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A Space to Dream

It didn’t look like the site of a massacre. It looked like a busy arterial road in the heart of a prosperous capital. But there on the edge of vision, skirting the pavements, skulking in the shadows, were the uniformed and plain clothed enforcers of amnesia. They were there to ensure that memories remained locked inside people’s heads, unspoken as the city drifted through another anniversary.

It was twenty years to the day since the People’s Liberation Army had blasted their way into Beijing to put down mass protests that had developed in the spring of 1989. I was looking at Muxidi Bridge, a key flashpoint where civilians had clashed with troops that night, as the army marched down Chang’an Avenue towards the protesters on Tiananmen Square. An unknown number of Beijing residents had been cut down here as they attempted to block the military’s path.

There was no official commemoration that night, of course, other than an overwhelming police presence on the square. Instead there were furtive moments of remembrance, quietly expressed. ‘Wear it to remember the students,’ a street vendor had whispered when she sold a wristband to my wife at Dongzhimen subway station. Later, as I retraced the army’s route down Chang’an Avenue, a solitary young man passed me heading for the square, dressed all in white – China’s traditional colour of mourning. His head was down and he spoke to no one. Rock music blasted from headphones covering his ears. On his face was an expression of pain. Even in the moment I wondered if he was real, or a spectral trace of the uncounted dead, forever roaming Chang’an Avenue as the indifferent luxury vehicles of modern Beijing glided by.

The events of June 1989 have congealed at the heart of contemporary China, an untended wound that the band-aid of economic growth has covered but not healed. While the country as a whole has yet to come to terms with those events, or even formally to acknowledge their existence, China’s writers, filmmakers and painters have repeatedly returned to that night to reflect, mourn and memorialise – even if their work remains hidden or unavailable inside China itself. Many of the key pieces of Tiananmen literature have been written by exiles, sometimes in English rather than Chinese, and have been published in the West, or else in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the mainland’s censorial constraints do not (yet) extend.

I Am China (2014) by the Britain-based Guo Xiaolu, for example, traces the love between a rock musician and his partner as they struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of the massacre. Their story is discovered piecemeal by a British translator working through a pile of their letters in present-day London. Beijing Coma (2008) by the exiled Ma Jian – also based in the UK – focuses on a young man submerged in a decade-long coma caused by a gunshot wound sustained during the military crackdown, surrounded by a country that has been forced to forget all that happened. Yu Hua’s collection of brilliantly pithy essays, China in Ten Words (2012), opens with a reflection on renmin (‘the people’), a word Yu says he never really understood until he witnessed ordinary citizens attempting to block the army’s entry to the capital in 1989.

And now we have Do Not Say We Have Nothing, one of the most eloquent and moving fictions to emerge from those harrowing events, surprisingly not by a Chinese author, but the Canadian Madeleine Thien. This is her second novel that weaves traumatic episodes from Asia’s twentieth-century history into the experience of present-day diasporas. Her first, Dogs at the Perimeter, centred on survivors of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, as they attempted to rebuild their lives in Canada. Thien has proven adept at the difficult task of convincingly portraying the lingering impact of such horrific events. Perhaps her remove has provided the distance necessary to make sense of such suffering.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing opens in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Movement, as a young teenage protester named Ai Ming, on the run from the Chinese authorities, arrives at the home of a Vancouver-based Chinese woman and her ten-year-old daughter, Marie. The initial scenes are told from Marie’s perspective – a young girl mystified by her mother and absent father’s confused pasts, and their links with the teenage escapee now residing in their home. Despite the age gap and her initial feelings of resentment, Marie strikes up a friendship with Ai Ming, and through this relationship gradually comes to understand the deeply troubled world her parents came from.

Marie is something of a stand-in for Thien herself – a Canadian with familial links to China but no direct experience of its troubled story. She provides a way into this tale for both the author and readers, as Do Not Say We Have Nothing traces an erratic course through the twists of the past half-century, including the war with Japan, the establishment of the People’s Republic, the famine and mass deportations of the late 1950s, and the lethal street violence of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Despite Marie’s presence as a way into the story, the book may, I think, be challenging for anyone not familiar with the broad sweep of these events, although it provides an insightful imagining of their impact on ordinary people. At the middle of all this turmoil is the friendship – perhaps love – between a student and a talented young composer at the Shanghai Conservatorium in the mid-1960s. The student is Marie’s father, the composer Ai Ming’s, the course of their unconsummated connection a symptom of the perverting impact of politics in extremis on all human relations.

It is to Thien’s great credit that for all the history that informs her novel, these characters’ stories are never merely symbolic renderings of China’s painful past. Do Not Say We Have Nothing evokes the damage done when everyday emotions such as love, longing and youthful ambition collide with devastating public events beyond any individuals’ control. We see how the oscillations of Mao’s totalitarian system casually laid lives to waste, with people treated as putty to be remoulded by the ever-changing contours of his grand social experiment. ‘We had to become only what they proclaimed us to be,’ a character says at one point. ‘We existed to be forged and re-forged by the Party.’ Although the book begins in the months following June 1989, Thien’s layered approach shows us that the killing that night was simply a particularly public display of violence by a regime that had relied on murderous brutality since its inception.

A willingness to forget is perhaps the most dangerous feature of the pervasive cynicism that June 4 has produced, fostered by a ruling party that regards history as a legitimising narrative it has the sole right to define. The deep roots of the country’s prevailing amnesia are beautifully, heartbreakingly evoked during a simple passage in which a minor character recalls a conversation with Ai Ming’s uncle, Wen the Dreamer. At the time of their talk, the two men are prisoners in a labour camp in China’s northwest desert, based on the real-life Jiabiangou. Here, thousands of ‘Rightists’ – a category that included anyone who dared criticize the regime, as well as those selected to fill deportation quotas – starved to death in the late 1950s.

I said to him, ‘One day the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Jiabangou [sic] will be common knowledge, the way the Boxer Rebellion and the Long March are written into our books and our memories. My brother, we will not be abandoned by history.’

Wen said to me, ‘That will not happen in our lifetimes, nor the lifetime of this stone beneath my foot.’ Then he looked down at the ground on which there were no visible stones, only dry grass and splintered branches. Who was right? It’s too soon to say.

As his pronouncement implies, Wen is the novel’s most overtly figurative character; a writer, dreamer and allegory for a more open and democratic modern cultural brutally suppressed under Mao’s rule. He appears only fleetingly in the flesh, his recurring presence evoked instead via a text-within-the-text – a novel of indeterminate age called The Book of Records, that Wen copies and recopies by hand, subtly altering the story over many decades, each chapter circulating hand-to-hand as history plays on around it. The Book of Records tells the tale of Da Wei and his partner May Fourth, the latter named after China’s first mass protest movement that pushed for modernisation, resistance to Western imperialism, and democratic reform in 1919. Like Wen the Dreamer, the pair are condemned to wander, forever pushed to the nation’s periphery, yet somehow surviving in the cracks opened by each succeeding earthshaking upheaval.

Initially Wen uses his hand-copied text, delivered chapter by chapter, to woo a young singer in pre-Liberation Shanghai. Later, the pages are passed around various members of his family, including Ai Ming’s father. They are re-copied by others, chapters are added, and characters transformed, as Wen and his relatives are tossed by the tides of Mao’s relentless political campaigns. The Book of Records never ends, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing concludes with an adult Marie searching for Ai Ming in contemporary China, penning her own variation of The Book of Records and posting each chapter online. It’s a haunting, iterative avowal of literature’s importance as the bearer of a nation’s historical memory and conscience.

The Book of Records also speaks to a rich, palimpsestic tradition of Chinese historiography, quite different to linear, evidence-based Western historical discourse. Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, penned around 100 BC, set the template for this practice, marking out 2500 years of Chinese history through a series of biographical fragments concerning both leaders and other significant figures. Each succeeding dynasty wrote its own interpretation of the nation’s past and overlaid previous accounts. Some historians paid a heavy price for their assessments – Sima Qian was castrated and imprisoned by his emperor, resisting the temptation to suicide in order to complete his work. Thien’s book is her rendition of contemporary China’s story, a narrative that will be taken up by others to express their own truths in the future. The spectres that haunt the country can still be redeemed, Thien’s account whispers, if only their presence can be acknowledged.

Nineteen eighty-nine is also the shifting centre of journalist Madeleine O’Dea’s take on China’s recent history, quite different to Thien’s elegiac work. This non-fiction account of China’s post-Mao decades is told through the lives of the country’s contemporary artists – or, in O’Dea’s words, ‘people who have made it their life’s work to see their country clearly.’ She makes the case that China’s ‘economic awakening’ – its transition from a centrally planned economy to a market-driven corporatist state – has been ‘closely intertwined’ with an artistic awakening, as artists prised open Mao’s tight grip on culture and began marking out a space of creative reflection and experimentation.

The early chapters lend considerable credence to O’Dea’s claim, as she describes in energetic prose the key role that writers and painters played in the social ferment of late 1970s Beijing. In the wake of Mao’s death in 1976, and the arrest of the pro-Cultural Revolution faction in the leadership – the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ – both culture and the economy began to liberalise and open to the outside world. Publicly, workers, peasants and intellectuals rubbed shoulders around the Democracy Wall, a spontaneously created forum for democratic debate that sprung up in Beijing’s Xidan district, just west of Tiananmen Square. Behind closed doors, artists and writers began embarking on journeys of creative exploration unimaginable just a few years before.

The suffocating world these men and women had grown up in comes across in a passage describing one painter’s efforts in 1978 to create a Chinese version of Delacroix’s iconic painting Liberty Leading the People. Huang Rui was inspired by the first protest movement in the history of Communist China, that had played out around Tiananmen Square in the dying days of Mao’s rule. Like the more famous movement thirteen years later, the 1976 protests ended in bloodshed, although on nothing like the scale of 1989. Working with a nude model for ‘Liberty’ proved a revelation for Huang, as the puritanical environment of the time had provided him with no opportunity for sexual experience, despite the fact he was in his mid-20s.

Even 35 years later Huang Rui blushed when he tried to describe to me how he felt that day, seeing a woman naked for the first time, weighing the danger of painting an event that was condemned as criminal, knowing that even to paint a nude body was forbidden.

The Phoenix Years is rich in such anecdotes that convey the mixture of fear and breathless anticipation that characterised the rapidly transforming milieu of the People’s Republic after Mao’s death. They also act as an important corrective to the perception that Deng Xiaoping – China’s paramount leader in the post-Mao years – directed the country into a more open era of reform. On all fronts, including the economic and especially the cultural, the charge towards greater freedom was led by common people, often at great personal cost. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, the Communist Party was uncertain how to respond to the pressure for change bubbling up from below, and there were several fierce attempts to keep it contained, such as the wave of arrests that followed the shutdown of the Democracy Wall in 1979, and the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in 1983. The cultural renaissance that unfolded in the latter half of the 1980s is all the more remarkable when one considers this resistance and the paucity of resources at the artists’ disposal.

As the decade progressed, ‘scar literature’ recounted the experiences of the Cultural Revolution, poets proclaimed a new freedom of thought, and painters extolled the virtues of individual expression. On television, the documentary series River Elegy (1988) questioned some of the founding myths of the People’s Republic and the assumptions informing Chinese culture more generally. In the cinema – unfortunately not discussed by O’Dea – Fifth Generation directors like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou offered rich re-imaginings of the country’s pre-revolutionary past. Some of this work appears naïve in retrospect, particularly River Elegy’s uncritical call to embrace Western culture. Much of it, however, contains rich analytical insight still pertinent today. O’Dea captures the energy and hope of the period, tracing the close friendships that bonded many of these cultural pioneers, her stories inflected by her own experiences as a visitor to China and later as a foreign correspondent based in Beijing. (Disclosure: O’Dea and I were briefly colleagues at The Beijinger magazine in the late 2000s.)

Of course, there’s a horrible inevitability in reading about this period today, as every step feels like part of a remorseless progression towards an awful denouement. Predictably, unavoidably, the decade’s final spring sits at the centre of O’Dea’s story, a zero point that abruptly brought the initial post-Mao period to an end, and set the stage for all that has come since. No artist expressed the trauma of 1989 better than Sheng Qi, who, in a fit of madness following the suppression of the Tiananmen Movement, sliced off his own little finger. Much of his work since has been a commemoration of what happened that year, most notably a series of images in which the artist cradles tiny black and white photographs of his childhood self and other family members in the palm of his mutilated hand. Fittingly, one of this series provides the cover of O’Dea’s book.

Despite the chilling effect of 4 June, new cycles of the cultural harvest sown that decade have continued, albeit cultivated in a more cautious, less public and certainly less optimistic manner. In the visual arts, film, writing and music, critically astute and highly personal work continues to be produced. The momentum of O’Dea’s account, however, dissipates somewhat as she moves into the post-Tiananmen years. In the 1970s and 80s, the entwining of artistic expression and the drive for political change was clear, but the relationship between the two becomes increasingly knotted as we move into the present. Partly this is because China’s artistic field is so much larger and more diverse than it was in the 1980s. And the country itself has become so much more complex – a contradictory assemblage of extreme wealth and intense poverty, laissez-faire social mores and rigid political controls, state-sponsored culture and rabid commercialism. As the state’s nationalist rhetoric has stepped up, the sense of a unified culture has dissipated. O’Dea does a good job of tracing many of the key events that rocked China over the past 25 years, including the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the recurrent bouts of deadly ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the ascension of the nation’s most dictatorial leader since Mao in Xi Jinping. However, the relationship between these events and the country’s contemporary art scene becomes increasingly hazy as the story progresses, just as the art scene itself has progressively fragmented. The ambivalence and conflict such an environment produces is nicely expressed by Pei Li, one of the younger artists O’Dea discusses towards the end of her book. ‘She told me she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be an artist,’ O’Dea writes. ‘Maybe she just wanted to be a punk.’

The life of Huang Rui, the artist entranced by his nude model in 1978, provides something of a through-line for this increasingly dispersive tale. Huang played a key role in The Stars – a group of artists formed in the late 70s that O’Dea identifies as crucial in the development of Chinese contemporary art. He was also critical in the creation and preservation of the famous 798 Art Zone in Beijing, a collection of studios and galleries in a disused factory complex that rose to prominence in the 2000s. Huang still owns a café there.

Another potentially unifying figure, however, is curiously absent for much of The Phoenix Years – the artist, architect, filmmaker and activist Ai Weiwei. He appears only briefly towards the end of the book, recording the names of children killed in the collapse of shoddily built schools during the Sichuan earthquake. Ai has garnered so many headlines in the West that a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking he is the only contemporary Chinese artist of note, and the only one speaking out against state abuses. In this context, O’Dea’s decision to focus on other, equally important lesser known names is understandable. On the other hand, Ai’s very ubiquity tends to result in a certain superficiality and repetitiveness in much Western coverage. Noting his involvement in early groups such as The Stars could have helped place his long career in a broader context.

This small quibble aside, The Phoenix Years provides a highly readable overview of China’s post-Mao transformations through the original lens of its creative community. The early chapters especially are written with a verve that makes it hard to put down. O’Dea admirably conveys one of the aspects of Chinese life that I loved when I lived there in the late 2000s – the sense that culture mattered, not least to the practitioners themselves. Coming from a country where the creative arts are derided as a ‘lifestyle choice,’ I found the seriousness with which artistic expression was treated intoxicating. Of course, culture carries weight in China partly because the state pays it so much attention – the Communist Party has been obsessed with controlling and directing creativity since Mao decreed ‘art should serve politics’ back in 1942. Although the CCP’s grip is nothing like it was in the Maoist years, intimidation, harassment and occasional arrests continue to put tremendous pressure on artists of all kinds. As The Phoenix Years shows us, it has also led to the creation of a fascinating, fiercely independent sector that has little to do with commercial motivations – a salutary example for our own corporatized culture.

In very different ways, these two books show the immense sacrifices Chinese people have made to keep the flame of human creativity alive through years of persecution and stifling restraints. There is now a space to dream in China that simply did not exist in the Maoist era, but this space still has to be fought for, and dreams still take courage to realise. It is beholden on all of us to know something of the context these dreams have emerged from as China looms large in our global future. The Phoenix Years is a good place to start. For those familiar with China’s history, Do Not Say We Have Nothing provides an achingly poignant reflection on the pain this past has engendered – and the importance of culture in teaching us how to remember.

Chinese names are written in the Chinese form, with family names first.

Work Cited

Guo Xiaolu, I Am China, Chatto & Windus, 2014.
Ma Jian, Beijing Coma, Random House, 2009
Thien, Madeleine, Dogs at the Perimeter, Granta, 2013.
Yu Hua, China in Ten Words, Duckworth Overlook, 2012.