On June the Fourth 1989 at around 1:00am the Chinese military opened fire on student protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Over the course of a single night, debris was lifted away in helicopters and bodies of students were heaped onto funeral pyres. When the sun rose on the Gate of Heavenly Peace the square had been scrubbed completely clean.
30 years later knowledge of the massacre, known colloquially in China only as ‘6/4’ (literally pronounced ‘Six-Four’), is disquietingly scarce. Most Chinese millennials and Gen Z, many of whom are now as old as those protesting in 1989, have never heard of the event. The few that are in the know typically keep their knowledge under wraps, terrified of the consequences of speaking up.
And consequences there are. In 2016, itinerant worker Fu Hailu was formally detained by police for ‘inciting subversion of state power’. His crime? Making beer bottle labels depicting a man sitting in front of a tank, echoing the iconic ‘Tank Man’ photo.
People in China are forgetting about 6/4 at an alarming rate – unsurprisingly, when those who remember are swiftly punished. It’s no wonder that 30 years on public knowledge of the event grows harder and harder to find.
I’ve written a play about 6/4 called ‘Clouds Over Beijing’, (or ‘人间蒸发’ in Chinese). There are multiple words for ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ in Chinese. One of these is 义务 (yiwu). The first character (yi) denotes a concept unique to East Asia that essentially encompasses righteousness, justice, moral and ethical responsibility etc. I bring this up because soon after I started writing Clouds Over Beijing, I realised that finishing this play was no longer something I wanted to do, it was something I had to do – my 义务. Not just to myself, but to my community, my motherland and, most importantly, to my family. I am directly related to several people (although I will refrain from disclosing who for their safety) who lived through the massacre.
This play is about their stories.
In a lot of ways this isn’t a play about the massacre itself. In the West, knowledge of 6/4 is fairly widespread – though hardly universal, especially among people my age – but far less common is knowledge of the protests preceding the massacre.
I didn’t want to write a sweeping political narrative about government oppression, state control and totalitarianism in the People’s Republic of China. I wanted to write a play about young people, university students like me and my mates, attending a protest with hopes and dreams of changing the world for the better. In the wake of the Brexit March and XR, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to reflect on the Tiananmen protests.
This is a play about youth. This is a play about kids fucking around. This is a play about passion, romance, drama, gossip, banter, music, hope, love and petty, childish arguments. This is a play about real students who had hopes, dreams and ambitions, only to have them snatched away in an instant. Real students whose deaths you will have only heard about in abstract terms that reduce them to numbers and statistics.
I am endlessly grateful to Omnibus and Papergang Theatre for putting on this event and giving my play this platform, and I can’t wait to share it with you all. Keeping the memory of 6/4 alive in a world that generally seeks to suck up to China at every opportunity is more important than ever, and by coming to this event you are helping with that. For my part, while there is still blood in my veins and breath in my body, I will refuse to let the events of the 1989 Democracy Movement be forgotten, reduced to nothing more than a couple specks of dust in a dark corner of the room to be swept away by the dustpan and brush of censorship, propaganda and lies.
NC Chang’s new play Clouds Over Beijing will be performed as a staged reading at 30三十 this Saturday 1 June – reserve you place HERE→