Remembering Tiananmen Square and its impact on both personal and political levels on the anniversary of the protests

In this blog entry, Belinda Kong, reflects back on the 1989 massacre and how it inspired her  new book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square.

In many ways, I am an unlikely person to have written a book on Tiananmen fictions.  In 1989, I was a thirteen-year-old kid living in Miami, having moved to the States from Hong Kong just three and a half years earlier.  When the Tiananmen demonstrations erupted that spring, I hardly paid any attention; those students in Beijing seemed so remote to me.  I am sure many people have much more vivid memories of watching the protests on TV that spring than I do. 

My own memory is of hearing the news of the massacre the morning after—it would have been June 4th too on this side of the Pacific—from the son of the owner of the Chinese restaurant where my father was working at the time.  I remember being surprised and confused, by the news itself as much as the sight of this Chinese American college student getting incredibly upset.  I remember feeling how unreal it all seemed, the idea that a whole generation of Chinese students could imagine they possessed the power to change their country’s course, camping out for weeks on end in the nation’s most public political space, successfully mobilizing a million citizens to march in the streets in their support, and even facing down government troops and army tanks.  All this seemed to me like a drama unfolding on another planet.

Then, about a dozen years ago, I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, working on my dissertation on Chinese diaspora literature.  This would become the genesis of my book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Squarethough at the time, it was not focused on Tiananmen, and it could hardly be called even a rough draft of the eventual product.  Instead, I was thinking about Chinese identity more generally, about how many Chinese writers in the West could be seen as sharing overlapping concerns about “Chineseness,” whether they had been born and raised in China and went abroad as adults or been born in America and knew only English.  I was trying to bring together some of the most globally visible Chinese writers known to me at the time under a very broad rubric of “writing Chineseness,” regardless of their biographical trajectory or cultural education. 

In many ways, the dissertation was too abstract and did not explain why I discussed some authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan in relation to Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, but not others.  Meanwhile, without conscious design, I kept getting pulled by the literature on Tiananmen, and it took me several years to realize that these were the works that most clarified my thinking about Chineseness.  Almost by accident, I started to clue in that Tiananmen was one pivotal and defining point for both Chinese and diasporic identity in our time, that I had grown up in the wake of its ripple effects, and that many of the writers I was reading were themselves living out the extended legacy of the movement and the massacre.  It took five years or so for this realization to dawn on me, and another five years for me to reframe my book and coalesce it around Tiananmen fictions.

The insight I ultimately arrived at is that Tiananmen was not just a political event but something that has significantly shaped Chinese literature and cultural identity in the post-1989 world.  When we think of Tiananmen, we usually think history, and above all, we think politics—the politics of mass opposition, of calls for democracy vs. totalitarian state power, etc.  Certainly, with Arab spring, this political understanding of Tiananmen resonates with particular force today.  But what is less recognized is that Tiananmen has had a tremendously powerful, productive, and longterm effect on Chinese literature and cultural identity.  And precisely because the topic remains censored to this day in the PRC, precisely because only those abroad could write about it openly and publicly and without evasion, Tiananmen has come to serve as a key point of self-definition for writers in the diaspora.  Tiananmen is a topic that more and more Chinese authors, especially in the West, have come to address in their writing; it is an event that writers continually imagine and reimagine and thereby keep alive and relevant for our contemporary moment, and also a subject that unifies as well as fractures writers.  Above all, Tiananmen has politicized the Chinese literary diaspora: after the massacre, writers show a much stronger tendency to write political fictions that critique either the PRC regime itself or authoritarian uses of state power more generally.  And most strikingly, these fictions on Tiananmen do not remain static but evolve alongside global concerns, as though Tiananmen already anticipates the theoretical vocabularies with which we continually try to make sense of globalization and global life.

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