Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Tiananmen Square: A memory and a poem by Manash Bhattacharjee

Footage of Tienenman Square massacre (short attribution to begin with)

It is precisely twenty-five years that the demonstration and vigil in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, complete with a polystere statue of Liberty was broken up by the army with many deaths, just how many we don't know, because the whole massacre was quickly covered up. The scenes - which were filmed - are still vivid in my mind since that year, in 1989, we were spending most of the year in Hungary which was itself undergoing a decisive and dramatic political change.

That change was well under way but nothing had been decided yet. Hope, however, was high,because President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union seemed to be unlocking and opening doors everywhere in the Soviet empire and was due in China where one of the greatest doors of all seemed to be opening. That was why the students and people generally had gathered in Tiananmen. They were anticipating Gorby's arrival and the bursting wide of the doors. They were not only knocking on the door but had camped around it.

But though the doors were open no one - not even in Eastern Europe - had yet walked through them for fear of a reversal. What if Gorbachev was toppled? What if the hard-liners in the Kremlin let loose the army again to restore their own version of order? There would be terror and bloodshed.

That was the fear in Budapest back in March that year when a big unofficial demonstration was planned for the 15th, the anniversary of the 1948 revolution. One writer friend advised us to store up food and stay in. I couldn't resist though and joined the demonstration, which began in tension, then gained confidence as the demonstrators began to march along the Danube embankment. I left them at that point, right in the midle of the bridge (I felt out of place suddenly) but the point had been made. The door was more open than it had been and look, the nation had even managed a brisk march outside before moving back behind the door again.

Much else happened but then came 4 June. We could watch events live on the TV. China was another world and the cameras were almost like visitors from an alien planet. Then came the horror and the heroism, followed by the terrible realisation that everything had failed and the knowledge that it would be erased from history with a ruthlessness we were familiar with. Another blank sheet for the history books.

One last thing by way of preface to the poem by Manash Bhattarchajree below in commemoration of the events ofthe 4 June. Twelve days later there was an enormous rally in Budapest for the  reburial of prime minister Imre Nagy and the honouring of several hundred other victims of the repression following the failure of the 1956 revolution. The atmosphere in Heroes Square was tense again. A quarter of a million people were crowded there. Less than two weeks after Tiananmen this local door was being forced to open still further. There would only be one way of shutting again now, the Tienanmen way.

I myself wrote a series of poems recording the political events and moods of that year. Those appeared in my collection, Bridge Passages (1991) and one poem in particular, Chinese White, was based on Tienanmen.

Bei Dao is a major Chinese poet known as a leading member of the Misty Poets group ('misty' because their work was to be read in allusive fashion). He was exiled that year and has only recently returned to China.

Tiananmen Square
For Bei Dao

They were all Chinese

Those who fired the bullets were Chinese
Those who took the bullets were Chinese 
The Chinese fired at the Chinese in China


You will die at the hands of your people
You won’t find any shade of irony there


Let’s ask why old men desire young blood
Let’s ask why a party is a cannibalistic idea 
Let’s ask why freedom needs governments


The heroic song that died on a martyr’s lips
A placard of a poem held by a severed arm
Splinters of sun falling over stone-like eyes

Lies a caged shadow of a breathing dragon

Manash Bhattacharjee
June 4, 2014.
(Manash is a poet living in New Delhi, India. His first collection, Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems, has been recently published by The London Magazine)

This is a much more direct poem than mine was. It addresses the situation directly with a clear challenge. Its mode is more anger and moral passion than horror and historical resignation as was - to some degree - the case with mine. It is a poem written now. Mine was written then in the mood of 'Here we go again'. Bhattacharjee's is a graphic poem presenting us with ideological questions ('Let's ask why freedom needs governments') It talks of martyrdom and gestures suppressed by violence. It raises the symbolic spectre of the dragon, so important to China. But however it begins and ends with China its force depends on fierce oppositions between old and young, between parties and cannibalism and between freedom and government. The issues are between them.

The options on 4 June 1989 would have been just as clear to the demonstrators as to the state. That marvellous clip of the man with shopping bags stopping the tanks reminds us of the tipping point. He held up the tanks but the tanks moved on elsewhere to drench the square and the streets around it with blood, the blood that was soon wiped away.

I have in fact commemorated Tiananmen on this blog before, on 4 June 2009, on the twentieth anniversary. Those interested in what I said then and in the poem, Chinese White, can read the post here.

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

I tried to sum it up in haiku form:

yesterday's weedkiller
today is plant food
these yellow flowers know no fear