Skip to content Skip to navigation

1989: Bearing Witness to the Ultimate Beauty: Diary of an Eyewitness in the Square

May 22, 2007

Translation and Abridgment by Human Rights in China

When the tank arrived, the students were sitting in a circle in the center of Tiananmen Square. The opening ceremony of the Democracy University in the Square had begun.

At about 11 p.m., Beijing’s night sky was still bright. From time to time, the sound of gunshots came from a distance. People sat calmly and quietly on the ground. Mr. Yan Jiaqi, the first president of the Democracy University in the Square, was giving a speech about the history and current situation of democracy, the relationship between democracy and the legal system, and democracy in China, etc. Mr. Yan spoke vividly in the soft night breeze. “Democracy is the principle of the majority which, at the same time, respects the rights of the minority. Democracy means people overseeing the government, rather than the government dictating to the people. Democracy relies on the rule of law and opposes the rule of man. Democracy is a good thing that the Chinese people have fought hard for and pursued untiringly for the past 70 years. . . .”

All of a sudden, a buzzing noise descended, as if from the horizon. Some people stood and looked up. I was sitting and could feel the ground shaking. Immediately afterward, I heard the noise that I will never forget: the rumbling of a tank and the sound of its treads approaching at high speed.

“Block the road!” someone shouted. “Block the road, block the road, block the road!” People jumped to their feet, yelling over each other and running to the west side of the square toward the speeding tank, as if they themselves were the road blocks.

This was 11:30 p.m., Saturday, June 3, 1989, in front of the Great Hall of the People.

Sacrifice, the Highest Principle of Peace

. . .

“Block the road! Block the road! Block the road!” Students, shouting, ran to the street to the west of the square and to Chang’an Avenue [bordering the north side of the square] and chased the tank—which was actually a light armored personnel carrier—throwing soda bottles, bricks and tiles, even pens, books, and notebooks at it. After hesitating for a moment, the armored vehicle abruptly turned around and sped toward Qianmen West Avenue, taking the same route back.

Without mobilizing, without a commander, the terrified people in the undefended square reacted instinctively. Road barricades, metal fences, trashcans, even garbage of all kinds, were moved onto the road and used as obstacles. Carrying the barricades with everyone else, I thought to myself: “At 10 p.m., when I was making my oath at the square, the ending that I could envision was being badly beaten with wounds all over my body, and the Qincheng Prison.1 I am willing to accept this. After holding on in the square for 15 days, I am willing to wait for this ending.” This was because 30 years of revolutionary education had been carved into me, reducing me into believing that I was like the fictional or real-life revolutionary heroes such as the protagonist in The Gadfly,2 Rudin,3 Che Guevara,4 Alexandros Panagoulis,5 or Pavel Korchagin,6 a body doomed to be destroyed, terminated, and sacrificed at the altar. Perhaps at that moment, I didn’t really understand myself.

Yet not understanding myself doesn’t mean not understanding my society, its history, my country, and its civilization. Four decades ago, it was also here that someone declared that the Chinese people had stood up. Yet, the Chinese people who had stood up couldn’t find out where in fact they “stood.” In 1989, China’s intellectuals and the masses gathered together on an unprecedented scale to finally announce their hope and determination loudly, and this shocked the world! . . .

The tank entering the square signaled the arrival of the final moment. The students sat on the steps surrounding the Monument to the People’s Heroes, waiting quietly. They were opposed to violence and prepared to die at any time. . . .

When the square quieted down again, the sounds of gunshots began again, at first from far away, reminding me of firecrackers on Chinese New Year’s eve, and then more and more intense. Then, from the Museum of Chinese Revolution and the Great Hall of the People, tracer bullets came straight at us, alternately intermittent and sustained, flashing across the sky like fireworks. . . .

From the east of the Jinshui Bridge [leading into the Palace Museum] came the roaring sound of tanks, which became louder and louder. People in the square ran in that direction. At the same time, I heard from the panicked, scrambling crowd that a female student, who some said was from Beijing Normal University, was crushed to death by a tank.

Ear-piercing noise came from a loudspeaker beside me. All of a sudden, the “Militia Training Text” that was being recited turned into the resounding “The Internationale.” The engine of this broadcasting vehicle, retrofitted from a public bus, suddenly started to rumble. Watching it turn around, with the loudspeaker dragged behind it, I suddenly understood what it was about to do: intercept the tank and perish with the enemy! I ran after it and grabbed its door, which closed with a loud bang. A parting cry came from the driver seat: “Farewell, comrades!”

. . .

No Beating!

. . .

At about 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 4, the broadcasting bus rushed to Chang’an Avenue, stopping dozens of meters from that armored vehicle, which by then had been blocked by piled-up trash cans. It continued to rumble until its engine stopped. In a split second, No. 003 armored vehicle became the object of attack and venting. People banged this iron turtle with bricks, tiles, sticks, and clubs; burning clothes and quilts were quickly piled on the “turtle’s back.” Angry, excited, pushing, and squeezing, people surrounded it as if it were a gigantic baked sweet potato that they were waiting to divide and eat.

With a bamboo pole in my hand, I felt my way to the hot back door of this iron turtle. Before I could strike it with the pole, “bang,” the door sprang open, and two soldiers bolted out from the billowing smoke. The soldiers, in a daze from the heat and smoke and absolutely unable to defend themselves, were beaten to the ground by the raging crowd. What could be heard from the crowd was just a dull sound like the ramming of earth. There was no sound of pleading or crying for help.

I tried hard to squeeze in, wanting to beat or even to kill someone; or perhaps I was not thinking of anything and there was no need to think of anything. I just needed to follow and do whatever everyone else was doing. But, to my surprise, I did the opposite. . . .

I squeezed into a circle, where one soldier was lying motionless on the ground. Some people kicked his head, others jumped to stamp on him, as if they were acting in a kung-fu movie. He did not react at all. I heard myself shout: “No more beating, no more beating, he’s going to die!” I then picked up his left arm, threw it over my shoulder, and with one burst of strength put him on my back and moved toward the first-aid station.

The beating did not stop. Someone started to beat me and I stumbled and almost fell. But before I hit the ground, a pair of hands stretched out to support me on the right; then the same hands lifted the soldier’s right arm so that I could straighten my back. “No beating!” someone shouted. “No beating! No beating! No beating!”

People started to shout, louder and louder, increasingly in unison. In the rhythmic shouting that was representative of the character of the square, we—protected by more than a dozen pairs of arms—ran and delivered the soldier to the first-aid station at the Museum of Chinese Revolution several hundred meters away.

I later heard that not even one soldier was killed at the square, including this six-foot-tall soldier, who shed his blood, but did not lose his life. This was everyone’s good fortune.

They are all children!

I was almost at the first-aid station. Someone stood in for me. I sat on the ground, panting. My hands felt sticky. With one touch, I realized that my shoulders and chest were covered with blood, and my hair had also become a sticky cake of blood. . . .

The street to the west of the square was by now empty without a soul. Under the light along West Chang’an Avenue, I saw a scene I will not forget for the rest of my life: a woman with short hair in white clothes standing at the corner of West Chang’an Avenue, rocking back and forth while shouting and gesturing: “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! They are all children!” . . .

On West Chang’an Avenue, a phalanx formed by infantry troops stretched as far as my eyes could see. Slogans in unison rose from this phalanx: “Until the turmoil is put down, no withdrawing!” “We will strike back if we’re blocked!” “Severely punish rioters!” Suddenly, at the sound of a whistle, the troops sat down, and a forest of steel pipes emerged. These were the two-meter-long steel pipes often used at construction sites. Now resting on the shoulders of soldiers and pointing at the sky, the pipes gave a sense of a violence more direct than would be conveyed by infantry weapons. . . .

That woman, now standing in front of the skirmish line, was talking and gesturing. I realized how bad the situation was, and walked forward. But before I even got close, I saw her being knocked down to the ground by soldiers with their rifle butts. It was when I helped her stand up that I had a clear look at her: she was around 40; her plump round face was covered with blood. “They hit me,” she said. I replied: “I saw it. Ignore them. Let’s go.” . . .

Knock the Bastards Dead!

Fifteen days earlier, I had come to Beijing defying the martial law order, which had circumvented the authority of the National People’s Congress and violated the Constitution, prepared to shed my blood here. The ideological emancipation movement of the 1980s in China made people truly believe that, for the sake of national progress and the early arrival of a civilized society with democracy and freedom, any sacrifice was worthwhile. At the time, it was the loftiest realm and ultimate choice for the last batch of traditional intellectuals. So I came, with my eyes open, my hands holding my heart.

On May 21, when I first arrived in Beijing, I wandered around Tiananmen Square for a whole day. I ate my first meal that evening at a little shop called Jing Qian Restaurant. The boss was 20-plus years old, with a typical Beijing accent. Seeing me writing notes while drinking my beer, he approached me: “Reporter?” Then he started to talk on and on about how Beijing was shaken but not in chaos and about the university students whom he admired so much. It was from him that I first heard the news about “thieves on strike” in Beijing.

At the next table, five big men were eating. “Cops,” the boss said with no intention of lowering his voice. Then he took out two bottles of beer and invited me to drink with him. When I declined, he said,“Teacher, please write these few words: ‘Beijing Residents Knock Dead Team’,” and took out a piece of white cloth half the width of a bed sheet. I didn’t understand Beijing dialect or what “knock dead” meant. Frustrated, the boss explained with gestures that made me understand it to mean something like “risking it all.” I thought it probably meant a “dare-to-die team.”

There was no writing brush. So I grabbed a dishtowel, dipped it in black ink and wrote it in one go. At the end, the boss asked me to add one more sentence: “Knock the Bastards Dead!” It was even harder to understand the Beijing slang that meant “bastard.” Never mind, I thought. I drank his beer and had to go through with it. Once again, I grabbed the dishtowel, dipped it in the ink and wrote that down. That half a bed sheet became a “flag” which read: “Beijing Residents Knock Dead Team—Knock the Bastards Dead! The People Will Win!” When the flag was unfolded, everyone including those five big men cheered. The sound of applause filled the little shop. . . .

Fifteen days later, on Monday, June 5, I saw another slogan on a white banner. Underneath the slogan were the brains and blood of a 15- year-old girl, and a woman’s white shoe soaked in the pool of blood. On the wall about 1.5 meters above the ground and on a newspaper kiosk were 38 densely distributed bullet holes, with the kiosk’s back facing Outer Fuxingmen Avenue. It was said that when soldiers chased people into the small lane, they shot from inside the lane out; the girl hid in a dead-end corner behind the kiosk, and half of her head was blown off. This was the entrance of a small residential lane, to the west of Building #22 on Outer Fuxingmen Avenue. The white banner at the entrance of the lane read: “People Don’t Fear Death. How Can You Threaten Them with Death!” . . .

Hold or Withdraw?

. . .

Lying on the bricks on the square, eyes closed tightly, resting, I stretched out my limbs, making myself into the shape of the Chinese character 大(“big”). The sound of disturbance came from the north side of the square. The Goddess of Democracy statue that had been standing there for five days fell in a loud rumble, signaling the beginning of the end.

The evening glow that day was unusually spectacular. I was very grateful for the beauty of this last day. I then passed a note to the demonstrators’ broadcast station, requesting the song “Let the World Be Filled with Love.” . . .

“Tomorrow” arrived in a peculiar way: with a blackout.

At 4:30 a.m. Sunday, June 4, after the “Urgent Notice” [telling people to leave the square] was broadcast one more time, all the lights on the square were turned off. Terror descended with the darkness. Someone lit a garbage pile on fire. Like a warrior smashing his weapon before dying, some people threw the sticks and clubs that had been collected in the fire to burn them. Three to four thousand students were sitting at the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, so quietly that it was terrifying. Everyone was waiting, for the coming of the final moment.

The spotlight in front of the Great Hall of the People came on, illuminating a phalanx of infantry soldiers. As the phalanx moved aside, a small platoon of soldiers, with their backs bent low and guns in hand, came straight toward the monument. In an instant, the skirmish line surrounded the monument. Someone shouted: “All residents out, leave this place!” The soldiers began their action, pulling those who did not look like students out and pushing them away. Not too long afterward, someone grabbed my collar and pushed me out of the encirclement. The residents who were pulled out did not leave. They stood outside the ring, shouting in one voice: “The Students Are Innocent! The Students Are Innocent!”

Someone started shooting at the monument. Sparks flew. Very soon, the loudspeakers were shot out. After a brief moment of disturbance, the students who sat on the steps remained sitting and kept silent. I admired these kids, who had overcome their fear. At this moment, someone suggested taking a voice vote on whether to hold or to withdraw. . . .

This generation of students made the right decision: Hold. It was not the square they were holding onto, but the dignity and value of man.

No Enemy or Hatred

The students’ decision to stay and hold on to the square provoked the soldiers who were there to clear it. They began shooting at the monument in a dense volley to pressure the students. I felt as if I could see the eyes of the young people of the [1919] May Fourth Movement depicted in relief on the monument—eyes wide open with confusion. Then, I walked through the skirmish line and joined those at the monument. If I die, I will die with everyone else.

I remembered when I was 13, the Cultural Revolution became violent. I stayed home and read, and finished my enlightenment education by reading those grand narratives such as “The History of the Paris Commune,” “The History of the 1871 Commune,” “The Great French Revolution” and “The General History of the World.” In those days, China was a melting pot of revolution. More than five decades of Party culture had melted away the individuals and cast them into collectives: sickle and ax, or sword and plough, or a screw if not a gear. In short, all things made of iron. Many people envied the “older generation of revolutionaries” who had lived the better times. They “created happy lives for us” but deprived us of the chance to sacrifice ourselves. Those Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution fought one another for the chance to meet death and saw death as homecoming. The highest value for an individual in those days was to sacrifice one’s life, instead of enriching a beautiful life.

On Friday, June 2, when holding the square became very difficult and when the authorities’ intent to crack down became very clear, Liu Xiaobo, a PhD in literature who rushed back to China from the United States, started a new hunger strike, along with Hou Dejian, Zhou Duo, and Gao Xin. In their Hunger Strike Declaration, “the Four Gentlemen at the Square” stated: “The Chinese history of the past several thousand years has been filled with replacing one tyrant with another and mutual hatred. Because of this, we ask that the Chinese people, from now on, gradually abandon and eliminate the concept of enemy and the mentality of hatred, and completely give up the political culture in the form of class struggle, because hatred can only produce violence and dictatorship! We must start the construction of China’s democracy with a democratic spirit of tolerance and consciousness of cooperation. Democratic politics is one without enemy or hatred.” . . .

Those gunshots aimed at the monument produced new casualties from time to time. Not long afterward, from the top step of the monument, four people carried down a student with blood spraying from his neck. Out of the instinct of a medical doctor, I ran to the front and led the way to the first-aid station at the museum. But I was dumbfounded when I got there: the several ambulances that had been parked there were gone! “Ambulance! Ambulance! Ambulance!,” we all shouted our guts out while looking for them.

On the night of Friday, June 2, the busiest spot at the square had been the temporary first-aid center in front of the museum. Throughout the night, the sounds of sirens and the rolling of wheels continuously brought the injured from the square and from the streets nearby. But now, they had all disappeared without a trace. I looked to the north of the square, I didn’t see any ambulance. Instead, I saw tanks and armored personnel carriers. Under the first light of the sky there were about 40 armored vehicles in a long line, which looked like a horde of crouching monsters.

Suddenly, the monsters started to scream and their engines spewed out thick smoke, instantly obscuring the first thin pale light over the horizon.

Nine Suns

Fixing my eyes on those armored personnel carriers some 200 meters away, I was subconsciously counting them. When I counted to 28, they roared and rumbled forward. Then I thought of the tent village and the kids sleeping soundly.

Before the light was turned off in the square, I went to the tent village again, because I knew that a large number of university students from outside Beijing weren’t sitting at the base of the monument, but were resting in their tents. From the narrow pathway, I heard snores and quiet talking from the tents. In front of a tent occupied by students from a university in Tianjin, I overheard their conversation: “When are you going back?” “At dawn.” “Going home?” “No, back to school.”

A few days before, rock and roll music had come out of this tent, where six young people beat their wash basins and backpacks while singing the popular song “Nine Suns.” They repeated the last line over and over: “Oh . . . oh, nine suns! Oh . . . oh, nine suns!” Leaning against the tent window, I looked at them, tears welling up in my eyes.

But now, I had no tears. I had not shed one tear in ten hours. I was just bewildered.

I didn’t see anyone checking the tents. When I was wondering whether there were still people inside them, armored vehicles had already arrived, swooshing by me and pushing toward the flagpoles in front of the monument. With the booming sound of the cranked-up horsepower of their engines, the vehicles knocked down the flagpoles, each as thick as the diameter of a bowl. A few of these vehicles picked the tents up and charged forward, covered with the tents. There were still more than 2,000 students on the monument, and quite a number of students and residents around them. I was standing on a street east of the square, in front of the museum, watching the procession of armored vehicles passing and advancing. Wherever the vehicles passed, the tents they left behind became only half as tall as they had been.

When I recall it now, it no longer seems important to argue about this particular detail. What is important is whether people were killed or not, not how many were killed, how they were killed or where they were killed. What is truly important is why people were killed, whether it was manslaughter or murder. What’s even more important is that both sides—all sides—should examine their own faults and responsibilities in the killing, including moral responsibility. Without such self-examination, none of the dead, including students, soldiers, and residents, will be able to close their eyes and rest in peace.

Kill Li Peng!

An orderly withdrawal from the square began. It was orderly because when the big guns of the tanks pointed at our noses, when we were besieged by layers of massive military force, and when the only safe passage was the southeast corner of the square, our only way out was leave. At this final moment, it was indeed peaceful and orderly.

The soldiers’ tactic was to close in on the students. Every time a group of students withdrew, soldiers would occupy that layer. Soon afterward, the monument was swarming with soldiers. In order to be clear about the situation, I even climbed on top of an armored vehicle and saw that the first group of withdrawing students had reached Qianmen Street, south of the square, while the last group was just leaving the soldiers’ encirclement. I estimated that there were more than 1,000 people. The time was 5:10 a.m., Sunday, June 4. . . .

At this moment, I heard myself yell in a howling sound that didn’t belong to me: “Kill Li Peng! Kill Li Peng! Kill Li Peng!” The students followed, and yelled three times. The procession continued in the direction of Qianmen Street.

At this moment, I believed that if there was something that symbolized Premier Li Peng standing in front of me—be it a soldier or a tank—I would not have hesitated at all to tear it to pieces. If I had a machine gun in my hand, I would not have hesitated at all to pull the trigger. At this moment, I had completed the transformation from an intellectual to a thug in spirit. Another half step forward, I would have been a street thug, one of the mob-begotten by tyranny. In that case, I would have lost; those with power and weapons in their hands would have won. . . .

One of These Days, I Will Also Pick Up a Gun!

. . .

It is now broad daylight. The procession of students was in a distance. Walking slowly with heavy steps, I felt at a loss, in complete despair.

At the south entrance of Shibei Hutong [which runs along the west side of the Great Hall of the People], I was stopped by a group of people. Early rising residents surrounded me, asking me about the bloody night in the square—the blood on my hands and body seemed to be evidence of a bloody battle. I told them calmly what happened. A middle-aged man in glasses could not stop wiping his tears. He said: “Trust me, one of these days I will also pick up a gun.” He took out his ID: XXX, Lieutenant Colonel, People’s Armed Police. I started to cry. This was the first time I had cried out loud in ten hours. Squatting, I cried. A female college student came to rub my shoulder, talking softly. This was a student from the China University of Political Science and Law who lived nearby. She had been dragged out of the square in the middle of the night by her family. Instead of stopping my crying, the university student started crying herself. A police officer, a university student, and I—a medical doctor with 10 years of clinical experience at the West China University of Medical Sciences—were now holding each other and crying, each holding his or her ID. . . .

The Spirit and Character of Peking University

As previously arranged, we would all meet, after dispersal, in a room in a certain building at Peking University. Dragging my legs, I walked toward Peking University. I was holding high a board with the phrases I had written in a hurry that morning in the waiting hall of the emergency room: “At 7 a.m., the army was still killing residents at Qianmen!!! Severely punish murderer Li Peng! Pay back the blood debt!” Passersby looked at me in astonishment; some photographed me.

. . . Holding the board in both hands, I walked all the way to the Xuanwu Gate [southwest of the square]. A few workers on their way to work stopped me. Once they learned where I was going, they all insisted on carrying me on their bikes, and I was eventually taken to Xueyuan Road. Mourning music drifted out from the Beijing Institute of Iron and Steel. At its gate were wreaths and photos of students who were killed. Not far away, a student came over, asking: “You came down from the square? Go rest a bit.” He then took me to the University of Forestry. At a dorm, students offered me milk and bread. It was hard to swallow because my throat felt as if it were on fire. I related the whole process of “clearing the square” to a dozen or so students and teachers who were with me and were wiping their tears.

Later, a student named Zhao from the University of Forestry borrowed a bike and carried me to a room in a certain building in Peking University, where I found comrades from the National Joint Conference for Safeguarding the Constitution. I spent more than an hour telling them in detail about the night in the square and my initial estimate of at least 1,000 casualties on both sides that night. Students from Peking University and from other cities as well as a female teacher offered me water and food and stood guard so that I could rest.

Finally, I arrived at the Peking University Triangle bulletin board area, the “revolutionary holy land” that I had admired for a long time. I was comforted by the reaction at the Triangle to the violence. Overnight, public statements were posted all over the place: “Quit the Communist Party”; “Quit the Youth League”; “Girls should shave their heads; boys should grow beards.” Though this was my first time here and first time meeting the students, Peking University definitely felt like home, warm and familiar. Perhaps, we all shared the same kind of love; or perhaps we were after the same kind of spirit and character? . . .

Let’s Go! Ignore Them!

Monday, June 5. The rain had stopped and the sky was clear. Waking up, I could see that people still looked frightened. It was rumored that Peking University would be placed under military control today. I didn’t want to be caught. So I left in the very early morning.

After one full night of sleep, my energy was restored. I walked southward on Haidian Road and arrived at the Ganjiakou area before I even realized it. It was late morning. Feeling hungry and thirsty, I bought a few tomatoes and sat down on the curb and started to eat. Four people surrounded me. “What are you doing?” “Eating.”

“Where are you from?” “Chengdu.” “What are you here for?” “Sightseeing.” “Stand up!” one man yelled. I stood up slowly. “What are you doing here? I’m asking you.” Saying this, they started being physical and wanted to search me. I resisted as hard as I could, but my hands were already twisted behind my back. “What are you doing!What are you doing!” A few people ran over and started jostling with them. A man with a big square face helped me break out of the encirclement. “Let’s go. Ignore them.” The “us” pulled me away from “them” as quickly as possible. Other passersby did their best to block those plainclothes police.

“You need to change your clothes,” he said. I looked down. No wonder! I was covered with blood, looking like a murderer. I wouldn’t be able to walk very far before I would be arrested again. This worker took me to the Ganjiakou Department Store, where he bought me a beige-colored shirt for 16 yuan. As he was taking his money out, I stopped him. “I haven’t even thanked you. How can I let you pay for this,” I said. My later experience proved that this worker had saved my life at least twice. In the morning, he saved me from the plainclothes police. In the afternoon, at the Xidan intersection, I definitely would have been shot to death if I still had that bloody shirt on.

It’s a pity that I didn’t write down the name of my savior. But I know that workers and residents from Beijing are the best people in the world. Beijing in 1989 had an air of sacredness and purity. It shined with the brilliance and beauty of humanity. Thank you, Beijing!

The whole day next day, I toured the former battlefield and caressed the wounds of Beijing. . . .

At Muxudi in west Beijing [where there was heavy fighting], I saw more than 20 bullet holes in a small window of a subway station. Leaning against it was a bicycle with two bullet holes through its frame. On the wall between the fifth and sixth floors of the Yanjing Hotel, more than sixty bullet holes could clearly be seen. It looked as if, from the ground to the sky, no place was spared gunshots. Along Outer Fuxingmen Avenue, all public buses that had been used as road barriers were sprayed with bullets and were burned. One could understand the direct attacks in the streets; what was hard to explain was why the buildings on both sides of the street were showered with bullets that flew into people’s houses. . . .

This was a city that had been violated. The loyal sons and daughters of this city resisted the violation with their lives and blood, refused to be humiliated, and defended the dignity of this city. But, even today, they still have the evil label of “thugs” attached to them. This city should not forget them.

What I saw with my own eyes at Fuxing Hospital confirmed the brutality of the “battlefield situation.” This was a small neighborhood hospital closest to Muxudi. It had no special departments for chest or brain surgery, just a general surgical department. According to a nurse, there were at minimum more than 100 who had head injuries or chest or abdominal perforation wounds that night. After they were given simple bandages and treatment to stop the bleeding, they were transferred out of the hospital. Still, there were some 40 corpses in the hospital that night, most of them already dead upon arrival. Afraid of getting in future trouble with the government, some families took the corpses of their family members away that night. Now, in the morgue that had been converted from a large classroom, there were 38 corpses lying side by side. All this happened at just one single intersection on one single night. How many such intersections were there in Beijing? . . .

Thank you, Beijing

Gunshots started again. The armored personnel carriers returning from defending Fuxingmen spotted me from afar. I crossed the street unhurriedly and sat down under a tree at the Xidan intersection. The soldiers didn’t let me get away. Five or six of them surrounded me and, barely saying anything, they started whacking me with the butts of their rifles, knocking me onto the ground. They hit me on my back as if they were pounding garlic. I didn’t feel the pain at first. It even felt kind of comfortable. But very soon, I couldn’t catch my breath and I started to fade. Half-conscious, I thought of this: lucky I changed out of that bloody shirt.

My diagnosis at the People’s Hospital was: injuries on the shoulders, back, and contusions of the soft tissue on the 8th and 9th lower right side ribs. Tearing of spleen? Collapsed lung? The prescription was overnight observation at the hospital and one bottle of some red liquid. Doctors there kindly urged me to leave if I was able, because soldiers were coming to the hospital every day to take the injured away along with their medical records. I’ve had ten years experience of clinical surgery and knew well the connection between internal and external injuries. I didn’t want to be rash. I stayed the night at the hospital before leaving on the following day.

What was unforgettable was that when I fell, when I was repeatedly struck, a few heads stuck out from the Xidan intersection, waving at me and asking me to crawl over. At that moment, I started to feel excruciating pain and was no longer able to move. As soon as the soldiers turned their backs, two residents crawled over along the foot of the wall and picked me up and ran as fast as they could. A flatbed tricycle was waiting. They helped each other throwing me onto that tricycle, shouting “Move! Move!” and took me to the emergency room of People’s Hospital.

I wasn’t able to thank them in time. I didn’t even take a good look at these people who saved me. This was Beijing in 1989. The ugliness of mankind and beauty of human nature were intertwined, fully demonstrated, and let loose to the utmost. . . . Over the past 18 years, I don’t remember how many times I’ve had the impulse to write it down. But every time I picked up a pen, I couldn’t put down any word. For a long time, I have been an action taker who writes with his feet rather than a writer or narrator. I have no confidence when it comes to writing.

But this time, I want to write and I want to tell. I should thank Mr. Ma Li from Hong Kong, who, on May 15, 2007, made some irresponsible remarks that insulted my intelligence and trampled on my memory. He reminded me of evil, not beauty. I wanted to tell him that what I wanted to remember was beauty only. The year 1989 was one of beauty in the contemporary history of China; Beijing in 1989 was full of the value of truth and brilliance of humanity.

Because of all this, I said it. I said it not for saving my soul but for expressing my gratitude to life, to Beijing!

On June 10, on the train home, I took out my notebook, and on it was written: “May 21, first day in Beijing, I copied a short poem, ‘Dialogue,’ that was posted on the monument.” The Democracy Movement of 1989 started with the wish for a dialogue and ended in confrontation. Even though there were too, too many issues that should be reflected upon, the spirit of “Dialogue” will forever remain so beautiful!

Because of this, on the train trip west, I read this poem to everyone, to express my deep gratitude for the ultimate beauty of an era.


Child: Mama, why are these young aunties and uncles not eating?

Mama: They hope to receive a gift.

What gift?


Who presents them this beautiful gift?


Mama, why are there so, so many people in the square?

This is a holiday.

What holiday?

A festival of light.

Where is the light?

In every person’s heart.

Mama, mama, who are in the ambulances?


Why are the heroes lying down?

To allow the children in the back row to see.

See what?

Flowers in rainbow colors.

May 22, 2007 Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Translator’s Notes

1. Qincheng Prison: A maximum-security prison in northern Beijing that houses political prisoners. ^

2. The Gadfly, a novel by Ethel Lilian Voynich published in 1897, tells the story of the Italian revolutionary movement through its protagonist, Arthur Burton. ^

3. Rudin, a novel by Ivan Turgenev first published in 1856, centers around the protagonist Dimitrii Nikolaevich Rudin. ^

4. Ernesto (Che) Guevara (1928–1967) was an Argentine doctor who became a Marxist revolutionary, guerrilla leader, and a major figure in the Cuban Revolution. ^

5. Alexandros Panagoulis (1939–1976), a Greek politician and poet, was known for resisting military dictatorship in Greece. He attempted to assassinate dictator Georgios Papadopoulos in 1968, and was later arrested and tortured while in detention. ^

6. Korchagin is the protagonist of How the Steel Was Tempered, a novel by Nikolai Ostrovsky that was written during the Stalinist era and published in 1932. Korchagin, who fought for the Bolsheviks, is considered the archetypal hero of socialist realism. ^