With the help of two artist friends, I recently met Wu Wenjian, a worker-turned-painter, at the 798 Arts Factory, a thriving colony of studios and art galleries converted from old factories and warehouses, in Beijing’s Chaoyang District.
It was a sunny day. Wu was dressed in a blazing red shirt and seemed to be in high spirits. After a brief chat, we went to a nearby restaurant that served food from Northeastern China to conduct the interview. I didn’t have to do much to get him started. Amidst the loud cacophony of background noises, he talked nonstop for a good couple of hours, as though well prepared for what he would say. During the meal, while I ate and asked routine questions, he barely lifted his chopsticks to touch the food.
Wu was arrested in 1989 and sentenced to seven years in jail. Since he was neither a student leader nor a member of the intellectual elite, he served time with a group of what the government has labeled “June Fourth thugs”—ordinary residents who were caught up in the fight against the government troops that had moved to Beijing to crack down on the protests. “These ‘thugs’ are just like the people from the bottom rung of society that you’ve interviewed in the past,” said Wu with a sigh. “They have no place in history, and no voice in society. For the past 16 years, nobody has come out to defend them. All their suffering has been in vain.” After dinner, we moved to a quieter location where Wu continued to talk until well past midnight. When we finally parted at a street corner, I had photographs of his oil paintings depicting the bloody Tiananmen Massacre in my backpack. He has been turning out those nightmarish paintings for years and has never shown any of them yet. “They can wait,” he said. “We’ve all been waiting for 16 years.”
Liao Yiwu: Let’s start from the beginning.
Wu Wenjian: From June 4, 1989?
Liao: Before that. Tell me about your family and your previous job.
Wu: I was born into a family of industrial workers—the tried and true proletarian pedigree by Communist standards. There are two large state-run enterprises in Beijing: Capital Steel and Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation located in Fangshan District, which employs several hundred thousand workers. Both of my parents worked for Yanshan. My brother and I went to Yanshan company schools.
Going further back, my paternal grandfather secretly joined the Communist Party while attending a technical school in the 1930s.He later attended a military college set up by the communists during the War of Resistance against the Japanese, and died a hero on the battlefield in 1941. My maternal grandfather also joined the Communist Party in the 1940s. He was once arrested by the Japanese and severely tortured. They even burned a huge mark on his back with a branding iron.
In addition, my father, his brother, and my mother’s two brothers were all Communist Party members. I was indoctrinated with the traditional revolutionary ideology from early childhood: I was taught to work hard and live simply, to devote my life to the communist cause and to the liberation of humankind.
Although my family had such a long tradition of supporting the Communist Party, both of my parents earned an honest living as factory workers. I followed in their footsteps. After I graduated from high school, I was assigned to the Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation’s General Services Department to train as a cook. I was young and not at all happy with the assignment, but my father advised me to do whatever the Party asked of me. In 1989, I had turned 19 and had worked at the cafeteria for two years.
At that time, I became obsessed with oil painting and started taking lessons from an art teacher. I spent my days studying how to paint. Even when I cooked at the cafeteria, my mind was drifting to the works of Van Gogh and Gauguin. I didn’t know that the student movement had started. I wasn’t at all sensitive to the political climate. A few days after former Party Secretary Hu Yaobang died,1 I took a bus downtown to see an exhibition at the China Art Museum. Afterwards, as I strolled around downtown, I saw a lot of students marching. They were carrying Hu’s portrait. I stood watching on the sidewalk for a while and even dropped one yuan into a donation bucket.
Liao: You were still a spectator at that time. When exactly did you get involved?
Wu: I was a nobody, like a sesame seed in a big pot of soup. It might be too presumptuous to say that I was involved. There still weren’t that many people in Tiananmen Square at the time. All the action was centered around the Wangfujing shopping district. And I was this kid dreaming of being a painter, who hated going to work. I just got into the habit of running downtown whenever I got a chance. Everything I heard sounded so refreshing.
Ordinary residents like me didn’t join the students until May 20, when that idiot Li Peng declared martial law and troops were prepared to march into the city from several directions. On that day, workers at my factory orchestrated a large-scale demonstration to support the students. We first gathered in front of the Beijing Train Station. The whole of Chang’an Avenue and Tiananmen Square were packed with people. I stayed with my factory contingent, all caught up in the excitement but without any real political motive. Many people were as simple-minded as I was, just being patriotic and supporting the students.
Liao: How many demonstrations did you join?
Wu: I would say four. When things heated up in Tiananmen Square, I became excited. Sometimes I stayed downtown overnight, sleeping on a lawn. After the May 20 demonstration, my coworkers were wondering if there was anything the working class could do to help the students. They dispatched me to the Tiananmen Student Command Center to seek an assignment. The young hothead that I was, I rushed into it without a second thought. The students had set up six or seven check points in Tiananmen Square. They were very strict and checked everyone going in. I had my work ID with me, and each time the student guards stopped me, I went on and on explaining why I was there. It took quite some effort to finally pass through the last check point and get a glimpse of the command center, which had been set up in a tent at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Several student leaders were wrapped in grayish, shabby coats and looked unshaven and unkempt. I stood there, unable to figure out who was who, so I just yelled out: “We are workers from the Yanshan Petrochemical Company. Do you need help? We have a big contingent.”The students surrounded me and started sizing me up, then one of them said: “Let us think about it.”
I waited there for several minutes and was just about to leave when someone passed me a piece of paper with a note: “Please go to the northeastern corner of Tiananmen Square and help keep order.”
With that note, about a hundred of us from Yanshan Petrochemical occupied the northeast corner and kept order there for a whole night. Tiananmen Square was pretty chaotic. All sorts of rumors were floating, speculating on the government’s next move, but Beijing residents, rather than being intimidated, sprung into action. To use old Chairman Mao’s words: “The great masses have finally been mobilized.”
Liao: How many people were there in Tiananmen Square?
Wu: It was a sea of people. Who could have counted? I
was about to collapse from exhaustion, but the nobility
of human spirit around me kept me going. Many residents
showed up at the square to volunteer. They distributed
food and water. An old man in his seventies
elbowed his way into the square with the help of his
daughter-in-law and handed me two big bags. His
daughter-in-law explained: “We didn’t let Dad come,
but he insisted on bringing you food. Nobody could
stop him.” I was moved to tears. Sadly, that kind of pure
humanity is long gone.
Liao: So, did you stay in Tiananmen Square?
Wu: No, we were able to keep it up for two days and
then we went back. During the following couple of
weeks, I only went to town once. I spent my time painting
at home. On the night of June 3, I was painting with
my TV on, when suddenly all regular programming
stopped. There was an announcement, saying something
to the effect that residents were not allowed to go
out on the street and that the government was going to
take action. I became very anxious. I couldn’t sleep at all
that night. The first thing next morning, I rushed
Liao: That was daring of you!
Wu: I was prepared to die. I had been brainwashed since
childhood about the army and the people having the
affinity of “fish and water.”Not even in my worst
dreams could I have imagined that the soldiers would
open fire at residents. I couldn’t stop myself from going
to Tiananmen to see for myself, secretly hoping that
none of it was true.
The bus stopped at the Tianqiao, near the Temple of
Heaven. I got off and walked to the square. Along the
way, there were pools of blood everywhere. One of my
paintings depicts the scene that day.
Liao: Were you able to enter the square?
Wu: No. The troops and tanks were clearing it up. I
couldn’t get in. I could only see smoke from a distance.
But people could get through from the side streets. It
was chaos: pools of blood here, piles of debris there;
sporadic gunfire in the air. When I got near Qianmen, I
suddenly saw a bunch of People’s Liberation Army
(PLA) soldiers wielding body-length wooden sticks, so I
ran over to see what was going on.
Liao: You had a death wish?
Wu: I’m a pacifist. I may have been only 19, but I disliked
extremist acts like throwing bricks and smashing
bottles. I still clung to the belief that the soldiers wouldn’t
lose reason if not provoked. But as I moved closer to
them, someone jumped out from a side street and
threw bricks at them from behind my back. I quickly
waved my hands and yelled: “Stop! Stop! Don’t provoke
Liao: That was stupid!
Wu: Yes it was. The guy who threw the bricks ran away.
I, since I didn’t throw any bricks, just bullishly stood
there until a soldier standing opposite me shouted:
“He’s the one who did it! He’s the one yelling loud!” I
instinctively turned around. Wow! A sea of green uniforms
was moving toward me, with sticks raised above
their heads. My body went numb and I started running.
Liao: Those soldiers were well trained. Were you able to
run away from them?
Wu: Most peasant soldiers have short legs. Hard as they
may train, they are no match for my long legs. More
importantly, I was running for my life. At one point, my
legs started to weaken and the iron tip of a stick came
down on me, scraping my back. My adrenalin shot up, I
bounded forward eight feet, I went crazy. I am a Beijing
native and knew my way around. I turned into a small
lane. The soldiers got scared and stopped following me.
But I ended up with a big purplish-black bruise on my
back, which didn’t go away for over half a month.
Liao: How many people were running after you?
Wu: I was scared out of my mind. Do you think I was
counting? I guess there must have been a few hundred
Liao: Were they only chasing you?
Wu: No, it was like chasing after a flock of ducks. I
could feel that there were people all around me running
away from the soldiers. A young fellow who was only a
few steps behind me got hit and fell down. He was
immediately covered by a green mass raining sticks
down on him.
Liao: If you were running yourself, how could you see it?
Wu: By then, I had dashed into a small lane near the old
Beijing Train Station. When I saw the soldiers give up
on me, I hid behind a broken wall to watch. He was
about fifty meters away. I could see very clearly. Only
after the soldiers left him for dead did I dare come out
with several people who were hidden inside the train
station to help him. I took his head in my arms.
Liao: Who was this young man? Was he still alive?
Wu: He was still breathing. But his smashed head had
Wu: No. There was no blood either. But his head didn’t
look like a head anymore. I asked him, “Where are you
from?”He responded, “The Capital Steel.”We later
intercepted a tricycle, put him on it, and rushed him to
Tongren Hospital. I could see the corridor packed with
wounded residents. We handed him over to two nurses
covered with blood and left. I was seized by grief and
anger. My mind was a jumble.
Liao: How many people were lying wounded or dead in
Wu: I really don’t know. We were not allowed to go in.
The nurses were receiving patients at the entrance to
the corridor. When I went back to the street, my tears
were just streaming down. It was getting late. June 4,
1989—that date has been etched into my mind and into
my bones. I slept on the street that night, preoccupied
with big questions like: “Where is this country going?
What am I going to do?”
Liao: Where did you sleep?
Wu: I found an empty bus near the Qianmen No. 5 bus
terminal. Over a dozen distressed people were already
inside—students, residents, workers, both from Beijing
and out of town.
I waited until dawn to catch an early bus and didn’t get
home until noon. My blood was still boiling. I found a
T-shirt and wrote on it with a paint brush: “Give me
democracy. Give me freedom.”On the back of it, I put the
famous quotation by Dr. Sun Yat-sen: “The Revolution
has not yet succeeded. Comrades, you must carry on!”
I put the T-shirt on and wandered around the Yanshan
Petrochemical complex, telling everyone I ran into
about what had happened downtown. Before long, a
crowd had gathered around me at a crossroads, blocking
traffic. A bus couldn’t get through and all the passengers
got off. The crowd asked me to give a speech,
and before I even had the chance to agree, they pushed
and shoved, and then lifted me on top of the bus. But
people didn’t think that was high enough, so they led
me to a nearby scaffolding.
Liao: Did you give a speech?
Wu: I was this 19-year-old, with no talent for public
speaking. I just shouted a bunch of slogans: “Down
with Deng Xiaoping! Down with Premier Li Peng!
Workers strike! Businesses strike! Oppose government
crackdown!” I whirled around like a grindstone, showing
people what I had written on my T-shirt. All this
later showed up in my indictment.
Liao: I assume that there must have been a lot of plainclothes
policemen in the crowd.
Wu: They were all workers who had been with the company
for two or three generations. We grew up together
and knew each other well. Everyone went crazy that
day—more than one-thousand people. After a while,
they were all shouting slogans without me. Some even
suggested we drive a bus downtown to fight the PLA. At
that moment, my father rushed over. Folks at the public
security bureau had alerted him that “his second son
was staging a rebellion.”He came as fast as he could,
seized me as I was coming down the scaffolding, and
yelled: “You bastard!”
I stopped his hand in midair and shouted back hero like: “Don’t hit me!”
A bunch of students from the Second Institute of Petrochemical
Industry happened to be among the crowd. They didn’t know my father. When they saw that someone
was trying to slap their “hero,” they went over to
grab my dad and tried to beat him up. I promptly interceded,
yelling: “Don’t hit him. He’s my dad.”
Liao: What happened then?
Wu: Things just turned around. The passion and excitement
Pretty much died down by that evening. My dad
was really strong. He wouldn’t let go of me. He dragged
me all the way home. There was such a gap between us.
My belief in the forever glorious, forever correct, and
forever great Communist Party, its government and its
soldiers, was turned upside down, but my dad wouldn’t
agree with me. He was a real macho guy. In my memory,
he only showed his weakness and cried once. That
was the time when my mother passed away. This time,
he turned into a complete softie. When we got in the
house, he didn’t try to beat me up. Instead, he said: “You
went downtown on June 4 without even telling me. Do
you know how chaotic it was there? You didn’t come
back at night. I hardly slept a wink. Each time I heard
wind blowing outside, I woke up and went to check
your room. Your mom passed away very early. If anything
happened to you, it would be a huge crime on my
part.” He stopped and tears came out.
Seeing that my father became emotional, I began to
calm down. I said, “I don’t think I can undo anything.
I’m sure they will arrest me. Why don’t I find a place to
hide for a little while? A significant movement like this
won’t be over soon. I suspect that the crackdown could
trigger a civil war.”My dad didn’t want to hear my
analysis. He said, “Don’t make trouble for me again.
Otherwise, I may have to kill myself.”
I couldn’t argue with him. He was my dad. So, I packed
up some of my stuff and escaped overnight to his native
village in Hebei Province. My grandma was still alive
then. I stayed with her.
Liao: When did you get arrested?
Wu: Around June 20, 1989.
Liao: That happened pretty quickly. Did your dad’s tongue slip?
Wu: Can’t call it a slip of the tongue. When police came to our house and asked about my whereabouts, my dad immediately confessed, telling them that I had gone to live in his native village. He even gave them a detailed address.
Liao: So, your dad betrayed you.
Wu: He trusted the government and the Party. He had a
friend who was the deputy chief of the Public Security
Bureau in Yanshan. My dad visited him and asked for
help. The friend promised: “If you turn your son over to
the police, we’ll offer him lenient treatment.”The
deputy chief also contacted the local public security
branch near my home, instructing them to take care of
me. My dad thought that they would detain me for a
few days, teach me some proper lessons and then
Guess what? My dad borrowed a car from his factory
and came to fetch me at my grandma’s house. He
looked happy. He told me: “Wenjian, let’s go home.
The situation in Beijing has been settled. Everything is
okay now.” Then, the two of us chatted, laughed, and
walked toward the car. But when the car approached
the village entrance, I saw two other cars blocking the
Liao: So, it was a trap.
Wu: Pretty much so. My father had reached a verbal
agreement with the Public Security Bureau. Before he
left, he even called the deputy chief who told him quite
light-heartedly: “He is only a kid. What he has done is
quite obvious to us all. As long as he comes back and
clarifies something for us, that will be the end of it.”
When I saw the police cars, I knew something had gone
awry. I got out of the car but didn’t run. Then all the
policemen got out of their cars. Someone came up to
me and asked: “What’s your name?” Before I even finished
answering, he barked: “We are here to arrest you.”
Liao: How many policemen were there to capture you?
Wu: Capturing a “violent criminal” who had escaped
from Beijing was a great opportunity to showcase their
accomplishment, so the entire county police force, over
60men, got mobilized. They drove me to the Hengshui
County Public Security Department where they tied me
to a big tree. Then, I heard them excitedly phoning Beijing:
“Wu Wenjian is now in our hands.”
They interrogated me briefly. Before long, police from
Beijing arrived. A police director from Hengshui led a
group of his men to meet up with his counterparts
from Beijng. He even brought a cameraman to record
the moment. That director behaved like an actor. He
stood at attention, saluted, and then raised his voice
solemnly: “I want to congratulate our government on
the successful crackdown on this counterrevolutionary
Despite the fact that I was tied to a tree, I laughed so
hard that I almost passed out. That director was apparently
still living in the Cultural Revolution era. He
didn’t appreciate my laughing. He came over, pointed
his thick fingers at my head, and mumbled through his
teeth: “How could you be so arrogant?”He spewed out
his words with venom. It was as if I had raped his
I was handcuffed and taken away. They put me in a
detention center for two months. Then, the municipal
public security department officially arrested me,
charging me with counterrevolutionary activities of
propaganda and instigation. On September 7, 1989, I
was transferred, with a group of people facing similar
charges, to the Beijing Municipal Detention Center. I
was locked up there for more than six months.
Liao: How many people were detained in one cell?
Wu: We called prison cells “tongzi,” tubes. A big tube
could accommodate a few dozen people, a smaller one
seven or eight. The detention center was actually an old
prison built by the Soviets in the 1950s. It looked very
formidable. Once you walked into a tube, bunker beds
lined up both sides of the wall. At my detention center, I
saw Ye Wenfu, the well-known poet who wrote the
famous poem, “General, you can’t do this.” During the
student movement, Ye openly withdrew his membership
from the Communist Party. I sometimes heard
him yell at guards downstairs: “Fuck you.”The guards
didn’t know what to do about him. They used to complain:
“He is a poet yet has such a sewer mouth.”
The three people who had thrown eggs and defaced
Chaiman Mao’s portrait that hangs over Tiananmen
Square were also imprisoned there. One of the guys, Yu
Zhijian, used to share a tube with me.
Liao: Those three got a rough deal. I heard that two of
them lost their sanity in jail. The third one, Lu Decheng,
escaped to Thailand upon his release from jail. He
applied for political asylum, but was rejected. Before the
Thai police got to repatriate him back to China, the
Canadian government accepted him.
Wu: Lu would have been doomed if he had been repatriated. Anyway, Yu received life-long imprisonment, and Lu got 15 years.
During the first wave of crackdown, nine “violent criminals”
at Tiananmen were taken out from the detention
center and executed. There was one legendary case. A
guy called Zhu Zhongsheng had jumped onto a tank
when the government troops first entered Tiananmen
Square. He had attempted to prop open the lid but
couldn’t. So, he jumped off. Later on, he was caught on
camera. During both his first and second trials, he was
sentenced to death. His hands and feet were shackled
with heavy metal chains. They locked him up with
other death row inmates. He was waiting for a final
review, and then he would be on his way to the execution
ground. Somehow, the final review never came. So,
he ended up in that death tube for two years. He was so
traumatized that his body deteriorated into a skeleton.
The court eventually commuted his death penalty. As
you probably know, living inside that death row tube
was fairly scary. Every couple of weeks, there would be
people being dragged out to be executed. Each time the
door opened, Zhu would go through the same fear and
anxiety. He lived in constant fear for two years. Later
on, while doing hard labor in prison, Zhu slept on a
bunker bed above mine. We chatted quite frequently.
Liao: I used to be locked up with twenty-some death
row inmates. Getting your death penalty commuted
was almost unheard of. He really lucked out. In comparison,
didn’t you feel pretty fortunate?
Wu: I was 19 years old and got seven years. I was lucky.
On the day of my trial, they put me on a prison bus and
Drove me to the Beijing Municipal Intermediate Court.
I was led down to the court basement where our trials
were supposed to take place. A policeman shoved me
into an iron cage. The whole trial process was kind of
embarrassing. Since all the rooms on both sides of the
basement were fully occupied, the judge simply started
the trial in the corridor. He looked like he needed to
take a piss or something. He ran the procedures very
fast. I had a court-designated defense lawyer. He
defended me by saying something like: “Wu Wenjian
was young and ignorant. I ask the court to consider
lighter punishment, etc.”
Liao: How long did the trial last?
Wu: About one hour or so. After brief deliberation, the
judge announced that my sentencing would be delayed.
A month later, they delivered my official indictment. I
was shocked to learn that I had gotten seven years. On
second thought, it wasn’t that bad since I was only 19
and by the time I got out, I would be 26. So, gradually, I
got used to it.
After I received my indictment, I filed an appeal. The
intention was to buy some time and avoid being sent to
do hard labor right away. The second trial was quite formal.
I didn’t ask for a lawyer. I defended myself: “I simply
listened to Zhao Ziyang, who was then the
Communist Party Secretary. If I didn’t listen to our
party secretary, who would I follow? You charged me
with the crime of overthrowing the government. I was
barely 19. Was I capable of doing that?”
Liao: The whole indictment thing was ludicrous.
Wu: It was. You know, there was no point in defending
myself. The decision had already been made. Mine wasn’t
too bad. Many people had suffered more injustices.
Have you heard about Zhang Baosheng? He was the
youngest June Fourth “thug” in prison. As an orphan,
he supported himself by picking up street manure. He
was only 15 years old when he was charged with the
crime of beating up soldiers. He got 15 years in jail.
Wang Weiling, the youngster who tried to stop a tank. I
heard he was in prison too. Nobody knew if he was still
alive or not. So, my case was not that significant.
On March 9, 1990, I was transferred from the detention
center to the Beijing No. 1 Prison. When I first arrived, I
constantly got beaten up by guards. That seemed to be
the rule. Every new arrival would get beaten up as an
initiation ritual. Then we were forced to study. The government
seemed to pay a lot of attention to us. Different high-level officials showed up for inspection.
Liao: Were most of the June Fourth “thugs” locked up
Wu: Those who had been sentenced to over ten years
Were mostly there. Those under ten years were incarcerated
in Chadian near the city of Tianjin. I was sent to
Beijing No. 1 Prison because my charges were related to
instigating counterrevolutionary riots. There were
about one-hundred prisoners at No. 1. Most of the
Tiananmen elite were locked up with the convicted senior
communist officials at Qincheng prison.
Liao: I heard that Chen Ziming, a well-known scholar
who was branded a “black hand” for his leadership role
in the student movement, was also at No. 1.
Wu: He was at No. 2. The No. 1 Prison used to be
located inside Beijing. When the city decided to apply
for the Olympic Games in 1993, the prison was closed.
All the inmates were moved to No. 2. I saw Chen Ziming
frequently. He would walk about in an area downstairs.
He had shaved his head. I heard people say that a
prison official wanted to chat with him one time. He
turned him down by saying: “You are not qualified to
chat with me. If you want to talk with me, get the Minister
of Justice here.”
Liao: He did have an attitude.
Wu: He was sentenced to 14 years. He was the only one
at No. 2 who refused to wear the prison uniform
because he said he was innocent. He suffered from cancer
later on and was released on medical parole. When
opportunities arose for him to get treatment abroad, he
refused to go. Among the Tiananmen elite, he was quite
Liao: What was it like for the “thugs” to receive reeducation
through hard labor?
Wu: Pretty brutal. We just worked and worked. Upon
arrival at the prison, we underwent some brief training
and then we began to work on export-related jobs,
sewing coat linings and buttons for over ten hours a
day. After the crackdown, the Chinese government’s
propaganda machine claimed that most of the “thugs”
were ex-convicts. The government media report
incensed Wei Xiaoru, the then director of China’s
Reform and Reeducation Bureau. Since he was
approaching retirement, he was bold enough to come
out and dispute the media claims. Using charts and statistics,
he showed that most of the “thugs” didn’t have
any past criminal history. Among those who were
arrested during the Tiananmen movement, ex-convicts
only took up a tiny percentage. His remarks created
quite a stir.
I personally believe that he was more admirable than
many former student leaders in exile overseas. At least,
he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, no matter what his
motives were. For the past 16 years, has anyone stepped
up to defend the so-called “thugs” of Tiananmen? The
“thugs” are mostly ordinary residents who had taken
action out of anger with the government. They had
thrown bricks or tossed bottles or baskets at the troops.
Some had gone to halt the military trucks or stood up
to deliver an anti-government speech. Others had
jumped on a tank. They all had one common goal: to
stop the troops from entering the city and slaughtering
students. Later on, after the students had retreated from
Tiananmen Square, those guys became the core targets
for persecution. But, in a world where history is mostly
created by the elite, people like us have no place in this
Let me give you some more examples: I met a disabled
person who got ten years in jail. I found it strange when
he told me about it. So, I grabbed the indictment papers
from him. He was charged with “slamming his crutches
on a tank many times repeatedly before staggering away
elated.”Another person, whose last name was Zhu,
found an abandoned military supply truck. He and his
friends emptied the vehicle and tossed the food to residents
and students. He gave all the food away altruistically.
When the truck was emptied, he realized that
there wasn’t anything left for him. So he searched
around and dug out a package of roasted chicken in the
corner of the truck. When he was caught, that piece of
chicken became part of evidence against him. He got 13
years. When he told me about this story, he sighed:
“That was an expensive chicken.”
Liao: You seemed to get along with the “thugs” very well?
Wu: We shared a similar fate and worked together all the time.
Liao: In addition to sewing, what other kinds of jobs did you do?
Wu: All sorts of work. We conducted inspections on rubber
gloves used by sanitation workers and medical professionals.
We would put each glove to our mouth and
blow air into it to check it for leaks. It was very tiring.
During that time, I also shared a tube with Wu Xuecan,
former editor at People’s Daily newspaper. We worked
in pairs. I would sew and his job was to remove the
extra threads with scissors. After a year, I was so skillful
that I could sew buttons with my hands behind my back.
Liao: Which factory did you work for?
Wu: The Beijing Friendship Clothing Factory. We sewed
summer clothing in winter and winter clothing in summer.
Lint was floating all over the rooms. Sometimes we
sweated so much that my underwear got all wet. It was
so hard that I wished that I could smash and topple the
whole workshop. One time, I couldn’t take it anymore
and went on a hunger strike for four days. One inmate
advised me: “Are you for real? Just pretend you are staging
a hunger strike. If it affects your health, nobody
cares.”He then threw down a piece of stolen sausage on
I was released in 1995. They had reduced my sentence by several months. I had not expected that the reunion with my father would take that long. But his trust in the Communist Party remained unchanged. He didn’t want to say a single bad word about the government. He still threatened me with the same thing: “If you continue to make trouble, I’m going to kill myself.”What can you do? No matter how hopeless his situation is, he is still my dad.
One by one, most of the Tiananmen “thugs” have served out their sentences. As the saying goes, silent and odorless farts don’t get people’s attention. Nobody cared about us. As time went by, the aspirations and passions we held dear dissipated like passing clouds. We have been thrown into a merciless world. Most of my former inmates have developed a strong distaste for politics.
To make a living, I first tried my hand at selling clothes at a local market. Since I was a painter, I began to design advertising graphics. These are simple and technical jobs. My mind still lingers over that period. When I was first released, a constant motif in my painting was about tanks crushing innocent residents, blood flooding Tiananmen Square, the Goddess of Democracy. . . . Every stroke in those paintings seemed to scream with pain. This will be an eternal motif. My paintings might not be good enough yet. I probably need to reexamine myself before I start to paint the subject again. But, I can’t control my dreams and my hands. I will never sell these paintings. I won’t sell them even if the verdict on June Fourth is overturned. Hopefully, by that time there will be a museum to showcase our national disgrace in that period. I will donate the paintings to the museum.
Forgive my digression. As far as jobs are concerned, many of my former prison buddies have not been as fortunate. Most of them were ordinary workers. Times have changed, and they now have problems finding jobs and making a living. One buddy of mine ran a restaurant before 1989.He was quite rich. When the democracy movement started, he gave away food and drinks to students. He ended up in jail for more than ten years.
After his release, he opened a night club and helped many of our former inmates. He acted like the welfare agency. But when you mention the democracy movement to him, he doesn’t even care to talk about his past involvement.
Not long ago, I had a phone conversation with a former inmate. He is a seal carver. We really clicked. I told him that I had done a series of paintings depicting the June Fourth massacre. He interrupted me by saying: “Why are you still messing around with June Fourth? Didn’t you have enough in jail?” I answered: “We haven’t avenged our sufferings yet.” He said: “The passion in me has long gone. Don’t touch politics again. It’s too brutal and dirty.”
He might be right. In the past two decades, the so-called Tiananmen elite both inside and outside China has written hundreds of articles about the movement. I would read some every year. Not a single piece has been written about us “thugs.” It is as if we had never existed. The whole world seems to know only about the confrontations in Tiananmen Square between soldiers and students. Anything that happened elsewhere in the city has long been forgotten.
How do we define our group? The Chinese government calls us “thugs.” And people like you—historians, literary writers, journalists, and sociologists, or the elite, who have the opportunity to air your views—what will you say about those “thugs” who formed the core of the Tiananmen movement? The students and scholars delivered some stirring speeches in Tiananmen Square. They talked about fighting for democracy and freedom for the country and for the people. They sounded so altruistic as if they had been determined to risk everything. They were so passionate that the residents of Beijing were touched and aroused by their passion. People like us went to block military trucks so bullets wouldn’t hit the elite. Little did we know that the student elite ran faster than rabbits. . . . Chai Ling stood like an innocent angel near the Monument to the People’s Heroes. She instigated and urged us into action. Then, she ran away to the West and has completely dropped out of the democracy movement. She made a name for herself in Tiananmen. Once she took full advantage of it, she quit. Of course, it’s her freedom to quit. But don’t forget about the fact that residents joined the student movement because they were inspired by people like her, like Wang Dan, Wu’er Kaixi, Li Lu, and Feng Congde.
In my case, on June 4, I heard rumors that Chai Ling, Wang Dan, and Wu’er Kaixi had been killed. I was full of grief and anger. That was what inspired me to go up on that scaffolding. Too many people have paid too big a price. You guys will never be able to pay it back. However, in one memoir after another, the writers only focus on what the students did. Right now, most of the former student leaders are doing very well. They are smart and figured it all out.
Liao: You have probably expected too much of the intellectuals. To tell you the truth, Hu Yaobang’s death in the spring of 1989 heralded a time for change. Many intellectuals joined the movement out of different motives. Some thought that it would be a change of dynasty, and they didn’t want to be left out. They realized that if they didn’t seize that historical moment, they would be deprived of the right to speak in the future.
Wu: Those who don’t have the right to speak won’t have a place in history.
Liao: Historically, that’s the rule. The only thing that we can do is to dig out the truth and change the history written by the elite.
Wu: I’m not a writer. Many people probably won’t even bother to read or hear what I have to say. Families who had lost their children in 1989 are fortunate to have professor Ding Zilin as their spokesperson. But who is there to speak for the “thugs” of June Fourth?
1. Hu Yaobang was Chairman of the Communist Party of China from 1981 to 1982 and its General Secretary from 1982 to 1987. He was forced to resign on January 16, 1987, in the wake of a series of student demonstrations that took place in late 1986. The party hardliners accused him of being too lax on “bourgeois liberalization” and too empathetic towards China’s liberal intellectuals. He was submitted to humiliating “self-criticism.”
On April 15, 1989, the day Hu Yaobang died, people started bringing wreaths to the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square to mourn him, expressing sympathy for his political misfortunes and discontent with authorities. From April 17 on, the mourning grew in scope and quickly became a demonstration of public anger against government corruption, demanding reform,and triggering the nation-wide 1989 Democracy Movement. ^