April 2009

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2009.

By Rana Mitter

The May Fourth Movement – so famous in China it doesn’t need a year, although 1919 – the year it happened – has become legendary too. On that date, some three thousand students marched through Beijing demonstrating against Japanese imperialism and started a political movement that would become identified with Chinese demands for “science” and “democracy” through the next century. From the Cultural Revolution to Tian’anmen Square, May Fourth echoes through China’s modern history. The Chinese Communist Party still claims the movement as its point of origin. On May 4, 2009, the movement will be ninety years old. In some ways, its significance to China is like that of the Sixties in the West – a celebration of youth and possibility combined with often extremist and hardcore politics.

But what was this event, why did it matter, and how can you find out more about it?

Here are five ways into this fascinating topic – famous in China, little-known in the West.

1. Jonathan Spence, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Viking Penguin 1981): still the classic account of the May Fourth generation and their revolution. Sweeping account that goes from the late Qing all the way to the end of the Cultural Revolution, with May Fourth intellectuals at its heart.
2. Lu Xun, Diary of a Madman. Iconic short story by China’s major modern writer, written on the eve of the seminal events of May Fourth, 1919. Searing indictment of traditional Confucian society. Translations into English by Gladys Yang and William Lyell.

3. Vera Schwarcz, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (1986). This is a fine academic account of the movement and its consequences – not for the beginner, but very subtle.

4. Chen Duxiu, “Call to Youth.” Chen’s call to China’s youth to “save the nation” in 1919 symbolizes the May Fourth Movement’s attempt to overcome Confucian attempts to venerate age and instead celebrate youth.

5. “Acting Out Democracy: Political Theater in Modern China,” Joseph W. Esherick and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, in Journal of Asian Studies (November 1990) – classic article on how the 1989 student protesters in China “acted out” their political protests with references to the past.

Rana Mitter is Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford University and the author of works such as A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and Modern China: A Very Short Introduction.


By the end of this post, readers will have been able to click on a word to be introduced to the sounds of “Redgrass Music” (a genre that uses Chinese instruments in a novel manner), seen the special look of a curious vehicle recently displayed in Shanghai that one journalist has said should be called a “Lexiac” ( like a Pontiac from the front, like a Lexus from behind), and discovered something important that Zhang Yimou and Jane Austen have in common (hint: surprise appearances by the undead are involved in each case). First, though, some background about “mash-ups” (aka “mash ups” and “mashups”), for “China Beat” has dealt with this subject before and even run pieces with mash-up-like titles, but never before confronted the phenomenon of contemporary mash-up mania head on.

The first point to stress is that mash-ups are not completely new by any means. Even if the term has a short history, the mixing and matching it suggests has been taking place in China as well as all sorts of other place for ages. Fusion food was already a big thing way back in the twentieth century. (And what were nineteenth-century creations like chop suey and chow mein if not a kind of culinary mash-up avant la lettre?) Artists have been bringing together elements from and playing with juxtapositions of features of different genres and even different media for centuries, even if it is only recently that such efforts have been called “mash-ups,” “samplings,” or “post-modern” efforts. Turning from cuisine and art to politics, China is one of many countries that has a long experience with approaches to ideology that involve striking juxtapositions of concepts and assumptions, with just two of many examples being the effort by the Taipings (1848-1864) to fuse aspects of Christian eschatology with various kinds of indigenous concepts and the current experiment with “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” which Nicholas Kristoff has dubbed “Market Leninism,” a term that captures even more effectively the mash-up-like quality of the approach.

Still, one could certainly argue that, thanks partly to the ease with which new technologies allow for re-mixing and combining, there’s something special about the current rage for various kinds of mash-ups. (Even though the literary one currently making news, which features Austen characters battling zombies could have been published before the days of computers; it could just not, as the creator has noted, been published before Pride and Prejudice went out of copyright and entered the public domain.) The mash-up has become so omnipresent that there’s not just one entry for the term in Wikipedia, which likes the hyphen-less spelling of this sort of hybridity, but four separate ones, running the gamut from “Mashup (digital)” to “Mashup (web application hybrid),” with “Mashup (music),” aka “bootlegging,” and “Mashup (video),” aka having fun with YouTube (a format that has introduced new audiences to such classics that of the genre that pre-date the coining of the M word as “Bambi Meets Godzilla”
and “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island”), in between.

This said, I’ll invite readers to figure out where exactly they fall on the spectrum that runs from the “there’s nothing new under the sun” to “the coming of the web has changed everything” continuum where mix-and-match creations are concerned, and simply make what they will of these 5 mash-ups created within the PRC (the first two of which have ties to the Warcraft family of games, whose popularity in China we’ve dealt with before on this site, here and here:

1. Pride and Patriotism and Zombies (hat tip to Danwei)…

Not content to wait to see exactly how Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games, handles the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, some Chinese students, who don’t seem to have a satirical intent (but I’m not sure how one would know if they did) have come up with this version of that upcoming event (the real thing takes place October 1, 2009), substituting monstrous and mythical characters from Warcraft 3 (like those shown below) for the humans who will actually do the marching that day.

2. One World (of Warcraft), One Dream

In a similar vein, here, from the ChinaSmack site, is a monstrous mash-up, featuring World of Warcraft characters, which has fun with the song that was used to whip up excitement for the Beijing Games (note the original version of the song below it, which has Jackie Chan and other celebrities taking turns with the lyrics).

3. Redgrass Music (hat tip to James Millward of “The World on a String” blog, and Chris Hesselton for alerting me to the good post awaiting me there)…
The music speaks for itself if you click here.

4. Confucian Blues

Staying with music, there’s a fascinating video of novelist/vocalist Liu Sola available here, originally broadcast on CCTV, which looks at her writings and includes clips of her on-stage experiments with fusing styles as dissimilar as Chinese Opera and American Blues.

5. Last and Maybe Least, the Lexiac…
Shown here with front and back views, of course…

China Beat sent out a note to a few scholars and journalists who have carefully watched and written about the events of 1989, asking them to send in short commentaries detailing what they wish more people knew, associated with, or remembered about that spring. We ran the first piece in this limited series, by John Gittings, on April 23, the second, by Jonathan Unger, on April 26. This is the third piece.

Yang Guobin is an Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College.  He has written essays on many subjects, including the students protests of 1989, and is the author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, which will be published in June by Columbia University Press.

Media played an important role in the mobilization of Chinese protesters in 1989. Twenty years afterwards, the protest movement is still linked to media, except that it is now the new media. The Internet has become a reservoir of the history and memories of that fateful year.

The most comprehensive English-language material on the Internet is perhaps the web site The Gate of Heavenly Peace run by the Long Bow Group. Because it is already well known to readers of China Beat, I will mention two other sources.

One is CND’s “Virtual Museum of China ’89.” CND has a large “Virtual Museum of the ‘Cultural Revolution,” which I often use. Its “Virtual Museum of China ’89” is smaller in scale, but nonetheless contains many valuable resources. The archives of the “Virtual Museum of China ’89”consist of “Images,” “Sounds,” “Writings” and other documents related to the protest movement. The “Writings” section contains, among other things, a diary by a student in Tsinghua University, two novels, ten special issues about the movement published in English from 1989 through 1999, and many special supplements published in Chinese from 1992 through 1999. The diary had many touching details. For example, the entry for May 20, 1989, the first day of martial law, begins with the following words (in my hasty and awkward translation):

The morning sun lit the Square once again. Nothing happened. No troops were in view. Then there came news from all quarters that this morning, at the main crossroads in the suburbs, local residents spontaneously hit the streets, formed human walls, and blocked the troops from entering the city! I was surprised and extremely moved to hear this news. Who would have thought that Beijing’s residents could do such brave things! Beijing residents were just great!…Because the hunger strike had ended, the medical personnel sent to the Square by the Red Cross began to withdraw today. The two young girls who worked as nurses in our broadcast station were leaving  too. They were reluctant to go and asked us to sign our names on their white uniforms and hats, saying that they didn’t know when we could ever meet again.

The other source is a photo exhibit I found here. The photographer was Kiang Hei. I communicated with him a couple of years ago but have since lost touch with him and haven’t been able to find out the circumstances under which he took these pictures. But the pictures are soul-stirring. For anyone who was there on the scene, they would instantly bring back the sounds and silences and the joys and desolateness of the time. Who was the woman in this picture? What was she saying to the young man facing her, with others in the background listening attentively? The characters written on the yellow paper mean “Children are the future of our country’s democratic movement.” The children of 1989 have grown up. Are they living up to these expectations? The bulletin boards shown in the photograph here look like those in the famous sanjiaodi (Triangle) area in Beida. I passed that area whenever I visited Beida. Eventually, as China forged ahead with its market transformation, the same bulletin boards became plastered all year round with advertisements of TOEFL and GRE preparation classes. Then in 2007, these stands, so closely tied to Beida’s political history, were demolished.

These are not the only traces of 1989 in cyberspace. But they are particularly unforgettable.

Tags: ,

China Beat checks in regularly with Xujun Eberlein at her blog Inside-Out China, and we’ve run pieces by Xujun in the past. In early April, she ran another in her series of translations of Chinese materials. We thought this continuation of her translation of Professor Sun Liping‘s works on social protest was interesting enough to reproduce in full (with Xujun’s permission).

By Sun Liping (translated by Xujun Eberlein)

Note: About a month ago I translated an essay from Prof. Sun titled “The Biggest Threat Is not Social Unrest but Societal Breakdown.” His rational and perceptive view attracted wide interest from readers, and that post was linked by many influential websites, including WSJ’s China Journal and Danwei.org. For further discussion, I here translate another, more recent article from Prof. Sun. Note his none-confrontational language in treating a confrontational subject, which makes his arguments much easier to consider by different sides. Just one little quibble from me: he makes the US sound too perfect. :-) – Xujun)

[In translation]

Looking back at the mass incidents over the recent few years, one can find a fluctuating curve: Before 2005 it trended upward, was down a bit in 2006 and 2007, and rose again in 2008. What can we make of these trends?

Faced with the same facts, different judgments lead to different paths. For example during the global economic crisis of the 1930s, the situation in the US was the most severe, with very sharp and prominent social conflict. However the Roosevelt administration carried out a series of changes and saved America’s democracy and prosperity. Under the same economic crisis however, German, Italy and Japan turned to fascism.

A system needs an easy spirit
The first problem that needs to be resolved is how to view and position social conflict; this is a more important issue than social conflict itself.

A system is not a dead thing; it too has a thinking process, but it is different from that of an individual. Something that everyone understands in everyday life might not be comprehendible by the system. For example during the Cultural Revolution, when a person accidentally broke Chairman Mao’s statue, everyone knew he was just being careless, but the system did not have the vocabulary for “accidental behavior.” You broke Chairman Mao’s statue, you must receive punishment.

Several years ago a serious mass incident occurred in Sichuan. The cause was a simple one: the construction of a power station occupied some farmland, and the conflicting interests evolved into a mass incident. At the beginning, the local government viewed the incident as a farmers’ armed riot, and treated it rigidly, which intensified the conflict. Later the central government re-evaluated the incident and gave farmers compensation, thus easily resolving the conflict. This shows that how the system views social conflict is very important.

There exist various conflicts and clashes in society, such as political, ideological, religious, and cultural ones. But the majority are conflict of interest. This actually is a most rational kind of conflict, but our positioning is often problematic. We are accustomed to political, ideological viewpoints, therefore when treating conflict the government is excessively tense and often overreacts.

A system is like a person, and it can be overcautious. Think about it: if it is all-day heavy-hearted, miserable, tense and unsmiling, how can it solve problems well? A system needs an easy spirit. This expression came from football commentary: Watching Chinese playing football, sometimes an early loss can lead to a final win, but leading first will surely cause a final failure. Why? Because the team becomes overcautious. When facing social conflict, we need also to have a normal mentality, an easy spirit. The “easiness” comes from accurate positioning. Only when positioned accurately, can problems be properly solved.

A system needs more self-confidence when facing social conflict
The biggest achievement in the 30 years of reform and opening-up is the establishment of a market economy. Whether a market economy is a “good” one, I think there are three measures: first, whether the system itself is healthy and complete; second, whether there is a good judicial basis; third, whether there is a supporting mechanism to balance interests. The third point is especially important.

Fundamentally, in a society different classes, groups and individuals should have a balanced capacity to fight for their own interests; their rights should be equal. In the past, China used an economic model of redistribution, for example the state designated a person’s salary as level one or level two, so there were no fights between people. A market economy is different; people have to fight for their interests by themselves.

During the 1930s recession in the United States, a new policy of theRoosevelt administration was to have unions play a role, thus establishing an interest balancing mechanism, which effectively solved the labor relations problem, and alleviated various conflicts. After that, the entire social situation had a fundamental transformation.

However we should note one point: it is not that, once an interest balancing mechanism is in place, the poor can become the rich, the powerless can become the powerful. An interest balancing mechanism is only a basic condition for a “good market economy.”China’s reality is that a market economy is established, but an interest balancing mechanism has yet to be.

Take the example of mass incidents, the majority of them are rightful expression of interest. It’s like when children run into unsolvable problems, they cry to call their parents’ attention. There must be a mechanism to let people express their demands. In this situation, we should have a new understanding of social conflict.

First, social conflict and clashes are part of social normalization. To depend on strict guardianship and the elimination of problems at their embryonic stage is not going to work any more. The government needs to gradually adjust to a society with conflict and clashes.

Second, don’t always regard social conflict and clashes as negative factors. On a certain level they also play a positive role. One is as a safety valve: through demonstration etc, people’s discontent and stress get released, thus avoiding a direct impact on social stability. Another is as a means to problem discovery. For example when migrant workers wages were held in arrears, at the worst time the unpaid amount reached 100 billion nation-wide. Why in the end did the Premier have to demand the wages for migrant workers be paid? If demonstrations were regarded normal, and migrant workers were able to walk on the streets and talk about their demands at an earlier stage, the situation might not have evolved to such a severe level. When there is no mechanism to uncover problems, the government is not able to keep abreast of developments and to respond, and problems will accumulate to an irresolvable level until mass incidents break out.

Third, we need to form a new concept: the distinction between a good system and a bad one, or a good society and a bad one, is not whether there are conflict and clashes. Rather it should be (1) whether the system or society has the capacity to contain conflict, and how big that capacity is; (2) whether it can institutionalize a mechanism to resolve conflict. A good social system is self-confident when facing social conflict. Otherwise it’s seized with panic when conflict is still at an embryonic stage.

In the United States, millions demonstrated on the streets to object to the war on Iraq. Did anyone think American society unstable? No. Then why, when a few dozen migrant workers demand unpaid wages on the streets, does the Chinese government act as if it is being attacked by a giant enemy? This shows a lack of self-confidence.

“Rigid stability thinking” needs to be abandoned
If we analogize social conflict to water, then there are no worries in the US, because the water there is running in a channel. Which direction it runs to, where it makes turns, where it’s swift, where it’s slow, all are predictable. But in China there is not a channel; when water comes, no one knows where it will run to, thus the only defense is to build dams everywhere. For this, the only solution is to build a channel, that is, to establish rules and procedures, to enhance institutional construction.

At the beginning of 2008, the China Eastern Airline’s pilot strike was a typical “flood disaster,” in the end there was no winner: the pilots had a heavy loss, their professional integrity was in doubt; the airline also had a heavy loss, tickets were forced to be discounted as was its reputation.

As a matter of fact, pilot strikes are common in other countries, but there are rules and procedures – pilots must first negotiate with the airline; if agreement is not reached, pilots submit a strike petition to the union; after a voting process that passes the petition, then the strike can begin. That is, there is a procedure for strikes. In this sense, China doesn’t have such a thing as “strike.” What the Eastern Airline’s pilots did was called “stop flying,” and what the taxi drivers did was called “stop driving.”

If the legitimacy of strikes is not acknowledged, then there will be no way to regulate them, and no way to set up a resolution method. Today the Eastern Airline’s strike is still unsolved, because no one knows who led the strike, thus there is no way to talk.

Why so far are we still unable to set up institutionalized solution methods and interest balancing mechanism under a market economy? Because we are held back by one thing: the “rigid stability thinking.” The debate on the “Labor Contract Law” is a good example. The contact protects labor interest, and presses for the interest balancing mechanism, that much is agreed to. But the enterprises are all bitterly complaining about this law. Is this simply because of the selfishness of the capitalists? No, the fundamental problem is: this law is an attempt to use government-set regulations to replace equality in the game between interest bodies.

In fact, under a market economy, the government only needs to manage three things: one, set and hold a baseline; two, set up and guard game rules; three, adjust or mediate when the game reaches a deadlock. The agenda for the negotiation is set by the sides. However, our present situation is that the government is most afraid to let the sides talk among themselves, fearing the talk would hurt social stability. “Stop talking, I’ve set the agenda for you.” The government always keeps its hand on the market economy.

In the decades before reform, we always overrated the situation of class struggle. Now, some officials overrate the nature of mass incidents, and this forms the “rigid stability thinking.” But did stability overpower corruption or counterfeiting? No. In the end, it is our ability to express rightful interest that is overpowered.

Bottom line: one of the tools used by some vested interest groups is to distort the concept of “stability.” In addition, some scholars think the social crisis is very serious, possibly able to cause big unrest, but that is a baseless worry. Using a normal mentality to factually judge and position the present social conflict and clashes, and solve them using an institutionalized approach, that is the real way out.


Philip J Cunningham marched with student protesters in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and conducted interviews with student activists for BBC and ABC news. His memoir of that time, Tiananmen Moon; Inside the Chinese Student Uprising in 1989, will be published in May by Rowman & Littlefield, but he will be sharing excerpts of it here (such as the first and second in this series).

By Philip J Cunningham

For the second time in a day I’m on the run with Chai Ling. For the second time in a month I find myself in a beat-up jalopy racing towards the Beida student center at Sanjiaodi. Again I am huddled together with members of the vanguard, only this time it’s not musicians wanting to know what the students are up to but the student leadership itself.

The interior of a moving van is a reasonably good place to hide, assuming the driver is trustworthy and the vehicle not bugged. Chai Ling sits behind me in the third row, curled up like a kitten, snuggled next to her puppy dog husband Feng Congde. They look like feuding lovers who have just made up. I am seated in the middle of the second row with a bodyguard named Yang on one side, a professor on the other. Way in the back, and up front, yet more students are squeezed in, keeping pretty much to themselves.

The driver turns north then eventually works his way west. Chai Ling is reviewing the familiar scenery with the intense appreciation of someone ready to take an extended trip abroad. Both she and her husband had been talking about studying abroad; maybe they had one foot out the door already. Start a revolution, then fly away in time for the start of a new school year.

“There’s that restaurant!” she exclaims. A few minutes later, she gets nostalgic about another landmark known to her and her husband. “Remember the time we went there?”

The mop-headed driver, who could have passed for the fifth Beatle, zooms at high speed along the ring road, only shifting gears to slow the van down when we get to the busy streets of Haidian District.

“Do you think we could visit Beida one more time?” Chai Ling asks. She does not seem to be addressing the question to anyone in particular.

“That’s possible,” the bodyguard next to me says after a pause. “But let’s wait till it gets dark.”

“Beida, Beida, I want to go to campus! I want to go home one last time!” she pleads with a girlish flair.

Talk turns to politics again. I choose not intrude and cannot fully grasp what is going on, but I don’t want to bring undue attention to myself asking too many questions. From what I could gather, Chai Ling is still on the verge of running away, but due to the intervention of her husband and some friends, she dumped Wang Li and is now going to postpone “going underground” until a more necessary and appropriate time. More importantly, she seems to be enjoying some kind of high-level support for her political line, and even the protection of bodyguards. If so, who was the ultimate protector?

Are the students working in tandem with protégés of the fallen Zhao, or perhaps a military protector? There had been rumors of old generals being supporters of the cause, but students also liked to say they were free agents, not aligned to any faction. That’s what the May 27 meeting was about.

Who could possibly be lending support to the students at this late stage, enough tacit support to make them utterly unafraid of arrest in the Beijing Hotel? Was it Public Security? A rogue intelligence group? Or just plucky citizen volunteers?

And how does the interview we did this morning fit into all this? At that time she expressed disappointment with fellow students but she also talked of overthrowing the government! ABC News had already indicated they were going to use the tape, and it was nothing if not highly incriminating. If Chai Ling is still in town when the interview is aired, her likeness and passionately expressed anti-government ideas will be all that much better known.

Finally, I decided to interrupt their back-seat musings. “Chai Ling?”
“Hi, Jin Peili,” she smiles as I turn around to face her.
“You know, that interview, the interview today, you said a lot of things that could, like, get you in trouble. Are you sure you want it to be broadcast?”
“It’s not too late to call ABC and ask them not to air it, or at least delay it,” I advise. “If your life is in danger.”
“I want it to be broadcast,” she answers pointblank, without batting an eyelash.
“But you said some things. . .like about the government, you know, wanting to overthrow it.”
“When will it go on the air?” asks Feng, with a sudden perk in interest.
“Sometime tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, we will be gone by then.”
“You’re sure?”
“Yes. After we visit Beida, one last time,” he says.

I was beginning to feel the immense responsibility that goes with putting something provocative on the air, especially something political. Millions would see it, but more to the point, it would be closely monitored by Chinese security.

Feng grins at me to dispel my doubts “Don’t worry, you’ve done a good job. We all appreciate your help.”

“Since satellite transmission has been cut,” I explain, “ABC has to take the tape out of China by hand. It will be carried to Hong Kong or Japan, and then relayed by satellite to New York. The earliest it could be on the air is the evening news, American time, which means early tomorrow morning here.”

“It’s fine, no problem,” he says. Feng is disarmingly self-assured.
“It’s not too late to call, if you need more time.”
“Jin, don’t worry. We will be gone by then.”

So, they still plan to run away, and this little jaunt, this little joy ride they have invited me to partake in, is for what? For fun? Or a mix of business and pleasure, saying goodbye while just taking care of some last-minute logistics.
I have trouble putting together the young woman who confessed and cried her heart out earlier today, face contorted and full of pain, with the breezy young woman in the van.

What’s going on? Why is Feng Congde so confident that nothing will happen to them? Was he reckless or did he know something that his wife did not when she made her mad dash for the train station? What happened at the train station, anyway? There were so many things I wanted to ask, but given the gentle cooing sounds behind me it didn’t seem like the right time.

Chai Ling was no stranger to the Beijing Hotel, she had been there twice today. A few days before, I had seen her meeting there at midnight in a darkened coffee shop with Wang Dan and Wuerkaixi. Yet on the square, one had to pass through all kinds of security ropes just to get in her vicinity.

The student leaders seemed unnecessarily stringent in their security, but an illegal movement of that size required vigilance. So why was it that, in the most-heavily monitored hotel in town, the student rebels seemed so at home, if not outright welcome? I knew from talking to the floor attendants that many ordinary workers supported the students, but ordinary workers also knew not to get in the way of police.

Beijing Hotel workers had marched under banners indicating their work affiliation and a gigantic ten-story banner proclaiming solidarity with the striking students had been draped from the top of the hotel during the height of the protest. The multi-storied banner, partially draped in front of my room, each character the size of a person, read:


With a banner like that, suspended from the 17th floor, running all the way down to the seventh floor, right past my window as it turned out, one could imagine why the students might be attracted to that particular building, but why was the banner permitted in the first place? Was there some kind of connection between the security staff of the Beijing Hotel and the student movement?

If there was support, it was hidden and erratic. Even now, the van took precautions in ferrying us across town. Not only had the driver made some unnecessary turns on the way, but he took to circling Haidian District like an airplane, awaiting official permission to land.

When I ask about this the bodyguard explains that the driver is killing time, waiting for the cover of darkness before slipping onto campus. But Beida is a gated community. Would the guards let this vehicle, the student command on wheels, pass through the gated checkpoint? It was no secret Beida harbored activists, wouldn’t the secret police be looking for student radicals on campus, or were they such Keystone cops that it never occurred to them to look in obvious places?

As Yang shrewdly observes, the driver will not attempt to enter Beida until darkness falls. When he at last pulls up to the front gate on the south side of campus and greets the guards, I worry how they might react to my presence, –did the presence of a foreigner make the entourage look less innocent, or more? One guard presses his face up to the window, mentally registering my presence with eye contact, but it ends with that. We are then waved in. Once inside the huge walled campus, the driver again adopts a defensive posture, crawling in long slow circle around the lake and tree-dotted grounds while Chai Ling and her friends heatedly discuss if they should get out of the van, and, if so, where.

The tentativeness of the travelers upon arriving at Beida reminds me of my midnight visit to Beida with Cui Jian on the eve of May 4. Sitting inside a vehicle creates a certain perception, perhaps illusory, of security. One feels safer inside than outside. For me, sitting in the back of a car reminded of the security of childhood when everything important was decided by your parents sitting up front. For an American like me, being in a car had deep associations going back to childhood. But what comfort did the hum of a vehicle give Chai Ling and Feng Congde, for whom riding in a car was still a novelty?

The tree-shrouded campus is quiet and dark. We make a clockwise sweep, tooling past Shao Yuan, the foreign dorm, then the library and then back down a dirt road leading to the Chinese student dorm adjacent to the hot spot of Sanjiaodi.

The van draws up to the stairwell of the dorm and the driver tells everyone to get out. As soon as we have all clambered out, he hits the pedal and speeds away. We are whisked into the unlit hallway by waiting escorts. We mount a dark, dank stairwell, then turn down an empty corridor. A door is opened, revealing a plain room lit by a bare bulb, a room packed full of people.

Once we are inside, the door is closed and Chai Ling is greeted with hugs and pats on the back by her comrades, like a war hero just in from the battlefield. A few of her supporters eye me curiously, with stares neither friendly nor unfriendly, because I arrived with her group, but the attention is clearly focused on her.

We are led up another flight of stairs and into another room. Again the door was closed quietly but firmly behind us. Chai Ling is no stranger to the makeshift student headquarters, and quickly assumes the role of host rather than guest. Sensing my bewilderment if not discomfort, she leads me by the arm into an adjacent dorm room, where the furniture has been rearranged to serve as an office. She is a known entity on her home turf, just being seen with her makes my presence more acceptable, just as being with me made it easier for her to navigate the Lido Hotel earlier in the day.

We squeeze into a dorm room that had been converted into a primitive communications office. There are three bunk beds and a desk in the middle of the floor, from the ceiling dangles the usual no frills light bulb. In the corner there is a rack of metallic washing basins, hot water mugs, toothbrushes, and thermos bottles. What made this room different from nearly every other dorm room in China was the addition of a communications devise both rare and highly useful: a telephone.

Seeing the phone made me think of my friends. Was Bright still waiting for me back in my room? What about Lotus? And where did Wang Li run off to after Chai Ling changed her mind about taking the train south?

“Can I make a phone call?” I ask.
“You may,” one of the students answers, “But be careful about what you say, the phone is bugged.”
As often is the case in China, convenient communication comes at a price.
“I want to call the Beijing Hotel.”
“Go ahead.”

I dial my room number, wondering what cryptic words I should use for a phone call bugged on both ends, but no such luck for the eavesdroppers tonight. No answer.

Chai Ling is preoccupied, instantly immersed in student dealings, though she manages to flash a friendly little smile my way every once in a while. For the second time today we sit on the same bed, she on one end, me on the other. At one point she breaks from her group to come over and offer me a drink of water, perhaps trying to return the hospitality of the morning. But basically she is too busy to chat, let alone field my questions.

I lean back against the wall, sipping hot water, trying to take it all in. One by one her friends and followers pop in to talk with her, sometimes waiting on line to do so. It’s like a campus version of the broadcast tent.

Some of the talk is semi-confidential, judging from excited whispers, cupped hands and hushed tones. I overhear talk about going somewhere by airplane. I hear talk about the military. Just at a moment where the conversation takes an interesting turn, with military overtones, my appointed companion Yang, the young bodyguard, takes a seat next to me and, almost deliberately it seems, begins to distract me with a different sort of conversation.

“What sports do you like?”
“What are your hobbies?”
“Do you like music?”

When I tell him that I like to play guitar, he gets up and retrieves a cheap folk guitar that had been abandoned on the other bed. He presses me to play something, anything. I refuse several times but can’t bring myself to say I’d rather be eavesdropping than singing, so at last I yield to his request.

I finger a few chords, tune the strings a bit, and strum some more. The reverberations of the guitar comfort me and without even a glimmer of conscious thought, my hand starts to finger chords to “Tiananmen Moon.” I strum lightly and sing quietly to myself, in a whisper really, because I don’t like to perform. The song sounded so innocent, so anachronistic now.

“Midnight moon of Tiananmen,
When will I see you again?
Looking for you everywhere,
Going in circles around the Square.”

Tags: , , , ,

« Older entries