Remembering and forgetting Tiananmen Square


Poet Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence for his subversive writing and activities in China. (Photo courtesy of Voice of America via Wikimedia Commons.)

For 23 years Chinese poet Liu Xiaobo has been writing commemorative poems about the June Fourth Incident.

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Xiaobo's new book "June Fourth Elegies" is a collection of poems he has penned over the past two decades while being in and out of prison for his subersive politics. According to the book's translator, Jeffery Yang, Xiaobo has written emotionally loaded poems every spring since 1989.

"I was given a copy of June Fourth Elegies, the Chinese edition, the emotional impact was immediate," Yang said. "The whole structure of the book was unusual. It was written over the span of 20 years. It's very gritty, it's also lyrical in a way. It moves between a bleak darkness to a hopeful vein."

Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned just days after the Tiananmen Square Protests. In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but was not allowed to leave prison to receive the prize in person. 

Reporter Mary Kay Magistad said the Chinese Government has gone to great lengths to silence people like Xiaobo who have been outspoken about what took place in Tiananmen Square.

"The government makes a point every year of rounding up dissidents or activists or people who are known to speak out about what happened on June 4, 1989. They take them outside of Beijing, away from anyone who could interview them," Magistad said.

According to Magistad, the Chinese Government has also taken to censoring online dialogue about Tiananmen Square by blocking key search terms.

"They've been blocking obvious things like 'crackdown', 'tanks', 'gunfire', 'protestor.' But also things like 'candle', 'fire', 'anniversary', 'today', 'tomorrow', 'Victoria Park', 'silent tribute' and 'black clothes' because some Chinese people were calling for people to stroll in the streets wearing black clothes as a sign of remembrance for the dead," Magistad said. "It's several dozens of terms, probably hundreds."

Magistad said the Chinese Government has overwritten the collective memory of the Tiananmen demonstrations with nationalist messages. 

"After the Tiananmen crackdown, the Chinese Government started a program of patriotic education in schools to try to encourage the younger generation to think about the common enterprise of China gaining it's rightful place in the world as the top nation," Magistad said. "Of course it did not talk about the Tiananmen crackdown except to say there was this disturbance by counter-revolutionaries and some members of the People's Liberation Army were killed. When I've talked to young people over the last few years, I've been shocked at the lack of knowledge about what happened in 1989, and also the lack of interest."

Despite the government's tough measures to erase the incident from history, Magistad said she saw interesting ways of marking the anniversary this year.

"There was a little protest in a Southern town far away from Beijing, and then very interestingly, in Shanghai, the stock exchange, the composite index, closed down 64.89 points," Magistad said. "Now that might just sound like a random number but break it down six, four, eight, nine, is June 4, 1989. That was commented on quite a lot on China's version of Twitter, Weibo."

Occasionally, voices of dissent slip through the cracks. Even while incarcerated in prison, Liu Xiaobo has been able to release his work to the larger world. Yang said Liu's writing is at once painful and heartening.

"The imagery is tragic, but also filled with this emotional core for those survivors of Tiananmen, and also for those who are seeking reparations who lost loved ones," Yang said. "It's trying to remember, and say we can't forget this moment in history that has been erased from the national consciousness."