Poetry and protest: That other Tiananmen incident

By Rob Moore | June 4, 2020

Tiananmen 1976

Comedian Doug Stanhope once commented, in his trademark acidic fashion, that the failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement could be explained by one thing: drum circles. Bankers don’t care about drum circles. Hippies care about drum circles. Lining up a hundred people a day in a bank to request billion-dollar loans for ant farms and bringing business to a halt? That, bankers care about. A bunch of unwashed protestors banging drums? Not so much.

His point was that the only effective protest movement is the one that can protest in their opponent’s language.

So what would a protest movement look like if people were actually fluent in the language of the oppressor? Would you believe it would look like a mass gathering at the tail end of Maoist-era China?

On the eve of April 4, 1976, the day before the Qingming Festival — the Chinese analogue to the Day of the Dead — a crowd of several hundred thousand gathered in Tiananmen Square. By the end of the next day, nearly 2 million people had made their way there. They had come ostensibly to protest against the Chinese Communist Party’s removal of the mourning trappings set up for Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来, who had died January 8 of that year. A friend of mine said once, and I agree with him, that while there are many Chinese people who revere Mao, almost all of them love Zhou. Mao was the revolutionary, but Zhou was the one who sought to bring the revolution into a modern governmental framework. Mao was the bad cop, Zhou the good cop. And the people knew it, or at least popularly believed it. Giving them a stern “All right, all right, that’s enough” in response to his death, after a debacle like the Cultural Revolution, was not a good move.

Particularly not a good move was the Central Committee’s decision to clear the square of all mourning articles. The crowds who came to join in the event arrived to find that everything had been removed during the night, which led to the “incident” part of the “Tiananmen Incident” name. Police cars were set on fire, and government buildings around the square were occupied. Security forces, now with plenty of “See? they started it!” to go around, went in with clubs and leather belts and got rid of everyone else. Remember that for the moment: clubs and leather belts. 

With that in mind, you could be forgiven for assuming a complete absence of subtlety or shrewd craftsmanship on the part of the mourners, but in fact you’d be mistaken.

One of the most common forms of expression used by visitors to the square in April 1976 was the composition of original poems, all of them either physically affixed to the monuments in the square or else left on the ground near them. All of them were in praise of either Zhou or the will of the people. None of them are particularly sophisticated, or even, let’s be honest, all that good. For example: “The capital is covered in white flowers / the wind scatters hot tears to every home / From now on the ages will be filled with grief / and every year will be the eighth of January.” The lighters-in-the-air melodrama permeates throughout the rest of the poems. From a purely artistic standpoint, the entire collection — which was published in book form in 1978 — reads like the collected notebooks of every emo band in history, cut up and re-pasted onto monuments. Which is to say, it’s not great.

Ah, but from a protest standpoint, it’s a deceptively subtle stance. Mourning a dissident politician is a bit too on-the-nose, and praising Mao is too far the other direction, but mourning Zhou? That’s a different story. It’s like saying, “Oh, we’re fine with Communists; just not Communists like you.” And that’s a tricky proposition for the leadership, because the only way to really deal with it is either to go full whack-a-mole on the square or else write something more sophisticated by way of refutation. Let us also not forget that Mao himself was on his last lap, having suffered a heart attack just a month earlier. Mourning Zhou while either criticizing Mao (a minority position, since it was too dangerous) or ignoring him entirely (arguably the more damaging approach) put the onus on the Party.

But perhaps the real question is: why poetry? With that many people, you could expect to have at least enough space to grumble about the Party and not get caught. Why use such a subtle form of expression, and do it in such a way that your point is always just slightly left-of-center?

First, there’s a long history in Chinese literature of protesting something without protesting it in name. Vernacular short fiction in the early Qing Dynasty frequently threw shade at the late Ming court by setting a story in the Song. Tang poets would lace their poetry with references to older folktales so as to make a point obliquely. This was largely a survival tactic, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square were well aware of it. Poetry thus provided a ready-to-hand toolkit for dealing with the situation in an effective way.

Second, poetry in China has always had a strange relationship with power. For much of Chinese history, it was the beating heart of the civil service examination system, which put it squarely in the imperial court’s Easter egg basket, but it was also the language of dissidence and even, in Qū Yuán’s 屈原 case, martyrdom. Lǐ Bái 李白, for example, was hardly a revolutionary, but his poetry is still redolent of the kind of bacchic heedlessness that still attracts people in our highly regulated culture to his verse. At times, such as in 1976, poetry could do both things at once. Most of the poems written that day were written in the acceptably regulated, folksy style that Mao had been encouraging for most of his tenure in power. That the poems preferred to drive on the shoulder rather than in the lane made them, arguably, even more effective as tools for protest.

Third, and finally, poetry was Mao’s preferred art form, while Zhou, so far as we know, never wrote a line of it. Celebrating the latter in the language of the former was quite a flick to the ear, and one wonders if Mao himself didn’t get the point. He ends his final known poem with the following couplet: “The task is still not complete, the body is weary, the hair autumnal / This generation of yours and mine, will it endure to see its wish fulfilled, or will it lose it irrevocably?” For someone whose desire to retain control of the Communist movement led ultimately to the Cultural Revolution, these are peculiarly negative sentiments. Could it be that he, too, saw the writing on the wall, either literally or figuratively?

The Tiananmen Incident, as it came to be called, was eventually put down by force, albeit with nothing like the body count of the more famous 1989 event. The impact, though, reverberated. One of the people there that day was the young Zhào Zhènkāi 赵振开, a one-time Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution who, disillusioned by all the things he had seen, was in the Square to put them into print. Two years later, he would take up the pen name Běi Dǎo 北岛 and, with friend and fellow poet Máng Kè 芒克, publish in mimeograph form the first underground literary journal in China: Today (今天  jīntiān). The journal would become legendary, and the poetry that Bei Dao, Mang Ke, and their fellow poets wrote would help drive an artistic renaissance in the decade that followed.

Tiananmen 1989

One wonders if the authorities learned the wrong lessons that day. Thirteen years later, history was in the process of repeating itself. The intervening period had seen the Chinese government rise from its ashes, adopting many of the economic strategies used by postwar Japan and Korea to attract foreign investment and put itself on the way to becoming the world power it is today. Perhaps that was the trouble. Because although no one was much interested in China in 1976, they certainly were in 1989, among them Mikhail Gorbachev, whose high-profile visit to China in May of that year attracted even more attention and focused it on the mass gatherings happening all over Beijing to protest government policy. That was a huge part of it. Perhaps it was also the fact that instead of limiting itself to poetry, the crowds had upgraded to rock music (Cuī Jiàn’s 崔健 “Nothing to My Name” was a de facto anthem), international movements (the “Internationale” was another anthem), and was, in general, more cosmopolitan, bringing the world along for the ride. The people were, like teenagers no longer content to listen to their parents’ Phil Collins albums, less and less under the government’s artistic influence. Or perhaps it was simply that a decade of education had made many of the marchers the kinds of intelligent, well-read critics that any authoritarian regime knows it can’t possibly eliminate.

Likely it was all of the above, and more besides. In any case, by June 4th the government was tired of denouncing and commanding, and wasn’t about to repeat the clubs-and-belts approach from 1976, which must have seemed too tame a punishment. This time, they brought tanks.