Skip to content Skip to navigation

Documenting Death: Reflections after Ten Years

January 31, 1999

"People see life as joy and light; death as fear and darkness. But on the scales of human worth, life and death balance each other. Without understanding the heaviness of death, one's life is insubstantial."

Jiang Peikun (Scholar and husband of Ding Zilin)

Recounting her journey from bereaved mother to human rights activist, DING ZILIN explains why she sees her search for the specifics of June Fourth deaths as not only part of her own catharsis, but also an essential element in the awakening of the people of her country.




This year marks the tenth anniversary of the June Fourth Massacre. It is also the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Confronted with these two anniversaries, I think of death.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has held political power since 1949. Half a century has passed. Naturally, on the "Big 50th Celebration" there are many reasons to celebrate. But I believe that there will be some items excluded from the official list.

In the first decade of the People's Republic, the CCP launched the Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries campaign, followed by one for the Elimination of Counterrevolutionaries, and then the Anti-Rightist Movement. As the 1950s became the 1960s, China suffered the so-called "Three Years' Natural Disasters." In the second decade of the People's Republic, the CCP initiated the unprecedented Cultural Revolution, which lasted well into the 1970s and ended with the Tiananmen Incident of April 4, 1976. The CCP opened the 1980s with the crackdown on the Xidan Democracy Wall Movement. And ultimately, the CCP deployed tens of thousands of rampaging troops violently to suppress the 1989 Tiananmen movement. In the fifth decade of the People's Republic, it seems that there have been no major incidents, but it is still too soon to tell.

Certainly, the CCP will not "celebrate" the above-mentioned events. Today's CCP leaders do not have the courage to face the bloody history that they and their predecessors created. They fear the mere thought or mention of this history by the Chinese people.

But as China's 1.2 billion people celebrate the founding of the PRC, should they remember this bloody history? I believe they should. During the last 50 years of Chinese Communist rule, up to 80 million people died of unnatural causes. This shocking figure sticks in my mind. These 80 million people were not casualties of war; they died in what was supposed to be peace-time! Perhaps if the 1989 massacre had not occurred, if my son had not been killed in that tragedy, and if I had not been constantly interacting with families of June Fourth victims, perhaps I would be like others-discussing this figure only as dinner conversation. But it has already been 50 years. For those who have ties to any of those 80 million people, and for those who do not, it has come time to weigh the significance of this figure. Amid all the commemorations, it is the commemoration of death that may prove the most important for the Chinese people.








A person can make many different choices. I made the choice of documenting death. I cannot possibly record all the 80 million deaths or the total number of those killed ten years ago in the Beijing Massacre. But I have, at least, been able to document 155 individuals who died in the 1989 crackdown. They all have names. For a few, I do not yet know their complete appellations, but information on their circumstances were provided by people whose full identities are known. This figure of 155 may seem negligible compared to 80 million, but I have come to realize that even if I had documented only one of these names, I would still consider my life to have some sort of significance. If our fellow countrymen had squarely faced the successive onslaughts of death that occurred in China's past, perhaps we could have prevented this most recent tragedy.

In the last ten years, I have scaled a mountain of corpses and I have floated in the tears of the victims' families. At times, this experience smothered me and sapped my will to live. But ultimately, it led me to understand the meaning of death.

Therefore my reflections on the last ten years must begin with a memory of death.

On June 3, 1989, at 11:00 p.m. my son Jiang Jielian was killed at Muxudi. At that time he was only a high school student who had just turned 17 years old.

On June 4, 1989, at 3:30 a,m., Wang Nan, another high school student, was killed at the southern intersection of Nanchang Road, on the west side of Tiananmen Square. He was just 19 years old.

A few days later, a middle-aged woman came to my home, accompanied by her husband. She told me about the events surrounding her son's death. She appeared calm, but I could see that she was suppressing immense pain deep in her heart. She was Wang Nan's mother, Zhang Xianling. She told me that her son's body had been dug out from a pit near Tiananmen Square; it had already started to decompose and was infested with maggots.

She was the first June Fourth survivor that I befriended. We decided to search for other June Fourth victims' families and from that time forward, our idea began to grow.

In the year after the massacre, on the day after Qing Ming (Grave Sweeping Day), Zhang Xianling sent me a note which she had found at Wang Nan's grave at the Wan'an Public Cemetery's Hall of Remains. The note said something to this effect: "We share the same fate. On June 4, I lost my husband. Now my son and I rely on each other for survival. There is so much I can't come to grips with. If you wish, please contact me." In the note, the woman provided her first and last names, her address and her phone number at work. She was the second June Fourth survivor that I befriended.

For a period after this, we also came into contact with a few other victims' families. As kindred spirits, we gathered together to tell of our experiences, to weep and to release the pain and grief that we were keeping buried in our hearts. When I calmly considered seeking an explanation for what had happened, my shaken spirit could not be stilled again.

I decided to break the silence.

Therefore prior to Qing Ming in 1991, Zhang Xianling and I did an interview with a Hong Kong newspaper, revealing to the world for the first time the truth of our sons' deaths.

In May of the same year, I did an interview with ABC, the American television station. I said that my son was just a child, but on the night of June 3, less than an hour after he left home, his short life was ended. I condemned the government authorities for launching the massacre in 1989 and denounced the lies that Li Peng had fabricated about June Fourth. I demanded that the government authorities make known the truth behind the "June Fourth Incident," and I demanded that Jiang Zemin reveal the total number of dead and a list of those killed. I called on all people of conscience in China and abroad not to forget the tragedy that occurred in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and not to forget those who have forever been denied their right to life, as they no longer have a voice to speak on their own behalf.

After this, I came under attack by the CCP and encountered ceaseless persecution. In the beginning, I went to court to lodge a suit against those who had shown their faces in persecuting me. But I soon came to understand that I was not being persecuted by any specific person or any specific office, but by the entire CCP. When I came to this conclusion, I felt a complete sense of release. I decided to do what I wanted to do: to track down and document death.

Zhang Xianling and I poured all our energies into finding June Fourth victims' families. No matter the weather, we spent entire days traveling the broad streets and narrow alleys of Beijing, following up on whatever tips and clues we could find, in order to make contact with victims' families. We meticulously recorded information on the victims, including first and last name, sex, age, profession, place of death, the events surrounding death, the victim's family situation and so on.

Eventually, we came out with our first list. Included in this list were not only victims who were killed, but also those who were injured and disabled. At that time I thought: since the government has failed to present the number and names of those killed, and the truth of June Fourth, then it is up to us to document the full reality.

In June 1993, I was invited to speak as a representative of a non-governmental organization at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Although the Chinese government prevented me from attending, I was able to present the Commission with a written statement. In this statement, I made public the list of June Fourth victims, which at that time stood at 48. I said, "As a mother of a June Fourth victim, I can never forget the bodies of men and women that were lying in pools of blood. I want everyone to know that these men and women once lived in this world. This world was theirs, but now they are forever lost to it. I also want everyone to know why and how they perished."

In 1994, the fifth anniversary of June Fourth, with the help of friends I published a book. The book is called The Factual Account of a Search For the June Fourth Victims by Ding Zilin. In this book, I made public a list of 96 individuals who were killed and 49 who had been injured. This was the second name list that I issued.

In the preface to the book, I wrote, "I don't wish to add any burden to a life that is already overburdened with heaviness, nor do I wish to cast any gloom onto what little happiness I might have, but I cannot turn a blind eye to the pain of those who suffer my same fate. In this cold and uncaring world, they have lost their loved ones but have nowhere to turn for consolation. As a group, they have been forgotten and forsaken by society. Under these circumstances, others may be able to close their eyes and shut their mouths, but I cannot!"

I made the firm decision to continue in my mission of locating and helping June Fourth victims and their families, until the government itself actively takes up this project and there is no longer need for our efforts.








Now, another five years have passed. My list currently has documentation about 155 victims who were killed and 65 victims who were wounded. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but at least this tip has now been exposed. More importantly, standing behind this list is a group of dauntless survivors, who are surrounded by a growing number of supporters. In the first five years following June Fourth, the search for victims' families was the work of a few fellow survivors. Now, in the second five years following June Fourth, this project has gradually widened to include the broader society.

There is a retired soldier who is now over 70 years old who lost his beloved wife to our "brothers" in the "People's Army." He joined our group of survivors a few years ago, and introduced us to the new companion whom he has married in his old age. In our group, these two elders found a sense of comfort and warmth that they had not been able to find anywhere else. And they are always looking for ways to help us. When they found out that there are many others who share our fate, with nowhere to turn, they actively became involved in our search activities.

One sweltering summer day, this old couple came to see me while I was being watched by plainclothes officers of the State Security Bureau. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned that someone had given me a tip for finding another victim's family but I didn't have a precise name or address. At once, the old couple promised that they would go to investigate. Later they told me that in scorching weather, they had spent many hours on a public bus, walked a long, muddy path and wandered about a building complex until they finally found a residential apartment. But after many inquiries, they could not find the family in question. When they were about to give up, they saw a group of old women talking on the side of the street. They approached the women and asked, "Is there a family around here that lost a son in an accident?" The old couple didn't dare explain their reason for coming; they only said that they had come from that family's hometown. Perhaps it was this modesty that disarmed these old women. One pointed to another woman and said, "It's her. She has lost her son, and she herself has just come out of the hospital." The woman who was pointed out was the very person who the couple was looking for. Her son went missing on June Fourth, and disappeared without trace. He was never again seen alive, but no body was ever found. Subsequently, her husband became very despondent and died of sickness in 1994. She then suffered from mental illness. She is a retired worker who was ailing and ageing. One of them was a retired soldier and the other a retired worker, they had different life experiences, different professions, different positions in society, but the same fate has linked their hearts together. In this same way, our entire group of survivors is interconnected.

Also a few years ago, a Chinese student who was studying in Spain wrote to me after learning about me in the media. He said that in his hometown, there was a famous "child prodigy" who was just 15 when he tested into the youth class at Qinghua University. He heard that this boy had died in the June Fourth Massacre. First I investigated at Qinghua, but found nothing. I then asked the student to contact his friend and family in his hometown to better understand the details of the situation. After a time I eventually got the victim's name and the name of his older brother, who was abroad, as well as the name of his parents. Although I knew the parents' work unit, I did not know their precise address. Nevertheless, I tried to write to the parents. But because I could not risk writing the name of the victim on the envelope, I simply used the brother's name and wrote, "To the Parents of XXX.". I sent several letters, but did not receive a response. At that time, I happened to receive a letter from a young person in the outer provinces. Because he lived just 300 meters from the victim's family, I asked him to hand-deliver my letter to the family's address. Shortly thereafter, I got a reply. They sent me a description of the events around their son's death, his photograph and other materials. Thus I found out that the victim had graduated from Qinghua University long before his death. When he was killed, he had already completed a Ph.D. at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was 23 years old. Last year, his parents visited me in Beijing, and from then on, we've kept in touch.

One evening about five years ago, a man and a woman came to my house uninvited. The man said that he had studied in the United States, but the woman preferred not to disclose her background. Towards the end of my conversation with the man, the woman let it slip out that she had once heard of a woman who had lost her husband on June Fourth and that the woman had a daughter. Naturally, I asked her to make further inquiries, and she agreed. But two years passed without a word from her, and there was no way for me to get in touch. I could only be patient and wait. One day, I finally received a letter from the woman. It was unsigned, but it did have the name of the widow and her work unit. I immediately wrote to the enclosed address. I sent one, two, three letters... Another two years passed, still with no response. Then an opportunity presented itself: I had a friend who was traveling out of Beijing, so I asked him to go to the actual address to look. This friend then asked for the assistance of a native of the town, and with some difficulty, he finally found the widow. The woman's workplace was a so-called "confidential work unit." Because of her special standing, she was watched very closely by her work unit, and my many letters to her had been confiscated. In 1989, her husband had gone to Beijing on business just at the time of the massacre and was mercilessly killed. Her daughter is now in middle school. As mother and daughter, they rely on each other to survive.

On my list there has long been a name that is missing the contact information for the family. Despite eight years of effort, I could not locate the whereabouts of the victim's kin. I was constantly worrying over this because I, myself, have experienced the pain and loneliness of losing a loved one. But the more I waited, the less progress was made. There was nothing more I could do. I had tried contacting the officials, teachers and students at the victim's school's to find out about the family, but all attempts failed. I also asked friends to make inquiries with the victim's province and district, but this also was fruitless. From then on, I basically gave up the idea of furthering the search.

In the autumn of 1997, my husband's high school classmates came to visit us in our home in the south. While we were chatting, one friend mentioned that his daughter-in-law had a middle school classmate who was killed during June Fourth. At that time, the person was a college student in Beijing. I thought that this person was a newly discovered victim. We instructed our friend to ask his daughter-in-law to provide us with more details, especially the name and address of the victim's family. Later the friend told me that his daughter-in-law had saved the name and address of the victim, but had lost it over time. However, she contacted her classmates in other provinces and cities and had obtained an address which was very imprecise. Hoping that luck would be on my side, I used this address to send a letter to the victim's family. Exceeding all my expectations, my letter was received in a matter of days, despite mistakes in the name, address and postal code. After receiving a response, I then came to discover that it was the very family that I had been struggling to find over the last eight years. I could not help but think, perhaps the persecuted spirit of the victim was helping me from the netherworld!








I'll stop writing now, because this is not a story. It is not meant to just provoke the easy tears of its readers.

I often consider the fact that people have only one life, only one. Life is sacred. But death is also sacred. If everyone could see life and death in this way, maybe we could decrease the number of calamities and massacres.

As Chinese people, we may have many goals and dreams, but I think we must put a priority on establishing a moral system in which the reckless disregard for human life is put behind us.

If someone were to ask me, why did you choose to document death? I think this would be my answer.

Ding Zilin
March 25, 1999
Translated by Judy M. Chen