Remembering My Son Jielian on the 25th Anniversary of His Death
[Translation by Human Rights in China]
After my son Jielian sacrificed himself, some friends whom we didn’t know that well consoled us: “Please accept the fact and move on! Fortunately Jielian had an older brother and sister!” Yes, on the surface, we are a family with several children. His brother and sister had already grown up. Jielian was the youngest of the three. His older brother was getting a Ph.D. at Beijing University of Technology. His older sister had already graduated from college, and was working as an accountant for CCTV’s Media Center. Ordinarily, family gatherings for holidays were the happiest time for Jielian. His brother would bring his girlfriend, and their sister would come home with her husband. We all happily gathered around one table—we were a joyous big family.
But friends who knew the intimate details of our family understood what losing Jielian meant to us!
We were a newly formed family. My former husband passed away in 1967, leaving behind our son. During the terrible suffering of the “Cultural Revolution,” we, as mother and son, depended on each other for survival. When Jiang Peikun (蒋培坤), my now husband, and his former wife divorced, the courts granted her custody of their daughter at her request. So when Jiang and I got married at the end of 1970 in that gloomy, terribly cold, dark room at the May 7 Cadre School in Jinjiang, Jiangxi Province, we were a family of three. More than a year later, Jielian was born, and for years after that, we were a family of four. Starting in 1979, the value of knowledge and intellectuals began to increase in Chinese society. At that time, Renmin’s affiliated school had just reopened. Jiang’s ex-wife—who was then living in the countryside—asked the courts to transfer custody of her daughter to Jiang, out of consideration for her daughter’s future. After much effort and help from kind-hearted people, Jiang’s daughter’s household registration (hukou) was changed to a non-rural hukou and her residence permit was changed to the capital. It was because of that that Jielian acquired a big sister and we became a family of five.
Although Jielian was seven years old, he was not at all mentally prepared for the sudden arrival of his big sister. But we made up a little story to fool him. We said: “During the ‘Cultural Revolution,’ everyone was sent to the May 7 Cadre School to work, but children could not accompany their parents. Your elder brother was sent to your grandparents in Suzhou, and your elder sister was taken care of by a farmer’s family in Wuxi. Now times are better for intellectuals, and that farming family could no longer afford to raise your sister so we’ve brought her home.” Jielian was completely convinced, and he was 100% excited and pleased because he then had a complete set of siblings, a brother and a sister. Since then, he would often call himself the “late-born child.”
After Jiang and I got married, he was determined to treat my son from my former marriage like his own son. So, originally, we had hoped to have a daughter together. When Jielian was born, we were truly disappointed that Jielian wasn’t a girl. A year later, I was pregnant again. But at that time, we only had the tiny salaries of two associate professors and were very short on money. So even though the government at that time did not enforce the one-child policy, we didn’t really have any other choice or factors we could consider, so we went to the hospital and had an induced abortion.
It was because of this history that, while Jielian was our youngest son, he was actually our only child. What did it mean to lose Jielian? Every parent in the world can understand.
Jielian and his older brother were from the same mother, but different fathers, and Jielian and his sister were from the same father, but different mothers. This in fact was a secret only to Jielian. You can say this is our family’s open secret. We never urged or explained to Jielian’s brother and sister to keep this a secret, nor did we need to do that. They both understood, and had a tacit agreement with us that all siblings should get along and help each other out. They never let Jielian with his “sixth sense” grow suspicious. They deeply loved their little brother, and did their upmost in our little family to create the most ideal, joyful, and complete world for their little brother. No one had the heart to hurt him or destroy that world.
Jielian grew up on the shoulders of his older brother, 10 years his senior. Each afternoon after nursery school and kindergarten let out, his older brother would bring him home either carrying or leading him, and would stay with him until dinner time when he handed him over to us. Then he would do his homework on his own. Thus, the brothers’ time together was long and their affection deep. Jielian’s brother lived simply. He studied hard and diligently and had an enormous influence on Jielian. For a long time, his brother’s admonitions to Jielian were more effective than his parents’ lectures. Even later, Jielian was also uninhibited and carefree with his older sister who had newly joined the family. He would often take advantage of being “the youngest,” and act like a childish, spoiled kid with his sister. Later on, on his sister’s wedding day, he and his brother rode their bikes happily following their sister and brother-in-law, helping them move their bedding and other items to the groom’s home at Tsinghua University. This was the special warmth and joy of our poor, yet hard working family. Nowadays, after many decades, he is gone but things have remained the same. Yet as a mother who “failed,” I am often engulfed by these painful memories.
That we could keep our family secret, I have to thank Jielian’s aunts and uncles at Renmin University. It was not easy! For 17 years we continuously lived on Renmin’s campus. All of Jielian’s nursery school, primary school, secondary school, and university teachers and staff understood our family situation, but surprisingly not a single word of idle gossip got back to Jielian’s ears. It must have been because his parents and siblings’ perseverance had won everyone’s trust and support. I sincerely thank all of the good people who, together with us, protected Jielian’s pure and unblemished soul from any hurt.
Jielian has gone, forever innocent from this secret.
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of Part 14 of a 14-part essay. Click here to read the entire essay in Chinese.
 During the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals and teachers were sent to the May 7 Cadre Schools where they were made to do hard labor while studying Mao Zedong thought.
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Ding Zilin (丁子霖) is a founder and former spokesperson of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of family members of victims of the June Fourth government crackdown on the 1989 Democracy Movement. She was an associate professor of philosophy at Renmin University of China when her son, Jiang Jielian, was killed on June 3, 1989. The group has kept up the demands for justice, accountability, and compensation for June Fourth victims, survivors, and their families.