As I write these characters I have to look a second time to make sure I have them right. That's the thing about this word: it feels remote, but it's so familiar, too.
I can't think of another expression in the modern Chinese language that is such an anomaly - ubiquitous yet somehow invisible. In China today it's only officials who have "the people" on their lips every time they open their mouths, for the people themselves seldom use the term - perhaps they hardly recall its existence. We have to give those voluble officials some credit, for we rely on them to demonstrate that the phrase still has some currency.
In the past this was such a weighty phrase. Our country was called the People's Republic of China. Chairman Mao told us to "serve the people." The most important newspaper was the People's Daily. "Since 1949 the people are the masters," we learned to say.
In my childhood years "the people" was just as marvelous an expression as "Chairman Mao," and when I first began to read, these were the first words I mastered; I could write them even before I could write my own name or the names of my parents. It was my view then that "the people are Chairman Mao, and Chairman Mao is the people."
That was during the Cultural Revolution, and I marched about proudly sharing this insight with everyone I met. They responded with dubious looks, apparently finding something problematic about my formulation, although nobody directly contradicted me. In those days people walked on eggshells, fearful that if they said anything wrong, they might be branded a counterrevolutionary, endangering their whole family. My parents, hearing of my discovery, looked equally doubtful. They eyed me warily and told me in a roundabout way that they couldn't see anything wrong with what I'd said but I still had better not say it again.
But since this was my greatest childhood insight, I couldn't bear to hush it up and continued sharing it with the world at large. One day I found supporting evidence in a popular saying of the time, "Chairman Mao lives in our hearts." I took this to its logical conclusion: "Chairman Mao lives in everyone's heart, so what lives in Chairman Mao's heart? It has to be the entire people." Therefore: "The people are Chairman Mao, and Chairman Mao is the people."
Those doubtful looks among the residents of my little town gradually dissipated. Some people began nodding in approval, and others began to say the same thing 0 my little playmates first, and then grow-ups, too.
But I felt threatened when lots of people started saying "The people are Chairman Mao, and Chairman Mao is the people." In a revolutionary era one cannot claim a patent for anything, and I found my status as inventor was being steadily eroded. "I was the first one to say that," I would declare. But no adults set any store by my claim of authorship, and in the end even my young companions resfused to accept that I deserved credit. Faced with my strenuous arguments or pathetic pleas, they would shake their heads: "No, everybody says that."
I was upset, regretting bitterly that I had made my discovery public. I should have stored it forever in my own mind, safe from anybody else, keeping it for myself to savor my whole life through.
These days the West is astonished by the speed of China's makeover. With the flick of a wrist Chinese history has utterly changed its complexion, much the way an actor in Sichuan opera swaps one mask for another. In the short space of thirty years, a China ruled by politics has transformed itself into a China where money is king.
Turning points in history tend to be marked by some emblematic event, and the Tiananmen Incident of 1989 was one such moment. Stirred by the death that April of the reform-minded Hu Yaobang, college students in Beijing poured out of their campuses to gather in Tiananmen Square, demanding democratic freedoms and denouncing official corruption. Because of the hard line the government took in refusing to engage in dialogue, in mid-May the students began a hunger strike in the square and the locals marched in the streets to support them. Beijing residents were actually not so interested in "democratic freedoms" - it was the attacks on profiteering by officials that drew them into the movement in such huge numbers. At that time Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy had entered its eleventh year, and although the reforms had triggered price increases, the economy was growing steadily and the standard of living was rising. Peasants had benefited from the changes. Factories had yet to close, and workers were yet to become victims. Contradictions were not as acute then as they are now, when society simmers with rage. All we heard then were grumbles and complaints about the way the children of high officials had made themselves rich on our national resources, and those sentiments found a focus in the protests. Compared with today's large-scale, multifarious corruption, the diversion of funds by a minority back then didn't really amount to anything. Since 1990, corruption has grown with the same astounding speed as the economy as a whole.
The mass movement that had begun to sweep across the country quickly subsided amid the gunfire on the morning of June 4. In October of that year, when I visited Peking University, I found myself in a different world, where engagement with affairs of state was nowhere to be found. After nightfall, courting couples appeared by the lakeside and the clatter of mahjong tiles and the drone of English words being memorized were the only sounds that wafted from dorm windows. In the short space of one summer everything had changed so much that it semmed as though nothing at all had happened that spring. Such a huge contrast demonstrated one point: that the political passions that had errupted in Tiananmen - political passions that had accumulated since the Cultural Revolution - had finally expended themselves completely in one fell swoop, to be replaced by a passion for getting rich. WHen everyone united in the urge to make money, the economic surge of the 1990s was the natural outcome.
After that, new vocabulary started sprouting up everywhere - netizens, stock traders, fund holders, celebrity fans, laid-off workers, migrant laborers, and so on - slicing into smaller pieces the already faded concept that was "the people." During the Cultural Revolution, the definition of "the people" could not have been simpler, namely "workers, peasants, soldiers, scholars, merchants" - "merchants" meaning not businessmen but, rather, those employed in commercial ventures, like shop clerks. Tiananmen, you could say, marked the watershed between two different conceptions of "the people"; or, to put it another way, it conducted an asset reshuffle, stripping away the original content and replacing it with something new.
In the forty-odd years from the start of the Cultural Revolution to the present, the expression "the people" has been denuded of meaning by Chinese realities. To use a current buzzword, "the people" has become nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace.
Beijing in the spring of 1989 was anarchist heaven. The police suddenly disappeared from the streets, and students and locals took on police duties in their place. It was a Beijing we are unlikely to see again. A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order. As you walked down the street you felt a warm, friendly atmosphere all around you. You could take the subway or a bus for free, and everyone was smiling at one another, barriers down. We no longer witnessed arguments in the street. Hard-nosed street vendors were now handing out free refreshments to the protestors. Retirees would withdraw cash from their meager bank savings and make donations to the hunger strikers in the square. Even pickpockets issued a declaration in the name of the Thieves' Association: as a show of support for the students, they were calling a moratorium on all forms of theft. Beijing then was a city where, you could say, "all men are brothers."
If you live in a Chinese city, there's on efeeling you never shake off: what a lot of people there are! But it was only wityh the mass protests in Tiananmen Square that it really came home to you: China is the world's most populous nation. Every day the Square was a sea of people. Students who had poured into Beijing from other parts of the country would stand in the square or on a street corner, giving speeches day after day until their throats grew hoarse and they lost their voices. Their audience - whether wizened old men or mothers with babies in their arms - greeted the speakers with respect, nodding repeatedly and applauding warmly, however immature the students' faces or naive their views.
There were comical moments, too. One afternoon I took my place in a dimly lit conference room in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for a meeting of the Capital Intellectual Coalition, a newly formed association of liberal intellectuals in Beijing. As we awaited the arrival of a prominent political scientist named Yan Jiaqi I noticed that some people were taking a newspaper editor to task. His paper had just published a statement by the coalition, and these people were unhappy because their names were low on the list of signatories, beneath the names of less well-known individuals. Why had these nobodies been given a higher ranking? The hapless editor said it wasn't his fault but apologized anyway, nevertheless failing to mollify his critics. This farcical episode came to an end only with the arrival of Yan Jiaqi.
I remember the moment clearly; it was the first and last time I saw him. This distinguished scholar - a close associate of Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Communist Party, who favored a conciliatory line toward the demonstrators - walked in with a somber expression on his face. People quieted down as he delivered a piece of bad news. "Ziyang is in the hospital," he said in a low voice.
In the political context of 1989, for a government leader to be hospitalized could mean only that he had lost power or that he had gone into hiding. Everyone immediately understood the implications. Some began to slip away quietly, and soon they had scattered far and wide, like falling leaves in an autumn gale.
After Tiananmen Zhao Ziyang disappeared from view, and nothing more was heard of him until his death in 2005. Only then did the New China News Agency issue a brief statement: "Comrade Zhao had long suffered from multiple diseases affecting his respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and had been hospitalized for medical treatment on multiple occasions. In recent days his condition deteriorated, and efforts to revive him proved unsuccessful. He died in Beijing on January 17, aged 85."
In China, even if it's just a retired minister who dies, the official announcement will usually be a lot more detailed than this. The statement said nothing about the career of a man who had once been leader of the party and the nation, nor did it mention the date of his memorial service. But word leaked out to a group of petitioners - or "judicial refugees," as they have come to be known - who lived in Beijing South Station. I have no idea through what channels these most disadvantaged of all "people" in China got hold of this information, but they organized themselves and went off to pay their final respects to Zhao Ziyang. They were not authorized to attend, so the police naturally blocked them from entering, but they unfurled a commemorative insscription all the same.
These petitioners had sought legal redress for injuustice and oppression in their home districts, only to find themselves stymied at every turn by bias and corruption in the judicial system. China's extralegal appeals procedure - a remnant of its hallowed tradition of humane government - offers a slender hope that some honest official might dispense justice where law has failed. Petitioners exhaust all their resources as they roam from place to place in search of a fair-minded administrator, and ultimately they make their way to Beijing in the hope that someonein the central government will respond to their pleas. In 2004 the official total of such cases reached 10 million. Their desperate plight almost defies imagination: fighting hunger, they sleep in the streets, only to be harried by the police, driven like beggars hither and yon, and written off by some well-heeled intelelctuals as mentally deranged. It was precisely such "people" who went to bid farewell to Zhao Ziyang in January 2005. They felt that he was "the biggest fall guy in China," a bigger victim of injustice than even they themselves. However much they had suffered, they at least had a chance to petition, but Zhao Ziyang, they said, "had nowhere to take his complaint."
I made a trip back to my home in Zhejiang at the end of May 1989, and after I'd attended to family affairs, I boarded the train back to Beijing on the afternoon of June 3. I lay on my bunk listening to the rumble of the wheels on the tracks; when lights came on in the compartment, I knew that night was falling. At that moment the student protests seemed as long and protracted as a marathon, and I could not imagine when they would end. But when I woke in the early morning, the train was approaching Beijing and the news was coming over the radio that the army was now in Tiananmen Square.
After the gunfire on June 4, the students - from Beijing and from out of town - began to abandon the city. I vividly recall the surging throngs filling the station that morning: just as people were fleeing the capital in droves, I was making an ill-timed reentry. With my bag over my shoulder I stumbled, dazed, into the station plaza. As I collided with people swarming in from the other direction, I realized I would soon be doing exactly the same thing.
When I left again on June 7, service between Beijing and SHanghai had been suspended because a train in Shanghai had been set on fire, so my plan was to take a roundabout route: by train to Wuhan and by boat from there to Zhejiang. Some classmates and I hired a flatbed-cart driver to take us down Chang'an Avenue to the railroad station. Beijing, seething with activity a few days earlier, now looked desolate and abandoned. There was hardly a pedestrian to be seen, only smoke rising from some charred vehicles and a tank stationed at the Jianguomen overpass, its barrel pointing at us menacingly as we crossed. After pushing our way through the scrum outside the ticket office, we finally managed to buy tickets, though it was impossible to reserve seats. As we entered the station we were scrutinized minutely by the soldiers on duty; I was waved in only when they were sure I didn't look like any of the fugitives whose photos appeared on their wantewd list.
Never before or since have I traveled on such a crowded train. The compartment was filled with college students fleeing the capital, and everyone was so crammed together there was not an inch of space between one person and the next. An hour out of Beijing, I needed to use the toilet. It took all my strength to squeeze any distance through the throng, and before I was halfway there I realized that my cause was hopeless. I could hear someone yelling and banging on the door, but the toilet itself was full of people - "We can't open it!" they shouted back. I just had to hold on for the full three hours until we got to Shijiazhuang. There I disembarked and found a toilet, then a pay phone, to appeal for help from the editor of the local literary magazine. "Everything's in such chaos now," he said after hearing me out. "Just give up on the idea of going anywhere else. Stay here and write us a story."
So I spent the next month holed up in Shijiazhuang, but I had a hard time writing. Every day the television broadcast shots of students on the wanted list being taken into custody, and these pictures were repeated again and again in rolling coverage - somthing I've never seen since, except when Chinese atheletes have won gold medals in the Olympics. Far from home, in my cheerless hotel room, I saw the despairing looks on the faces of the captured students and heard the crowing of the news announcers, and a chill went down my spine.
Suddenly one day the picture on my TV screen changed completely. Gone were the shots of detained suspects, and gone was the jubilant commentary. Although manhunts and arrests carried on as before, broadcasts now reverted to the old familiar formula: scenes of prosperity throughout the motherland. A day earlier the announcer had been passionately denouncing the crimes of the captured students, and now he was cheerfully lauding our nation's thriving progress. From that day on, just as Zhao Ziyang disappeared from veiw, so too Tiananmen vanished from the Chinese media. I never saw the slightest mention of it afterward, as though it had never happened. And memories seemed to fade even among those who took part in the protests of spring 1989; the pressures of life, perhaps, allowed little room to revisit the past. Twenty years later, it is a disturbing fact that among the younger generation in China today few know anything about the Tiananmen Incident, and those who do; say vaguely, "A lot of people in the streets then, that's what I heard."
Twenty years may have gone by in a flash, but historical memory, I am certain, does not slip away so quickly. No matter how they currently view the events of 1989, I think everyone who participated in them will find those experiences etched indelibly profoundly in their minds when one day they have occasion to look back at that chapter of their lives.
In my case, the thing that has left the deepest mark on me is a realization of what "the people" means.
Sometimes one needs an opportunity to truly encounter a certain word. We encounter all kinds of words in the course of our lives, and some we understand at first glance and others we may rub shoulders with but never fully understand. "The people" belongs in that second category. It's one of the first phrases I learned to read and write, and it did not truly penetrate my inner being until my thirtieth year, when an experience late one night finally allowed me to undertsand the term in all its potency. It was only when I had a real-life encounter with it - disengaged from all linguistic, sociological, or anthropological theories and definitions - that I could tell myself: "the people" is not an empty phrase, because I have seen it in the flesh, its heart thumping.
It was not the enormous rallies in Tiananmen Square that imparted this understanding, but an episode in another part of town one night in late May 1989. Martial law had been declared by that time; students and residents alike gathered spontaneously to defend every major intersection in Beijing as well as all overpasses and subway exits, to block armed troops from entering Tiananmen Square.
I was then studying at the Lu Xun Literary Institute in Shilipu, on the east side of the city. Practically every lunch-time I would ride my rickety old bike to Tiananmen Square, lingering there through the evening and into the early hours , when I would cycle back to the institute.
Beijing in May can be hot at midday but cold at night. I remember I was wearing only a short-sleeved shirt when I set off after lunch, and by late that evening I was chilled to the bone. As I cycled back from the square an icy wind blew in my face, making every part of me shiver - and every part of my bicycle, too. The streetlights were dark, and only the moon pointed the way ahead. The farther I rode, the colder I felt. But as I approached Hujialou, a current of warm air suddenly swept over me, and it only got warmer as I rode on. I heard a song drifting my way, and a bit later I saw lights gleaming in the distance. Then an astonishing scene appeared before me. Now bathed in warmth, I could see the intersection flooded with light; ten thousand people must have been standing guard on the bridge and the approach roads beneath. They were fervid with passion, lustily singing the national anthem under the night sky: "With our flesh and blood we will build a new great wall! The Chinese people have reached the critical hour, compelled to give their final call! Arise, arise, arise! United we stand...."
Although unarmed, they stood steadfast, confident that with their bodies alone they could block soldiers and ward off tanks. Packed together, they gave off a blast of heat, as though every one of them was a blazing torch.
This was a key moment in my life. I had always assumed that light carries farther than body heat. But that night I realized it is not so, for when the people stand as one, their voices carry farther than light and their heat is carried farther still. That, I discovered, is what "the people" means.
Translated by Allan H. Barr