Tiananmen and China’s 1980s

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

A conversation with Geremie Barmé, Zha Jianying, and Eugene Wang about the culture of a decade in China noted for a widespread feeling of hope and experimentation. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

In thinking about how to put together a unique show on the 30th anniversary of the June 1989 Beijing massacre, we were fascinated to learn about the decade before the fateful crackdown with its hopes for reform; the era was also a unique time of cultural freedom. At the time Jianying was at Peking University; Eugene Wang was at Fudan University in Shanghai. Students were inhaling western philosophy, poetry and history. Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche and Roland Barthes (translated by Eugene Wang) were all best-sellers. Eugene was also Allen Ginsberg’s translator in 1984 during Ronald Reagan’s visit to China, and he read us a poem Ginsberg wrote called “One Morning I Took a Walk in China.”

Students danced with wooden silvered swords, twirling on hard packed muddy earth/as I walked out Hebei University’s concrete North Gate,/across the road a blue capped man sold fried sweet dough-sticks, brown as new boiled doughnuts. In the gray light of sky, past popular tree trunks, white washed cylinders topped/with red band the height of a boy — Children with school satchels sang and walked past me…

One way to get caught up on the Tiananmen Square protests is to watch The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary co-written by one of our guests, Geremie Barmé, considered to be the very best documentary ever produced about China according to people we respect.

Who in the world is Geremie Barme’?

The fun of this job is the discovery and surprise that comes along with the research we do for each week’s show. Eugene Wang was the first to tell us about Geremie Barmé, an Australian who’s considered one of the world’s leading China scholars. Each of our guests and many others we spoke to say he’s the smartest and most learned person in the field, with on-the-ground experience in China since the early 70s.

All of our research this week got us wanting to hear more about the world around the protest movement and its culture, which Zha Jianying spoke about and has written about in her book, Bashi Niandai Fangtanlu (The Eighties). The book only exists in Chinese at this point, but on this episode, we were lucky to hear her describe the political and cultural atmosphere of 1980s China, which paved the way to that romantic spring and tragic summer in 1989.

You can also view these rare photos from the 1989 Tiananmen protests, recently made available by Jian Liu:

Photo by Jian Liu.
Beijing residents taking stock of the demonstrations in late April. Credit Jian Liu
In mid-May, about a week after students began a hunger strike. Credit Jian Liu

We had other help when it came to learning about Chinese history over the past few decades—the historian Julian Gewirtz of Harvard spoke to us, and has also written a book on recent history, Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, American Economists, and the Making of Global China.

Read: Hai Zi

Eugene Wang told us about the poet Hai Zi, a luminous and tragic poet of the 1980s. Here’s an edition of translated poems by Hai Zi—they can be difficult to find in English translation. Here are some lines from “Song: Light Strikes the Ground,” translated by Ye Chun:

Sunlight strikes the ground
It might not be
that my chest hurts
What if it does hurt?
Sunlight strikes the ground

Eugene also shared the poem of Hai Zi’s he read on air, “Facing the Sea, With Spring Flowers Blossoming” — his swan song, written before he committed suicide.

Listen to: Cui Jian

Cui Jian at the 2007 Hohaiyan Gongliau Rock Festival.

When you talk to people about the culture surrounding the Tiananmen protests of 1989, you’ll often hear about Cui Jian, the first major rock star in China. Geremie Barmé spoke briefly with us about Cui Jian in that regard. In Cui Jian’s music, you can hear some of the yearning that characterized that time.

Watch: To Live

To Live is a great movie made by the renowned film maker Zhang Yimou (“Red Sorghum,” “Raise the Red Lantern,” and “The Story of Qiu Ju”) based on the novel by Yu Hua (Chris interviewed Yu Hua during his trip to China a few years ago).

Next Week: George Packer

From left Fred Logevall, George Packer, Adam Colman and Chris

Next week we’ll have our conversation with George Packer, who wrote a page-turner of a biography of Richard Holbrooke: Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.

Chris included our friend, the historian Fred Logevall, who’s almost finished with volume one of his JFK biography. It will be a fantastic show about what Chris calls “the strange sad case of Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who nominated himself for the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Balkan Wars, and never got it. In his head, Holbrooke was the American Century. In a new biography, Holbrooke marked the end of it. American power on trial.” Tune in next week!

This Week’s Ephemeral Library:

Read “The Answer,” by Bei Dao, a poem whose opening lines, in this translation by Bonnie McDougall, are: “Debasement is the password of the base, / Nobility the epitaph of the noble.” Ta-Nehisi Coates has a short story in this week’s New Yorker.

That’s all for this week. Get outside and enjoy this spectacular day! Happy Birthday Sam!!!!

The OS Squad

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org