Tiananmen - still hard to forget, ten years on; That Summer: China, 1989

Two years after the massacre, I re-visited the square - and, beyond the ice cream vendors, it was obvious the party had rewritten history

COULD IT really be the same place? I recalled the television images - mangled bikes, crushed tents, bloody corpses being carried away on rickshaws. A lone protester defying a line of tanks. Six weeks of heady heroism followed by the shock of the violent denouement - a horror movie brought into homes around the world on the small screen.

On 4 June 1989 I was teaching in south-west China when the troops moved into Tiananmen Square. I still recall hearing the news on the BBC World Service over a Sunday morning breakfast. I knew at once that life in China would never be the same again. And when I finally left - two summers later - the last thing I did was to re-visit Tiananmen Square. It had seen history before. On 1 October 1949, Chairman Mao stood on the balcony of the Forbidden City and declared that the Chinese people had stood up. Communism had arrived, and with it the promise of a new society. In 1966 he stood there again, this time to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. A million adoring Red Guards filled the 100-acre square, waving their Little Red Books as they chanted the name of their god.

The Cultural Revolution had turned sour and was now described as the "Ten Lost Years". Mao had been officially declared "70 per cent good". And Tiananmen Square had witnessed its greatest drama yet. According to the People's Daily, it had been the scene of "a great victory". Everyone else called it a massacre.

But was it true? The Chinese would have us believe that it never happened, that the horror movie on our screens was a product of Western fiction. They could rewrite, even eradicate, history for a grateful population only too glad to remove the guilt from their collective consciousness. They could turn the square back from a symbol of repression into one of prosperity at the heart of a modern city, so visitors to Tiananmen would think about the future, not the past.

And they had done it. When I returned, there was no trace of 1989. Children flew kites around the Monument to the People's Heroes, which two years earlier had been the rebel headquarters. Pedlars sold Mickey Mouse masks and candied hawthorns on sticks. Lovers posed for photographs in front of Chairman Mao's portrait and ice-cream vendors did business under enormous parasols. Sleek black limos cruised the boulevards around the square but, on Tiananmen itself, all traffic was forbidden.

The square belonged to the people. The atmosphere was more street party than Communist Party. To the north was the Forbidden City, where generations of emperors led sheltered lives in palaces of ivory and jade. Next door, behind a high wall, the new emperors took refuge from their subjects in the new forbidden city, the party and state compound of Zhongnanhai.

To the west was the Great Hall of the People, built by volunteer labour in 1959 at the height of the Great Leap Forward, when China aimed to overtake Britain's economy in 15 years and the people really believed it could be done. These days the Great Hall houses the Congress chamber where China's parliament meets each spring for its two-week annual charade of democracy. I joined a guided tour and watched the Chinese day-trippers amuse themselves by sitting in the deputies' chairs and toying with the electronic voting devices.

To the east was the Museum of the Revolution, constantly being adapted to take account of each new shift in the political wind. A photograph of student protesters in 1919, astonishingly dated 4 June, was captioned: "Patriotic students calling for democracy". Hadn't anyone noticed the irony? Then there was a "primitive wooden plough share" designed to illustrate the suffering of peasants under feudalism. In Guizhou, where I had been teaching, the farmers still used those in the fields.

To the south, a dutiful queue of pilgrims filed slowly across the square, passing the sculptures of model workers, soldiers and peasants on their way into the chairman's mausoleum. The men removed their caps as they walked silently past the crystal sarcophagus, then joined the queue at the souvenir stall to buy cigarettes packets bearing Mao's name.

Fifty yards away, the world's largest Kentucky Fried Chicken was churning out chicken and chips to Chinese youths anxious to demonstrate their support for Western values. A meal costs several days wages, but there was no shortage of takers.

The chairman looked down sternly from half a mile away across the square, those large brown eyes surveying a scene that he had been determined to resist. Capitalism, fashion, fast food and tourism had taken over where once there was revolutionary purity and hysteria. A great victory - or a massacre?

Tony Kelly

The author was a VSO English teacher in China from 1989-91

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
fashion
News
videoJapanese prepare for the afterlife by testing out coffins
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford attends Blade Runner at Target Presents AFI's Night at the Movies at ArcLight Cinemas on 24 April, 2013 in Hollywood, California
film... but Ridley Scott won't direct
Sport
Hughes is hit by a bouncer from Sean Abbott
cricketStephen Brenkley on batsman's tragic flaw that led to critical injury
Sport
Dejected England players applaud the fans following their team's 3-0 defeat
football

News
people

Actress isn't a fan of Ed Miliband

News
The Bounceway, designed by Architecture for Humanity
newsLondon to add 'The Bounceway' to commuting options
Life and Style
Stefan Gates with some mince flies
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rooney Mara plays a white Tiger Lily in forthcoming film Pan
filmFirst look at Rooney Mara in Pan
Life and Style
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
tech
Life and Style
health

Do you qualify – and how do you get it?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Langley James : Senior Infrastructure Engineer; VMWare, Windows; Bolton; £40k

    £40000 per annum + benefits: Langley James : Senior Infrastructure Engineer; V...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: BDD - Digital Banking Technology / CEM - £150k ote

    £75000 - £100000 per annum + £150k ote: h2 Recruit Ltd: There are many compani...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Graduate Consultant - Sales Recruitment - £35k ote

    £18000 - £25000 per annum + £35k ote: h2 Recruit Ltd: Looking for your first s...

    Recruitment Genius: Advertising Media Sales - Print, Online & Mobile

    £19000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing house has been ...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital