (Foreign language spoken).

LIM: On television, the soldiers were praised. The protests were denounced as counterrevolutionary riots that needed to be quelled.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

LIM: Rallies supporting the Communist Party were held in Tiananmen Square. In a kind of victory lap, Chen Guang and his comrades were sent to give speeches in schools. People stopped to thank them in the street. This wasn't motivated by fear, but another deep-seated instinct that baffled Chen Guang.

GUANG: (Through translator) Why was it like that? On June 4, all the residents supported the students. So overnight, how did they come to support the soldiers? It's a survival mechanisms that people in China have evolved. In order to exist, everything is about following orders from above.

LIM: There was a special flag raising ceremony for the troops. Chen Guang was given a medal and a commemorative watch, a souvenir for his part in the crackdown. He wore it for two years. Then he gave it away. By then, he'd left the army and was studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Its students had made the Goddess of Democracy statue that was toppled by Chen's Army comrades in Tiananmen Square. He didn't tell people about his past.

GUANG: (Through translator) I didn't want to think about it, but it was never forgotten. It was always in your mind. And over time, you run into a problem of creativity. As you immerse yourself in creating something, you find that you have to face yourself. Through yourself, you think about the future of the country and the past.

LIM: It took him almost 15 years to face himself. Then through art, he transported himself back to the pivotal moment in his life, when he lost his innocence in Tiananmen Square.

Chen Guang painted those scenes again and again, creating art that could not be publicly shown. His army buddies hated his work. After all, they'd gained good jobs from defending the motherland. His art world friends thought he was crazy to paint stuff he couldn't sell. Through art, Chen Guang wanted to address this ultimate taboo. But he found there is a cost.

GUANG: (Through translator) Of course you pay a price. You can't survive in China's mainstream. You find that world is no longer yours.

LIM: Twenty-five years on, that cost may be higher than he'd imagined. Chen Guang never thought his most recent performance, whitewashing those walls painted with the years, would cause him trouble. Now he's in police detention. No one even knows what crime he's accused of committing, apart from remembering that which is supposed to be forgotten. Louisa Lim, NPR News.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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