When I asked [Fang Haijun] how he was able to survive the fierce infighting of Mao’s inner circle, he told me the following stroy. In the 1930’s, he often played mah-jong with Mao Zedong, Tan Zheng, and a few other fellow Hunanese. There are many different systems for mah-jong, but people from the same place play according to the same rules: they did not need to spend a lot of time talking about it, they all understood the strategies, because they had all been raised in the earth and water of the same place.
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. 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.” …
… “The People” [人民, renmin] 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. …
… 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 father than human voices and voices carry farther than body heat. But that night I realized it is not so, for when the people stand as one, their voices carry father than light and their heat is carried farther still. That, I discovered, is what “the people” means.
from “The People” chapter of China in Ten Words by Yu Hua
I’m fascinated by first-hand accounts of the spring & summer of 1989 in Beijing. It was such a crucial time, yet is still a mostly forbidden topic. That first paragraph sounds so alien, so unimaginable, compared with the China of today. But the story about the intersection rings true, the heart in it, the harmony, the togetherness.
n. the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it—whether through envy or pity or simple foreignness—which allows it to drift away from the rest of your life story, until the memory itself feels out of place, almost mythical, wandering restlessly in the fog, no longer even looking for a place to land.