Introduction: Tiananmen in Diaspora and in Fiction
Post-Tiananmen Literary Diaspora
In our memories of Tiananmen, two images of power square off. Hannah Arendt, countering Mao Zedong two decades prior, as much as foresaw this. While Mao maintained that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” Arendt optimistically proposed that true power “always stands in need of numbers” and resides in the “living power of the people” (On Violence 41–42). These two theses find their historical embodiment and confrontation in 1989 Beijing. On one side, we recall masses parading through the streets and students occupying the Square; on the other, army tanks grinding down blockaded boulevards. This global iconography has ensured Tiananmen’s legacy, as a parable of regime violence as much as a tragedy in the human annals of popular protest. Whatever genre we invoke, recollections of Tiananmen almost always employ a political lexicon, for above all the episode has come to be enshrined as a political myth, the grand clash between totalitarianism and democracy at the near-end of the Cold War era. Its bloody denouement presents a most spectacular challenge of, even refutation to, the Arendtian hypothesis, a crux case for any theory of power in contemporary times. With good reason, then, has Tiananmen been conceived primarily in political terms, as an event with global political import. Accordingly, its legacy has been expressed most often in the language of failure.
What remains largely unrecognized is the significance of Tiananmen for literature—as an event whose tremendous generative power persists today, more than two decades later, not just for China but also for the West. Indeed, the fates of their respective literatures have become irrevocably intertwined in the wake of June 4. This book examines the myriad literary effects of Tiananmen, with a focus on fiction. Its central thesis is that, more than any other episode in recent world history, Tiananmen has brought about, and into stark relief, a distinctly politicized Chinese literary diaspora.
First, this process can be observed purely on the level of representational content. Since 1989, the subject of Tiananmen has entered into the realm of literature, with history going hand in hand with fiction, giving rise to a body of Tiananmen narratives that continues to swell in number. Given that the topic remains under official censorship by the communist government, the majority of these works have been published outside the People’s Republic of China (PRC). (As I will elaborate below, fiction writers within the PRC who attempt to address Tiananmen have necessarily resorted to evasive narrative strategies, and it is this necessary recourse to evasion, rather than an absence of authorial intent or a difference in political attitude, that most clearly distinguishes mainland from diasporic publications.) Whether originally written in Chinese or not, these works now circulate predominantly in cultural and linguistic contexts beyond the national boundaries of the protest movement’s actual occurrence. If Tiananmen was first and foremost a national event in the spring of 1989, its representational afterlife has been catapulted beyond the nation—that is to say, it has become transnational, by necessity. In turn, precisely because the topic can be publicly, openly, and directly addressed only outside the PRC, Tiananmen has functioned as a particularly productive node for the diasporic literary imagination. After twenty-some years, as more and more writers seek to represent this incident, Tiananmen itself has become one of the hallmarks of diasporic literary identity. Writing Tiananmen thus constitutes a preeminently diasporic enterprise, one that spurs the expansion of diasporic literature even as it consolidates the literary diaspora’s identity. As one scholar asserts, “In the years since the crackdown, Beijing 1989 has become one of the most popular time-space coordinates onto which overseas Chinese writers project their fictional worlds, making the portrayal of the Tiananmen Square Massacre one of the central themes in contemporary Chinese American and transnational Chinese fiction” (Berry 353).1 On this level, the term “post-Tiananmen literary diaspora” can be construed quite narrowly, as a specific reference to those writers who give voice to Tiananmen’s history via literary forms.
But more broadly, beyond representational content, the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora can be understood as a sociological phenomenon of mass migration that underpins the literature itself. Ever since Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy in 1978, there had been a steady stream of students and intellectuals from the PRC to the West, but on the heels of Tiananmen, this flow suddenly turned, as one scholar puts it, into “a massive hemorrhage” (L. L. Wang 208). In the exodus immediately following the military crackdown on June 4, the most eye-catching group of evacuees comprised those top student leaders of the protest movement such as Wuer Kaixi, Chai Ling, and Li Lu (numbers 2, 4, and 17 respectively on the PRC government’s “21 most-wanted students” list), who managed to be smuggled out of the country and rapidly rose to celebrity status in the West just months after the massacre. Of slightly less visibility were the fugitive intellectuals who actively supported the students, including the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, the cultural critic Su Xiaokang, and the novelist-journalist Zheng Yi, all of whom fled China within the next two years and eventually found refuge in the United States. There they joined other intellectuals such as the illustrious investigative reporter Liu Binyan, who had been a visiting scholar in the United States since 1988 and who was barred from reentering the PRC after he publicly denounced the massacre on American national television. In the years to come, these two cohorts of high-profile exilic dissidents would produce the most explicit and by now familiar diasporic writings on Tiananmen, including Liu Binyan’s coauthored account of the movement, “Tell the World” (1989); Fang Lizhi’s political essays, composed during his period of asylum inside the Beijing U.S. embassy and collected in Bringing Down the Great Wall (1990); Su Xiaokang’s autobiographical A Memoir of Misfortune (2001); as well as a host of memoirs by former student leaders such as Li Lu’s Moving the Mountain (1990), Shen Tong’s Almost a Revolution (1990), and Zhang Boli’s Escape from China (2002). Based on intensely personal experiences or reflections and often informed by a testimonial or authenticating impulse, this trove of memoirs, essays, and analyses generically anchors Tiananmen in first-person real-life encounters, constructing the episode as, above all, one of witnessing and truth-telling.
Much less recognized, however, is the vital and enduring impact of Tiananmen on Chinese literature at large. June 4 not only catalyzed a wave of political evacuation but also propelled several generations of creative writers into the diaspora. Consider the sphere of poetry. For an older generation of poets linked to the 1978–79 Democracy Wall movement and the underground magazine Today (Jintian), Tiananmen was decisive. Bei Dao, who happened to have been on an invited conference trip to Berlin in 1989, was subsequently forced into exile and spent the next decade or so drifting from country to country, alone and separated from his family. Yang Lian, who was a visiting scholar at the University of Auckland since earlier that year, joined an international protest against the Chinese government and consequently lost his Chinese citizenship; he was then granted political asylum in New Zealand and in due course settled in London. Gu Cheng, also a visiting scholar at Auckland at the time, lived in self-imposed exile in New Zealand from 1989 until his suicide in 1993. Duo Duo, who was working for a small Beijing newspaper and who personally witnessed the protests in the Square, was fortuitously aboard a flight to London on June 4; thereafter for the next dozen years, he too was banned from the PRC. Together, these and other poets of the Democracy Wall generation embodied a group of self-identified dissident writers who were driven into exile by Tiananmen.2 “In the ruins of Tiananmen Square,” one scholar notes, a “poetics of nightmare” surfaced in their works (Barnstone 37). Yet Tiananmen also contributed to what another critic calls “a robust growth” of Chinese poetry in the diaspora in the post-1989 era, as these exilic poets were joined by a later set including Wang Jiaxin, Song Lin, Zhang Zao, Zhang Zhen, and Bei Ling, all of whom settled down to write in the West in the 1990s, many as immigrants or scholars rather than political exiles (Yeh 283–84).
Indeed, on a macro view, the more protracted literary legacy of Tiananmen, if also more subtle and less easily pinpointed, is to be felt in the voluntary rather than coerced acts of writers—a premise that lies at the core of my study. Aside from enforced banishment, June 4 has induced considerable emigration or naturalization elsewhere on the part of those who may or may not have been activist during the 1989 protest movement. Gao Xingjian, for instance, had already moved to France in 1987, but he withdrew his membership from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the massacre and was later branded a persona non grata by the Chinese government; thereafter, he continued to live in Paris and acquired French citizenship in 1997. Ma Jian, who had been residing in Hong Kong since 1986 but returned to Beijing in 1989 to see the demonstrations for himself, left for Germany after Hong Kong’s 1997 handover and now lives in London. Both Gao and Ma had published in the PRC in the 1980s but had moved away to avoid official suppression of their works, so their reasons for departure were as much professional as political. For both, though, June 4 was a key impetus for not returning.
At the same time, the massacre compelled countless international students who were already enrolled in graduate programs overseas to stay abroad. Many of them would go on to pursue creative writing and become celebrated authors in the diaspora. In the United States alone, there were some thirty thousand Chinese international graduate students in 1989, and President George Bush’s offer of temporary asylum to these students after June 4 substantially altered the demographics of Chinese America (L. L. Wang 196). In the field of literature, Ha Jin is perhaps the best-known case.3 He had been studying comparative poetics at Brandeis since 1985 and had originally intended to return to China after graduation to teach at the university level, but after watching television images of the Beijing bloodshed, he decided to remain in the United States and is now a professor of English at Boston University. Similarly, Qiu Xiaolong, who had been a visiting scholar at Washington University since 1988, resolved to stay on in the United States and begin a writing career in English after the massacre. Shouhua Qi, arriving in early 1989 as a master’s student at Illinois State University, likewise decided to continue writing in the United States following June 4 and now teaches English literature in Connecticut. Comparable stories unfolded in Canada. Ting-xing Ye, on scholarship at York University since 1987, decided not to return to China after her studies ended in 1989 and went on to become an author of young-adult fiction in English, settling near Toronto. Ying Chen, in a slightly different scenario, left Shanghai in the spring of 1989 just before the crackdown and remained in self-imposed exile in Montreal, first to study creative writing at McGill University and later to become an established Francophone novelist. Nor are these trajectories unique to the Americas. A notable European counterpart to Ha Jin is Dai Sijie, who had been studying in France on a scholarship since 1984 and who remained there after June 4 to become an acclaimed filmmaker and best-selling novelist in French.
Finally, a significant contingent of emigrants left the PRC shortly after the massacre to become professional writers in the West, with many of them in interviews and essays attributing their departures at least in part to Tiananmen. Among them are Yan Geling, who came to the United States at the end of 1989 and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area; Diane Wei Liang, who also left in 1989, first for the United States and then for London, and now holds dual British and American citizenship; Liu Hong, who left in the same year for Britain; Sheng Xue, who likewise left the same year and now lives in Toronto; Shan Sa, who went to France in 1990; and Hong Ying, who moved to Britain in 1991. As June 4 set the initial conditions for an epochal exodus out of the country, the post-Tiananmen years saw a definite burgeoning of Chinese emigrant authors in the West. That the trend persisted into the 1990s, albeit in a more diffuse manner, is suggested by the advent of a younger generation of writers such as Annie Wang and Yiyun Li, who came to the United States in 1993 and 1996 respectively, and who have risen to literary prominence in the first decades of the twenty-first century. As the post-Tiananmen era now enters its third decade, the ranks of Chinese diaspora writers will continue to grow, even as their orientations inevitably evolve in the shifting milieus of globalization. In this broadest sense, the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora can be said to encompass not just those writers who left the PRC or chose to stay abroad in the few years after June 4, but also those who continue to follow this trajectory into the new millennium under the long shadow of the massacre.
Demographic considerations alone, though, can stretch limit points to infinity and make categories lose coherence. Of greater import to my argument is that Tiananmen has substantially altered the disposition of the Chinese literary diaspora by galvanizing its politics. To be sure, the Chinese literary diaspora is a long-standing and vast phenomenon that predates 1989, and those who write post–June 4 by no means constitute a wholly new or cohesive group. Yet, after the massacre, we can detect in diasporic literature an intensified engagement with matters of political power, a new kind of negative identificatory tug-of-war with the communist state. If Tiananmen had the effect of temporarily politicizing the Chinese diaspora at large during that Beijing spring (recall the mass demonstrations and vigils in Chinese communities worldwide in 1989 in support of the pro-democracy activists), this politicization has endured in much contemporary diasporic literature.
My book spotlights this key political variant of the literary diaspora following June 4. The authors within this configuration, though geographically located abroad, nonetheless continue to imagine and write about China in their works. Yet, instead of simply indulging in homeland nostalgia, they now marshal the cultural authority of world literature, especially in the West, in order to critique the excesses of communist state power. Much more so than in preceding decades, these writers are supremely preoccupied with challenging authoritarianism and the communist regime’s discursive monopoly on Chineseness. In the massacre’s wake, they exhibit a much stronger tendency to actively dispute and disrupt the PRC government’s constructions of what it means to be Chinese, and to reconstruct this identity more heterogeneously for the world. Their task is not a straightforward one, however. Particularly on the subject of Tiananmen, diaspora authors straddle a fine line. While they extend counternarratives against the official PRC version of this history and multiply antihegemonic visions of China as a site of diverse and competing political actors, they also risk perpetuating Cold War perceptions of China as a brutal totalitarian country by artistically resurrecting an episode of violent state repression and failed protest. Viewed in the polarizing terms of liberal democracy versus communist totalitarianism, West versus East, the global cultural impact of Tiananmen literature, and of this politicized literary diaspora, may well seem bounded by a tension between anticommunist contestation and potential neo-orientalism. My study, though, strives to reach beyond this agonistic viewpoint by highlighting the capacity of a diaspora to serve as a third, transformative space.
First, in terms of cultural identity, diaspora writers assume a seminal role in defining the parameters and meanings of Chineseness after 1989. No longer is the definition of Chineseness solely or even primarily the activity of those living within the PRC, nor are the geopolitical regions of Taiwan and Hong Kong the main alternative spots for self-representation. Instead, the cultural geography of Chineseness has been considerably redrawn. Abundant work has already been done by scholars to lay the foundation in the broader theoretical project of decentering or deessentializing the category of Chineseness, whether via the vocabulary of diaspora, transnationalism, hybridity, or the global (Tu; Wang G., “Chineseness”; Ong and Nonini; Ong, Flexible; Ang; Ma and Cartier; Ng and Holden; L. Chen, Writing; Shih; Tsu and Wang). Perhaps earliest in this regard was Tu Wei-ming, who posited in the early 1990s a notion of “cultural China” as encompassing three interactive “symbolic universes: (1) mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, (2) overseas Chinese communities throughout the world, and (3) the international communities of scholars, students, officials, journalists, and traders who provide a global forum for China-related matters.” As Tu states, his expansive formulation was aimed to “challenge the claims of political leadership (in Beijing, Taipei, Hong Kong, or Singapore) to be the ultimate authority in a matter as significant as Chineseness” (viii). My study concentrates on the second symbolic universe on Tu’s grid, but as each chapter will show, this universe never exists in isolation but always in symbiotic relation with the first and third. While Tu’s neo-Confucianist, capitalist-oriented, and origin-recentering model has been vehemently rejected from several quarters (Dirlik, “Critical” 318–20; Nonini and Ong 8–9; Ang 42–44; Cheah 121–26), there is nevertheless wide consensus among scholars about the plurality of ways to be Chinese in the world today—including, as it were, the very negating of Chineseness. And as I will elaborate in chapter 2, not by chance did these scholarly rearticulations of Chineseness proliferate post-Tiananmen, and we can view this phenomenon as an elongated, if oblique rather than reductively causal, ramification of June 4 on diasporic intellectual discourse.
Additionally, the presence of Chinese diaspora writers working within the national and linguistic spaces of the non-Sinophone world has reconfigured contemporary literature in a number of geographic areas. As I argue elsewhere, the influx of the post-Tiananmen generation of Chinese writers into the United States has significantly transformed the terrains of Asian American literature, as exemplified by the work of Ha Jin (B. Kong 145–47). This literary impact can also be discerned in other Anglophone countries, particularly England, where a contingent of renowned Chinese emigrant writers resides today. Aside from Ma Jian and Hong Ying, who both write in Chinese, there are the English-language best-selling Jung Chang, Xinran, and most recently, Guo Xiaolu. In Europe, Gao Xingjian, Dai Sijie, and Shan Sa have done the same for Francophone literature, while Lulu Wang’s debut Dutch-language novel was a smash hit in Holland. If the term “Chinese diaspora” has customarily referred to the Sinophone world circumscribing the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and sometimes Malaysia and Singapore, my study transfers critical attention toward the ascendance of cultural agents displaced from those traditional hubs and now scattered across multiple Western milieus.
Furthermore, Chinese diaspora writers help to guard against the forgetting of June 4 by mediating between the official silence inside the PRC and the attenuation of world memory at large. The 1989 Beijing movement was extraordinary from the perspective of world politics, but as an occasion of mass demonstrations or state aggression, it was not exceptional, even in twentieth-century Chinese history. The 1919 May Fourth student movement was its most well-known predecessor and the 1976 Tiananmen Incident its most recent, but in between were the much less-remembered Tiananmen Square antigovernment protests of 1925 and the ensuing massacre of civilians by army troops in 1926 (Spence 298–303). June 4 therefore has its lineage. What partly distinguishes this latest Tiananmen is its global dimension in an age of technology and speed. Unlike its precursors, the 1989 incident unfolded via media venues that enabled it to become an international drama almost instantaneously. As Fang Lizhi observed from his Beijing asylum within months of the crackdown, this specific Tiananmen would be “the first exception” to the “Technique of Forgetting History” enforced by the CCP since its coming into power, for unlike previous instances of national persecution and disasters that had been systematically erased from the historical record by the regime, in 1989, for “the first time,” thanks to the presence of foreign journalists inside China and their instrumental role in positioning the world as “opinion makers,” “Chinese Communist brutality was thoroughly recorded and reported, and . . . virtually the whole world was willing to censure it” (274). As one scholar further comments on the long-term effects of Tiananmen’s global mediatization: “The media spotlight placed on Beijing during the spring of 1989 created repercussions that continue to affect how China is seen globally, how it sees itself, and how the Chinese outside the People’s Republic see themselves” (Marchetti xi). Yet what Fang’s optimistic projection could not anticipate is that this very rapidity of information dissemination entails a kind of imagistic compression, so that the lived reality of one locale can come to be flattened into a series of easily consumable images transmitted across the globe—the most famous example being the Tank Man. One key theme of this book, then, is that the globalized imagistic propagation of June 4 has been extremely uneven, for world memory proves itself to be all too susceptible to globalization’s vicissitudes and its attendant sporadic amnesia. If 1989 can be comprehended as the first Tiananmen to bear out Paul Virilio’s thesis about human experience in the age of “glocalization”—on his wry metaphor, “a constricted planet that is becoming just one vast floor” (23)—then it has also fallen prey to what he calls “a bug in the memory,” as the human perceptual horizon shrinks from the skyline to the television box, from “the line of the visible horizon” to “the square horizon of the screen” (26). Particularly in the context of China’s current economic ascent onto the world stage, issues of human rights and political freedom have frequently and tactically been forgotten by world governments and institutions in favor of market interests. In this climate, diaspora writers of Tiananmen may reflect and reproduce global changes in their writings, but they all deliver a reminder, so that 1989 will not go the way of 1925–26.
This is not to say, however, that all Tiananmen writers travel the same ideological path, or that they even agree in their basic assessment of the pro-democracy movement. A potential mistaken assumption here may be that all diaspora writers are equally sympathetic to or supportive of the student activists. Actually, far from it. Another theme running through these pages is that Tiananmen has become a heatedly disputed matter over which sundry groups now vie for representational and discursive power, not just within the PRC but in the diaspora. June 4 might have united Chinese communities worldwide against the communist government in the moment of 1989, but since then, the topic has turned increasingly into a point of fracture, between artists and activists as much as intellectuals and former student leaders (see especially chapters 1 and 4). It is within this fraught circumstance of conflicting diasporic judgments, more than a world polarized between East and West, that writers take on the task of representing Tiananmen. Together, the authors here impart an array of diasporic positions political and philosophical, ethical and aesthetic.
Nonetheless, it merits underscoring that all the writers in this study, their dislocation notwithstanding, are extremely privileged subjects. On one end of the displacement spectrum are those vulnerable illegal transmigrants whom one scholar calls the “clandestine diaspora” (L. Ma 23). On the opposite end is this literary diaspora, comprising highly visible individuals who have found success and fame in their emigrant or transnational lives. Without substantial social and cultural capital, these writers simply cannot enter into the Tiananmen discourse in the first place, much less adopt a voice of authority about this history and its relation to Chinese identity. Indeed, they instantiate a claim on “China” with every act of writing Tiananmen. If the critic C. T. Hsia put forth the oft-cited thesis some forty years ago that modern Chinese writers display an “obsession with China” (533–54), the post-1989 literary diaspora has partly inherited this attitude—perhaps even more so than those writers who stay on in the PRC, given the atrophy of the intelligentsia’s authority there from the 1990s onward. The intellectual proclivity for “China obsession,” we might say, has become partly diasporized in June 4’s wake. Nowhere is this diasporic inheritance more apparent, and more fertilized, than in Tiananmen fictions, which literally move toward or situate themselves at the Square, that symbolic seat of national political power. Little surprise, then, that one scholar would say of many post-Tiananmen exilic intellectuals that they are “stuck by a notable lack of peripheral thinking” and have not “entirely changed their ‘centrist’ frame of mind—the elitist belief that they can ultimately influence the reformist leaders in the Party to their way of thinking” (L. Lee 233). As one facet of diasporic intellectuals’ cultural production, Tiananmen literature is not always so rigidly oriented as this remark would suggest, but the gravitational heart of this canon does undoubtedly lie in the land left behind, weighed with an imaginative if not always emotional nostalgia. Despite the varying degrees to which these writers personify and perform Chineseness, the place they have chosen as their “contingent and arbitrary stop” of fictional self-positioning, what Stuart Hall calls a “‘cut’ of identity” (230), is not one of radical rupture but firmly harkens back to origin’s center. What this book delineates is one geometry of their diasporic stopovers, with each chapter outlining one side of the diasporized Square. This is not to say that all diaspora authors necessarily resort to national allegories, that all post-Tiananmen roads lead to Fredric Jameson’s notorious thesis on third-world literature’s inevitable allegorical impulse (69), but it is instructive to keep in mind that Tiananmen fictions give traction to the Jamesonian theory precisely because of their authors’ elite status.
Ultimately, perhaps due to this very eliteness, the writers here all possess the means of self-advocacy that permit them to shed light on the creative and transformative potential of not just the Chinese literary diaspora but of diasporic subjects in general. The need to recognize this agency is arguably more pressing than ever before, as the diasporic condition now operates as a principal rather than supplemental feature of human existence. Although the large-scale dispersal of peoples is millennia old, numerous social scientists have recently shown that human migration experienced a revolution in the late twentieth century, resulting in a contemporary world order much more profoundly shaped by diasporas than ever before (Van Hear 1–5; L. Ma 1–2; Parreñas and Siu 1). According to the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM), the number of those who live outside their country of birth skyrocketed from 82 million in 1970 to 175 million in 2000 to nearly 200 million in 2005, and of all diasporas, the Chinese one is the world’s largest, estimated at 35 million at the dawn of the new millennium (83–84).4 Excluding the populations of Hong Kong and Macau since their repatriation to the mainland but inclusive of generations born abroad, the latest count of overseas Chinese given by Taiwan’s Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission hovered at 39.5 million at the end of 2010. An excessive focus on magnitude, though, can breed misconceptions. Indeed, some scholars object to the very use of the term “diaspora” to categorize non–mainland Chinese populations, wary of its potential connotations of homogeneity and unity that could reinforce the PRC’s hegemonic claims on identity as much as Western racialized views of Asian otherness (Wang G., Don’t 240–45; Wang G., “Single” 38–41; Shih 23–28). At the same time, scholars who do adopt the term have severally pointed out that definitions of “diaspora” in migration studies can sometimes be too caught up in mass statistics, or else overly constricted by criteria of forced expulsion or economic exploitation, crises and catastrophes (Van Hear 5–6; L. Ma 2–4; Goh 1–7). This image of diasporas as victim populations, as nameless hordes of the dispossessed and persecuted, can obscure an appreciation for diasporic subjects’ ability to re-create and transmute not only themselves but the milieus into which they are dispersed. My book’s spotlight on Tiananmen fictions illumines exactly this reanimating capacity. A diaspora, after all, comprises not just bodies in motion but also the production of culture in transit. For the diaspora authors here, literature offers a forum to fine-tune, modify, or forge anew the world’s understanding of China, Chineseness, and Tiananmen. These writers do not simply bear out an inescapable identity that predetermines them or a wounded psyche that haunts them. On the contrary, they resignify “diaspora” as much as “Chineseness” via plural roles: as architects of political counter-discourses about the homeland state, as remakers of cultural identity in transplanted environments, and as mediators of historical memory and human rights between the PRC and the rest of the world. Indeed, Tiananmen allows these writers to persistently activate literature’s manifold uses. As the PRC grows ever more visible as a global power today, Tiananmen fictions offer a timely focal point for reinvigorating critical interrogations of the functions of literature, not merely within China or the West, but in the overlapping spaces of the quickly converging first and second worlds.
Four Tiananmen Fictions
As mentioned above, diasporic memoirs and personal essays constitute the most recognizable genres of writing on Tiananmen. This study, however, is not narrowly concerned with life-based narratives for which firsthand experience serves as the prime justification. It should be clarified from the outset that by “Tiananmen fictions” I refer not to works by those who personally participated in the demonstrations or witnessed the massacre and then converted their memories into autobiographical stories. In fact, two of the authors here, Gao Xingjian and Ha Jin, were not located in the PRC in 1989 and learned of the incident only from afar, via television images and news reports. The other two did repeatedly visit the Square that spring, but Ma Jian left Beijing about a week before the crackdown to tend to his comatose brother in their hometown of Qingdao, and Annie Wang was not in the Square herself during its final evacuation. Moreover, Wang was too young and Ma too old to be counted within the ranks of college student protestors, together sandwiching the Tiananmen generation from either side. This book, then, centers on writers who were not insiders of the movement or eyewitnesses of June 4.
Indeed, the role of the witness is a complicated one for the historiography of Tiananmen. More than twenty years later, the massacre has become an episode cloaked in mythologies spun from both hemispheres, misrepresented by the PRC’s official erasure of it as much as the international community’s fixation on eyewitness accounts, however inflated, however mutually contradictory. Where free expression is absent, especially when the media fail and the cameras go black, into the void steps the witness. Tiananmen is hence an event heavily saturated with testimonial claims. I will expound on this matter in chapter 4, in relation to what one commentator calls the actual “geography of the killing” behind the misnomer “the Tiananmen Square massacre” (Munro 811). Yet, despite the mounting significance of the political witness in international arenas since World War II, particularly in instances of mass atrocities and certainly with what transpired in the early hours of June 4, this book does not rely on the figure of the witness as the sole mediator of history or the principal purveyor of historical knowledge. An overdependence on the witness can lead to a moral and intellectual complacency on our part, where we feel obviated from the need to probe further for history’s continuities, meanings that exceed mere facticity to impinge on our present and future. Biographical authenticity will thus not be taken as the legitimating criterion for evaluating representations of Tiananmen here, and the works examined in turn will not premise themselves on the truth-claims of personal life experience.
Instead, I am interested in the multifarious ways that Tiananmen has come to be written in the diaspora, not as an individually lived event but as a collective historical idea that has found an afterlife in literature. Here I borrow Walter Benjamin’s concept of afterlife as the non-organic continued life of something that “has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history,” a continuation that is at once “a transformation and a renewal” (“Task” 71, 73). Benjamin’s perspective enables us to conceive of a temporality of Tiananmen that is itself living history, as that which has not yet lapsed but survives into our time, manifesting ever-newer meanings for the changing present. My objective is to tease out the nonbiographical, nonpast knowledges of Tiananmen as provided through fiction, and the ways fiction compels us to think beyond strictly historical or Chinese contexts to new dilemmas that confront the post-1989 world. Indeed, fiction yields a special efficacy for charting an event’s afterlife, since its province is often that of meaning’s distillation and life’s renewal, in a realm less bound by the stringencies of organic decay.
The four works I concentrate on—Gao Xingjian’s Taowang (Escape) (1989), Ha Jin’s The Crazed (2002), Annie Wang’s Lili (2001), and Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (Beijing zhiwuren) (2008)—are exemplary in this regard.5 Eminent figures in the diaspora, these four authors exemplify the increased propensity of the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora to critique communist state power, for they all highlight various sites where this power exerts itself most violently—on individual freedom for Gao, intellectual labor for Jin, female sexuality for Wang, the biological body for Ma. More crucially, their Tiananmen fictions mark major moments in the evolving afterlife of the diasporic imagination of June 4, together reflecting the ongoing development of global concerns since 1989. Each text proffers a discrete conceptual angle onto the Square: the existentialist (Gao), the aporetic (Jin), the global-capitalist (Wang), and the biopolitical (Ma). Accordingly, each work prompts an investigation into a distinct nexus of issues and problems that go far beyond the singular events of Tiananmen, from human displacement and political responsibility to diasporic trauma and melancholia, and ever more proximately to our time, from the challenges posed by global capital and its determinations on transnational subjectivity to the biopolitical dangers facing those who remain behind in globalizing authoritarian countries. The unique theoretical arc I chart via these four texts, then, should profoundly illustrate that the perceptual horizon of the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora is far from provincial. This diaspora evolves alongside planetary realities, and Tiananmen endures as not an unshakable specter but a continually revitalizable history that allows writers to ponder, struggle with, and elucidate contemporary global questions.
In chapter 1, I consider the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Gao Xingjian, and his play Taowang (Escape), the first full-length fictional work on Tiananmen to come out of the Chinese diaspora. Born in 1940, nine years before the establishment of the PRC, Gao is the oldest writer in this study and also the one with the greatest generational distance from the Tiananmen students. His imaginary approach to the Square of 1989 is freighted with a long personal history of encounters with China’s national upheavals and political repression, a trajectory that has culminated in his philosophy of existentialist flight. Hence, in Taowang, the June 4 massacre is not an occurrence unique to the Chinese communist regime or even an archetypal instance of totalitarian state violence but an allegory for human existence within any polis, any community. For Gao, the tanks of Beijing denote the most extreme form of collectivities’ oppression of the individual, but they differ from the pro-democracy movement only in degree and not in kind. In the face of both modes of collective power, the singular human must flee in order to preserve integrity and freedom of the self. As I will argue, Gao’s universalizing of the Square empties Tiananmen of its concrete social and political import, abstracting it into a human condition that takes place everywhere and nowhere. The conceptual insights afforded by his play are thus mostly negative, leading to a quietist view of political action and of humanity. Yet his very contextualizing of Tiananmen within these philosophical discourses behooves us to seek alternative models of exile, of the human, and of politics as such. Tiananmen through Gao’s fiction therefore brings to the fore the critical challenge of theorizing dislocation and dispossession, and the relationship between the human and the polis—perennial preoccupations of diasporas, to be sure.
While Gao’s play takes place in an unnamed country and city, the other three Tiananmen fictions of this study all solidly anchor themselves in the real geography of the post-Mao PRC, albeit each with its own inventive accents and alterations. In chapter 2, I turn to Ha Jin, one of the most prominent Asian American writers today. Of the four works here, Jin’s The Crazed most closely approximates the tenets of contemporary diaspora theory, especially in the novel’s representation of the Square as a site of failed arrival, a destination that the protagonist approaches but never gets to. In literary criticism and cultural studies, conceptual models of diaspora proliferated in the early 1990s, as numerous postcolonial critics drew on ideas from deconstruction for political critiques of the nation and empire. Jin’s arrival in the United States in 1985 as a graduate student of comparative poetics, and his subsequent continuation in American academe after June 4, coincides with this institutional emergence of deconstructive diaspora theory. The Crazed hence marks a historical moment in the development of Tiananmen literature, a product of Jin’s postemigrant status in the 1990s U.S. academy. So too, although the novel shares with Gao’s play a self-distancing from the scene of the massacre, Jin, unlike Gao, casts this narrative absence as a form of diasporic rather than existential alienation, that is, as a sign of his own removal from the ostensible setting of the carnage. The Square, for Jin, epitomizes China’s core, in both its hope and horror, an origin from which he has irreversibly, if mournfully, detached himself. Indeed, from his long-distance vantage point in the United States, most of Jin’s oeuvre can be interpreted as a compulsive attempt to imaginatively return to the lost homeland, whose heart at Tiananmen is now accessible only as a fictional gap or aporia. Thus, I also read Jin’s novel through a paradigm of diasporic melancholia, interweaving theories of diaspora with those of trauma to illuminate his distinctive mode of aesthetically vanishing the Square.
I confine my analysis of diaspora theory to this chapter so as to highlight that no one formulation of “diaspora” is sufficient to explicating all four diasporic texts here, much less all diasporic texts in total. Likewise with trauma theory. While recent work by a number of critics adopting the overarching frame of historical trauma has been valuable for our understanding of twentieth-century Chinese literature and culture (Yang, Chinese; B. Wang; Berry), including the Tiananmen authors I address here (G. Xu; Schaffer and Smith; Schaffer and Song), my study aims to supplement this perspective by drawing out the multifaceted and shifting complexities of Tiananmen fictions. As will become evident in my appraisal of Jin, any application of trauma theory to diaspora writers must also grapple with the problem of remote witnessing—or nonwitnessing—which is in turn entangled with the dynamics of diasporic perception and politics. Furthermore, as my analyses of the other texts will reveal, it is simply not the case that every Chinese author fits the mold of a melancholic victim of the massacre, inexorably caught in the throes of writing and rewriting a primal scene of diasporic trauma. Tiananmen fictions are not mere symptoms. Despite the primacy I assign to June 4 as a major condensation point for the literary diaspora, the faculty I wish to emphasize in these writers is their creative vitality. The diasporic life Tiananmen has yielded them and the afterlife they engender for Tiananmen are reciprocal, symbiotic.
This vitality will become even more apparent in the second half of the book with Annie Wang’s Lili and Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, two works that unhinge Tiananmen from its strictly historical basis. In chapter 3, I discuss Wang’s novel in relation to more specific diaspora theories of femininity, globalization, and neo-orientalism. While Jin formalizes his diasporic distance from origin via a narrative that ends in a moment of failed arrival at the Square, Wang by contrast explicitly thematizes this distance as a cultural-political confrontation between American and Chinese perceptions of China. In other words, Wang concretizes Gao’s existential and Jin’s diasporic alienation as a geopolitical difference. Of all the Tiananmen writers here, she is the youngest, and the only one who is younger than the Tiananmen student generation: born in 1972, she was sixteen at the time of June 4 and grew to adulthood only in the post-massacre period. As a sign of her generational belatedness, her novel’s portrait of late-1980s Beijing anachronistically invokes the hypercapitalist atmosphere of the 1990s instead of the cautious liberalization of the previous decade. Yet this anachronism usefully resituates Tiananmen within a more current framework of the PRC’s globalization, enabling Wang to tackle issues of a contemporary Chinese neocoloniality within the global capitalist order. Consequently, she is also the writer who most thoroughly internationalizes the representation of the Square, and her text the one that deals most overtly with its own diasporic condition vis-à-vis its Western readership. At the same time, her novel relentlessly uncovers the inequalities internal to Chinese society itself, especially along axes of gender and class. Lili is thus at once a feminist critique of Chinese nationalism’s patriarchy, a demythologizing of student elitism, and a redefinition of mass politics as material consumption and cultural mimicry in the era of global capital. Wang’s fiction occupies the symbolic space and time of Tiananmen to lay bare the unequal power relations between as well as within nations, the geopolitics as well as the social power reproductions of capitalist China.
This literary interrogation of power against the symbolic backdrop of Tiananmen will get taken up again by Ma Jian in Beijing Coma. With this latest novel, Tiananmen as history comes to fruition in literature. In chapter 4, I culminate my study with the text that stays most faithful to Tiananmen’s reality but simultaneously elevates it most fully into the realm of myth. Of all extant Tiananmen fictions, Ma’s is the one that stays closest to the student movement, bringing Tiananmen back full circle from Gao’s intellectual-philosopher, Jin’s teacher-scholar, and Wang’s woman-hooligan to the core of the protests’ origins: student life. Moreover, where the other works here underscore the necessity or outcome of flight, Ma’s alone insists on the conceptual return to—and reoccupation of—the Square as the symbolic place of the CCP’s despotic past and present as well as that of Chinese democracy’s future struggle. Both Ma and Jin were born in the mid-1950s, children of the first PRC generation, and both are disenchanted heirs to the communist promise. But unlike Jin, Ma has become a passionate and outspoken advocate of Chinese democracy and human rights. He therefore embodies a significant mode of cultural politics in the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora, and Beijing Coma represents his vigorous intervention into the contested terrains of diasporic Tiananmen discourse. In this last chapter, I will recapitulate the controversial historiography of the massacre as well as recent international criticisms of the “radical” student leadership, so as to refocus attention away from moral censure toward political legacy. In this context, Ma’s novel plays a critical role, for it brilliantly reconfigures Tiananmen through the lens of totalitarian state biopower, exposing the ways the communist state manages and controls its vast population through techniques of governing bodies and biological life. In his epic vision, June 4 epitomizes the half-century-long genealogy of communism’s cannibalistic biopolitics, one that stretches from actual instances of politicized cannibalism in the Cultural Revolution to capitalist modes of state predation in the new millennium and forward into the Beijing Olympics moment. The Square of 1989, though, remains the most visible instant of biopolitical sovereignty, so it is here that Ma imaginatively lingers, even as he unhinges this biopolitical paradigm from its historical space and time and reincarnates it as a general condition over the PRC today. From Gao’s and Jin’s absent Square to Wang’s globalized one, where the Square was nowhere or else utterly porous, we come at last to a ubiquitous Square with no exits. Yet in Ma’s fiction, the most terrifying circumstance is not a repetition of history but the banishing of all repetition, not the reenactment of totalitarian biopower but the forgetting of all biopolitical action, not another military mobilization but a spiritual death of student life altogether. Ultimately, a Square with no students hereafter is equivalent to a Square where the tanks have never ceased to triumph. This latest diasporic portrayal of Tiananmen may be the darkest, most dystopic and nightmarish one yet.
By chance, the Tiananmen fictions selected here are all published with near-decade lapses from the massacre and from each other. Gao completed Taowang in a flurry just months after June 4, whereas The Crazed and Lili were both published at the turn of the millennium, and Beijing Coma first appeared (in English translation) in 2008, almost two full decades after 1989. By various reports, Jin, Wang, and Ma all spent ten years on their respective texts. It would seem that Tiananmen inspires either stunningly swift or painstakingly prolonged artistic efforts, and that every ten years’ passing prompts yet another diaspora writer to revisit the Square and re-create its relevance anew, just as the historical massacre symbolized one era’s end and another’s beginning in the PRC. It may be said, then, that Tiananmen represents an epochally charged and an ever-resilient and timely flash point for unresolved dilemmas, ones that impinge on but are not restricted to Chineseness in our time. This, in any case, is the metanarrative of the present study. Each of the four works chosen raises a constellation of issues that press on not just the Chinese literary diaspora but also the ever more compressed human world we inhabit in common. The focus on Tiananmen compels these writers as much as their global readers to consider persistent problems of existential exile and displacement, historical trauma and witnessing, as well as the more modern crises brought on by globalization and totalitarianism such as capitalist neoimperialism and state sovereign biopower. No one set of terms, however, can wholly encompass Tiananmen’s significations. So, in each chapter I explore at length a cluster of theoretical concepts and their associated debates—including Hannah Arendt’s notion of the human and the polis and Edward Said’s of exile and the intellectual (Gao); deconstruction-inflected theories of diaspora such as Stuart Hall’s and trauma studies’ psychoanalytic extensions of Freudian melancholia (Jin); Rey Chow’s model of postcolonial orientalism and autoethnography and Aihwa Ong’s of capitalist transnationalism and flexible citizenship (Wang); and finally, Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the historical emergency, Michel Foucault’s on modern biopower, and Giorgio Agamben’s on exceptionality and bare life (Ma). These conceptual engagements can elucidate not just Tiananmen and its fictions but also the post-Tiananmen epoch that is our present, for ultimately, I want to suggest that these issues are not simply interlinked but evolving, that they reflect an accreting progression of global concerns in the post-Tiananmen world. That critical discourses have shifted from vocabularies of humanism and displacement to those of transnationalism and globalization in the past two decades may be one indicator of this development. The old terminology is not so much superseded as redefined and recontextualized—which is precisely the story of Tiananmen fictions.
This book, then, does not purport to be a comprehensive survey into all genres of writing on Tiananmen, nor does it give an exhaustive analysis of all Tiananmen literature. Indeed, such monumental tasks seem increasingly daunting, if not impossible, with each passing year. While 1989 recedes ever more remotely in chronological time, its resuscitation by writers the world over has by contrast endowed it with a constant literary present. If anything, literary references and especially casual allusions to it have proliferated over time, in works by both Chinese diaspora writers and others, so that a complete inventory of Tiananmen’s entry into world literature would become a scholarly exercise of a very different sort than the one undertaken here, something akin to an encyclopedic catalogue. Still, there are edifying insights to be derived from such an enterprise, so let me briefly telescope these by sketching a few categories of other Tiananmen representations, in literature as well as visual culture, if only to make more salient my own textual choices.
In poetry, there is a sizable corpus in both Chinese and non-Chinese languages, and this genre well deserves a separate study. A thorough tally of Tiananmen poetry, though, would include not just explicitly Tiananmen-related pieces but also those implicitly tied to the incident. To take one telling example: in Bei Dao’s poetry, while direct references to June 4 are not many—the 1990 “Requiem” (“Diao wang”) being his most overt homage to the massacre’s victims—it is nonetheless periodically and obliquely resurrected in numerous poems years later such as “deny” (“Fouren”) (1995) and “June” (“Liuyue”) (2000), poems that commemorate unnamed anniversaries and in which images of the dead or of a square, and themes of memory’s erasure or return, none too subtly harken back to 1989. Through these images and themes, and given his trademark poetics of ambiguity, Tiananmen can even be said to atmospherically permeate Bei Dao’s post-1989 writing. To consider another farther-flung example: in Chinese American poet Marilyn Chin’s English-language volume The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994), the last section is entitled “Beijing Spring” and dedicated to “the Chinese Democratic Movement,” but just two poems in the section (“Tienanmen, the Aftermath” and “Beijing Spring”) deal with Tiananmen, whereas the other pieces accrue June 4 relevance only indirectly, associatively. Structural placement, contextual proximity, paratextual resonance, circumstantial inspiration—all these factors come into play in the identification and assessment of Tiananmen poetry in the expansive sense. Even a strictly themed anthology such as the 2007 Liusi shiji (June 4 collected poetry), the first literary compilation devoted entirely to the topic of Tiananmen and assembling more than 150 Chinese poems on June 4, appears in print only after a highly selective vetting: as the editors report, they had initially collected a total of 5,341 poems (Jiang i). Hence, while Wang Dan rightly notes in the volume’s preface that, “up until now, we have not had one historical document that comprehensively lays bare the June 4 Incident from the angle of literature” (“Liusi” iii), it is clear from the anthology’s compilation that the genre of poetry alone defies scholarly efforts at comprehensiveness.
In novels and drama too, Tiananmen has been extensively disseminated, as more and more writers across the globe incorporate the events of Beijing spring into their works from 1989 onward. The extent of address ranges widely, though we can extrapolate some patterns of engagement. First, a common marginalization of Tiananmen can be observed in a number of works by notable authors, whether emigrant, overseas-born, or non-Chinese. (On this score, ethnicity and nativity do not seem to dictate aesthetic handling.) Some touch on Tiananmen only tangentially. Japanese American playwright Wakako Yamauchi’s The Chairman’s Wife (1990), for one, teasingly opens in the late afternoon of June 4, 1989, against sounds of fluctuating sirens and a chorus of “distorted, toneless, surreal” voices repeatedly whispering “Tiananmen” (103), but otherwise the play centers on the interior psychic drama of Jiang Qing (Chiang Ching in the text) in her prison hospital cell. Hong Kong Anglophone writer Xu Xi’s short story “Manky’s Tale,” collected in History’s Fiction (2001), also uses the protest movement as a political backdrop against which to unfold a more micro plot, in this case the intergenerational tension between a dying patriarch and his jazz musician son. And in a sharp departure from Lili, Annie Wang’s yuppie column-turned-novel The People’s Republic of Desire (2006) mentions Tiananmen only twice, first as a prefatory aside about the new capitalist China’s cultural amnesia, then midway through the book as the enigmatic reason behind the narrator’s parents’ divorce. In effect, the novel enacts what it thematizes, as national history surfaces as tidbits of domestic drama and background data on personality profiles.
In several other works by Chinese diaspora authors, Tiananmen appears at greater length but nevertheless functions as a thematically minor if structurally seminal episode, either to propel the main plotline forward or to supply narrative closure. One well-known example is the Internet novel Beijing Story (Beijing gushi), written by an anonymous Chinese graduate student in New York in the late 1990s under the alias Beijing Comrade (Beijing Tongzhi) and the basis of Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan’s film Lan Yu (2001). In the pivotal ninth chapter, the young hero’s near brush with death on the eve of June 4 serves as a turning point in the homosexual romance plot, since it cements the hitherto fickle and self-doubting narrator’s love for him. But as one critic points out, although the military crackdown represents the novel’s “narrative hub,” the young man’s death at the end—not from government assault but a random cab accident—suggests a censure less of June 4 itself than of post-Tiananmen China’s “economic mobility and capitalist freedoms” (Berry 316, 318). In a similar episodic bracketing of Tiananmen, Ting-xing Ye’s Throwaway Daughter (2003) contains two middle chapters set in June 1989 in which a Chinese adoptee and her Canadian family watch television footage of the Beijing bloodshed, a traumatic experience that precipitates the nine-year-old protagonist’s eventual journey to China in search of her birth parents. For the rest of the novel, however, Tiananmen has little bearing on the protagonist’s discoveries about her family history and is barely mentioned again. Alternately, in Alex Kuo’s Chinese Opera (1998) and Liu Hong’s Startling Moon (2001), the massacre transpires toward the end of both narratives, as a sudden eruption of destructive force that provokes the characters to private and romantic resolutions, but aside from personal affairs, the incident functions largely to drive the characters out of China and bring the plots to closure. Despite their disparities, all these works share a peculiar peripheralizing of Tiananmen, treating it as evocative backdrop or loose allegory, an ancillary scene or a strategic plot twist, or else a rapid denouement to the dominant storyline. Nonetheless, these works contribute to a growing corpus of global Tiananmen fictions, and they all train world attention on the historical repressiveness of the communist regime by circulating primarily outside the PRC, among mostly non-Sinophone audiences. Even Beijing Story, which originally spread via the Chinese Internet, has since the early 2000s been multiply translated by online fans and is now popular among English Internet readers.
On the other hand, a number of fictional works do allot sustained narrative space to Tiananmen, and whether composed by emigrant or overseas-born Chinese or non-Chinese writers, their chief circuit too lies outside the PRC. One prevalent theme concerns cross-cultural relations, with Tiananmen demarcating the possibilities and limits of East-West fellowship. An early example here is Forbidden City (1990), by the Canadian young-adult-fiction author William Bell. The novel revolves around the Chinese friendships formed by a teenager from Toronto traveling in Beijing, first with his government monitor and tour guide, then with a female student activist, but both friendships end tragically when the latter two are killed in the massacre and the ensuing clampdown. Strongly embedded in the text is a humanist plea for cross-racial bonds and empathy, for cultivating knowledge of cultural others and identifying with their plight. This message is encapsulated in the conclusion when the protagonist’s father, a cameraman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, confesses to having been absorbed merely by the news value of the incident until his own son went missing in the chaos.
The interplay between cross-cultural conflict and understanding, if within racial bounds, also emerges pervasively in Tiananmen works by ethnic Chinese authors in North America. Many of these conjure the events of 1989 Beijing to explore the complex affiliations, sometimes meaningful but often replete with dissonances, between mainland Chinese and Chinese American identities. Alex Kuo’s Chinese Opera and Ting-xing Ye’s Throwaway Daughter present good examples, as does C. Y. Lee’s Gate of Rage (1991): in all three novels, motifs of returning to a native or ancestral land, of seeking cultural roots, or of repairing fractured family histories can be traced, if with vastly different emotional tenors and narrative results. Another noteworthy work in this connection is Elizabeth Wong’s Letters to a Student Revolutionary (1991). Born in California to immigrant parents, Wong draws on her own exchange of letters with a young woman from the PRC in the years prior to 1989 as the premise for her Tiananmen drama. The play tracks a ten-year correspondence between two women who share “youth, gender, and race” but “widely divergent” notions of freedom (Uno 261), and the action culminates in the abrupt severance of their relationship after the June 4 crackdown, projected onto the stage via a rapid slide show. In the epilogue, however, China and America overlap in a common forgetting of the massacre, as the former launches into its “policy of selective historical amnesia” and the latter reverts to its “shopping and the concerns of everyday living” (308). Cultural and national disparities collapse in a general failure of memory. The PRC and the United States converge as well in Terrence Cheng’s Sons of Heaven (2002). Born in Taipei and raised in New York, Cheng too imports into 1989 Beijing an American presence and plays on the two cultures’ possible congruencies via two estranged brothers, one a graduate of Cornell University who joins in the student demonstrations, the other a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldier who is ordered to suppress the protest movement. Supplementing their perspectives is a third, that of Deng Xiaoping, whose suffering during the Cultural Revolution is recounted with psychological density through a series of flashbacks. By the novel’s end, the returnee dissident transfigures into the heroic Tank Man, the soldier, too, turns rebel and manages to reunite with his younger brother, and the penultimate image of the older sibling resting his head on the younger’s lap becomes superimposed onto Deng’s final memory of his crippled son on his own lap. With these and other mirroring details, Cheng insinuates that, ultimately, all three men are victims of state persecution, in the long history of the communist wounding of Chinese masculinity, even as their fundamental humanity shines through. In all these works, Tiananmen affords diasporic writers an opportunity to meditate on cultural inheritance and difference, framed within the push-pull of identity and the possibility of national-cultural transcendence.
Yet Tiananmen also lends itself to some ironic diasporic visions of China, several of which exhibit special skepticism toward the hyperbolic claims of Chinese masculinity. “Manky’s Tale,” for instance, can be read as Xu Xi’s subtle commentary on postcolonial Hong Kong’s uneasy filiations with the Chinese fatherland and its politics, where the pro-democracy students’ vehement revolt against the communist leaders doubles as an incongruous analogue to the protagonist’s repressed aggression toward his dying father. In counterpoint to the mainland students who lay authoritative claim to the nation’s future, the indecisive protagonist and his enfeebled father both seem to suffer from a deficit of masculine and patriotic self-assurance, in the setting of a colony transitioning between empires. With more sardonic sting, the short story “Plain Moon” (“Su Yue”) (1991), by Taiwan emigrant and New York–based writer Gu Zhaosen, showcases the personal duplicity and domestic betrayal that can hide behind the lofty public rhetoric of democracy and nationalism. The tale focalizes through its eponymous heroine, a love-starved immigrant from Hong Kong and a low-wage worker in a garment factory in New York City who naively idolizes an international student activist from China and offers to secure permanent residency status for him in the United States via marriage, only to learn soon after that he has all along carried on a romantic liaison with his fiancée from Shanghai. In a particularly wry detail, Gu has the unfaithful husband use a Wuer Kaixi lecture as cover for a secret tryst, suggestively rendering Plain Moon, in one critic’s apt phrase, “a belated victim of the [Tiananmen] Incident” (D. D. Wang, “Chinese” 256). Treachery recurs in Diane Wei Liang’s more sensationalist detective novel Paper Butterfly (2008), in which an embittered former student protestor, after being betrayed to the authorities by his best friend in 1989 and then jailed for eight years in a reform labor camp, devolves into a child-kidnapper and near-murderer who accidentally kills his ex-girlfriend in his quest for vengeance. Liang’s figure of the male activist turned hatred-filled and revenge-obsessed criminal, someone who brings pain and death to innocent women around him, constitutes an exceptionally banalizing and debased portrait of the Tiananmen student in literature.
More typical is the delicate satire of Gu’s story, or else, on the part of feminist writers, a more incisive critique of Chinese cultural misogyny. These texts can be read in opposition to the conventional iconography of Beijing spring and the student movement, which, as scholars have pointed out, often couples revolution with romance (D. D. Wang, “Chinese” 256; Berry 307–8). For example, one work that liberally borrows the trope of romantic love is An Tian’s Tiananmen qingren (Tiananmen lover) (2004), by a former student activist now residing in Vancouver: the novel follows a sensitive young man from his participation in the Beijing protests to his exilic life in Canada and eventual career as a medical doctor there, but through it all, he remains inescapably haunted by, and emotionally loyal to, the woman he had been secretly infatuated with in 1989 but who had been crushed by a tank outside the Square on June 4. Against this sentimental tale of undying love in the face of horrific death, Gu’s story can be read as a gentle “parody” (D. D. Wang, “Chinese” 256), but several women writers’ stress on female sexuality and patriarchal power takes on a harder edge. I will discuss the gendered dimension of Tiananmen at greater length in chapter 3 with Annie Wang’s Lili, but this novel has an important precursor in Hong Ying’s Summer of Betrayal (Beipan zhi xia) (1992). Herself a renowned exemplar of the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora, Hong Ying is innovative for locating June 4 at the beginning rather than the conclusion of her narrative. In the initial chapter, the protagonist flees the slaughter in the Square only to find, upon her arrival at her boyfriend’s apartment, that he has cheated on her with his supposedly estranged wife. This dual moment of political and sexual betrayal triggers a tortuous search for identity, and to some measure the protagonist finds both self-expression and liberation through poetry and sex. In the penultimate scene of an orgy with her bohemian friends, she declares triumphantly that she has become “the art of sex, its lyrics,” her naked body “as pure and unblemished from top to bottom as her eyes” (176), but the finale renders this triumph ambiguous. As the police show up to break up the party and everyone hurriedly dresses, the protagonist alone remains defiantly bare, challenging the officers with her nudity, but in the same instant, her friends implicitly abandon her when they otherize her as an epileptic madwoman and then stand passively by as she alone gets arrested for “indecent behavior” under martial law (181). We might read this scene as Hong Ying’s feminist revision of the Tank Man tableau, with its highly phallic imagery. The subject of criminalized female sexuality will be taken up again by Wang’s Lili, but resituated in a more contemporary framework of China’s globalization. Carrying forward her predecessor’s feminist critique, Wang will locate the Asian female body in relation to not just communist state power and Chinese cultural misogyny but also Western neo-orientalism and transnational capital. For now, we can say that the works summarized above all summon Tiananmen to accentuate the heterogeneity of Chinese identities, particularly along the axis of gender.
So, while the canon of Tiananmen fictions cannot be said to be voluminous, it is certainly thriving and becoming ever more sizable and diffuse. Ultimately, though, these other works lack features paramount for my study. First and foremost, the four texts here strike me as conducting the most substantive and trenchant inquiry into the power-politics relation that lies at the heart of 1989’s events. They may enfold themes raised by other works, but they do so by unequivocally linking their narratives to Tiananmen, reviving this history to grapple with or distill fundamental issues of state power and the politics of confrontation. In addition to this concerted engagement, they facilitate an examination into Tiananmen’s evolving applicability to the post-1989 world at large. Finally, I zero in on these writers—rather than those born or long established abroad—because they allow me to isolate with greater empirical concreteness the sociohistorical phenomenon I call the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora. Insofar as all four share a comparable trajectory of leaving China or becoming diasporic as a result of June 4, they cast into acute relief the dynamic transactions between texts and contexts, home and diaspora.
On this last point, it merits emphasizing that the distinction between homeland and diaspora is not an absolute one. While my book focuses on diasporic perspectives, Tiananmen is by no means the exclusive concern of diaspora authors alone. Although the topic is censored by the PRC government, many writers within the country do wrestle with giving it literary embodiment. These efforts, however, necessitate disguise, circuity, subterfuge. Instead of blatant references to the protest movement and the massacre such as those omnipresent in the Tiananmen works penned abroad, we find in mainland fictions a host of evasive maneuvers and layers of camouflage. Even the boldest writers will be cautious to cloak any allusion to June 4, making it plain enough to cue the searching eye but veiled enough to deflect political scrutiny.
The best-known example here is veteran novelist Mo Yan’s The Republic of Wine (Jiuguo) (1992), which uses the trope of cannibalism to unleash a biting satire against cultural gourmandise and official corruption. The book’s connection to Tiananmen is oft-noted: Mo Yan started writing it only three months after the crackdown, but it could not be published on the mainland until three years later, after the Taiwanese edition appeared in print (Goldblatt v). So, although no scenes of student protests or mass killings occur in the novel, its central preoccupation with Chinese civilizational gluttony, Party venality, and the contemporary writer’s crisis of authorial identity can all be interpreted through the lens of Tiananmen, as a “piercing” look into the “quotidian decay of social and individual life” that underpinned the calamity of June 4 (Yang, “Republic” 7). In chapter 4, I will elaborate on the literary uses of cannibalism as a political metaphor, especially for the communist state’s vicious devouring of its own people, in relation to Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma; certainly, Ma owes Mo Yan a literary debt for the Tiananmen resonance of this motif. For the latter, though, Tiananmen can only be hinted at, and one evocative marker of it may be the cryptic character of the protagonist’s son. Of this character we know almost nothing except that he is, significantly, a student—and a student whose attitude toward his Party-lackey father is unapologetically sullen, rebellious, and antagonizing. In the multilayered web of the novel, the figure of the boy does not simply belong to an endangered species within a cannibalistic society but represents in addition a recurrent source of mockery and threat to paternal authority. Through this figure, Mo Yan may well be locating his own ambivalent and compromised paternity vis-à-vis the younger Tiananmen generation.
Also written shortly after June 4 was Wang Shuo’s Please Don’t Call Me Human (Qianwan bie ba wo dang ren), originally serialized in a Nanjing literary journal from August to December of 1989, in the thick of the literary bans and cultural purge that descended on liberal writers (Barmé, In the Red 21). Opinions differ over why the novel succeeded in circumventing the censors: some speculate about the perpetual “stupidity” of napping officials, while others hypothesize that Wang’s reputation, and deliberately crafted self-image, as a profit-seeking author of popular hooligan fiction gave him some immunity from watchdogs targeting more “serious” writers (Barmé, In the Red 95). Regardless, the novel is universally recognized as a caustic lampoon, satirizing everything from China’s governmental bureaucracy and state security system to Chinese jingoism and masculine heroics. The protagonist, initially a Beijing pedicab driver with a fantastic lineage in the Boxer Rebellion and the apocryphal heir to its martial arts tradition, gets recruited to serve as China’s sports hero in the next international Sapporo Games (a thin disguise for the Olympics). In the process of his training, and in the name of redeeming China’s national pride and the yellow man’s dignity from Western imperialism, he is not only brainwashed and commodified but also feminized and eventually castrated. In a final feat televised across the world, he smilingly and victoriously cuts away his own face, “a human mask,” to reveal a “hideous, bloody mess” beneath (287). This grotesque parable of the emasculation, disfiguration, and dehumanization of the ordinary man has moments that provocatively if obliquely gesture toward Tiananmen. In one scene, for instance, in a rather brazen allusion to the Tank Man, the protagonist stands in front of a “column of enemy tanks” as they “rumbled toward him at a snail’s pace, forming a wall of steel directly ahead, like a firing squad in front of a condemned man” (170). This historical mis-en-scène quickly dissolves, however, first into a cartoonish video-game-like battle sequence, then a media circus with screaming adolescent fans mobbing the hero, and lastly a police raid in which, in another telltale detail, “the masses in the square hit the ground like toppled grain stalks” (179). In Wang Shuo’s irreverent and dystopic world, even a popular uprising against social injustice and political oppression crumbles into farce, and the novel ends with a vision of a hyperreal China and a post-apocalyptic Beijing as a desert city with “not a sign of humanity” (288).
Yet another intriguing work in this context is Zhu Wen’s novella Didi de yanzou (Little brother’s performance) (1996). Part of the “New Generation” of writers who began publishing after 1989, Zhu shot to literary acclaim inside the country with I Love Dollars (Wo ai meiyuan) (1994), a portrait of 1990s capitalist China that immerses itself with gusto in the milieu’s seedily sex-obsessed and unabashedly cynical, if also self-consciously hollow, zeitgeist. This debut work may seem to give credence to an oft-remarked-on trend in post-Tiananmen mainland literature in which writers settle into tacit cooperation with the government by trading creative freedom for political silence. But as one critic argues, Zhu Wen’s “unremittingly negative vision of China today and, by logical extension, of the political architects of this society” stands as a scathing criticism of “the political status quo” that is “ubiquitously implicit” (Lovell, Translator’s 239). Likewise with Didi de yanzou, though in this later piece, implicitness takes the form of an event substitution. Despite the title’s raunchy pun and the plot’s surface focus on the “spermatic journey” of its cast of “sex-questing males,” the story can be read as one of the most ingenious fictions on Tiananmen—in the words of the same critic, “a serious novella masquerading as a scurrilous burlesque” (Lovell, “Filthy”). As the author himself claims in interview, “I wanted to write about 4 June, about the atmosphere surrounding the demonstrations, but I couldn’t,” so he ends up writing about a radically different student protest movement: the 1988 anti-African demonstrations by university students in Nanjing. By diverting the historical setting from 1989 Beijing spring to this much-eclipsed earlier episode, Zhu also dramatically revises the image of the student protestors from political idealists and noble martyrs to libido-driven, hysteria-prone, and casually racist undergraduates. Tiananmen thereby degenerates from a political performance into what he impishly calls “adolescent carnivalesque,” and the 1980s period of upheaval concludes for him with neither a bang nor a whimper but a “premature ejaculation” (qtd. in Lovell, “Filthy”).
One other instructive example, fortuitously published in the same year as Zhu’s novella but offering a much more somber approach to Tiananmen, is Beijing-based avant-garde writer Chen Ran’s semi-autobiographical A Private Life (Siren shenghuo) (1996). In this intensely introspective novel, the narrator recalls, among the vicissitudes of her college years, falling passionately in love with a fellow student poet who became involved in the pro-democracy movement, then living through the difficult time after their aborted romance when he was forced into exile, and most tellingly, herself being hit by a stray bullet in the left calf one day that early summer. Contrary to the frequent and overt references to Tiananmen in the English translation, however, the Chinese original never names Tiananmen Square, June 4, or even Beijing (Schaffer and Song, “Narrative” 162). Instead, it repeatedly makes vague but charged reference to “the square,” “the significant incident,” and “that tragic period,” and crucially, the whole narrative is structured as one of trauma (Schaffer and Song, “Writing” 6). Due to these elusive maneuvers, Chen’s book has never gone out of print on the mainland and was even reissued in a new illustrated edition by a Beijing publisher in 2004 (Schaffer and Song, “Writing” 3–4).
Without a doubt, then, there exists a body of fictions within the PRC that attempt to write Tiananmen, whether earnestly, derisively, or traumatically, via metaphor or metonymy, catachresis or ellipses. These works are well worth probing in full, but they require a different set of identificatory procedures and interpretive skills, and ultimately, a separate conceptual argument than the one advanced in this study. To my mind, that other project must above all theorize a hermeneutics of evasion, one that provides a critical framework for not just the array of aesthetic tactics adopted by PRC writers but also these tactics’ specific deployment in relation to shifting political exigencies. So, while there is obvious and significant continuity between mainland and diaspora in terms of authorial commitment to and political appraisal of Tiananmen’s history, the two sites and their respective fictions seem to occupy polar ends on the spectrum of formal strategies. Where the latter invade, the former e-vade: as diasporic texts strive to access the 1989 Square by lapsing their distance from it, mainland ones evoke the same imagined space-time by skirting along its contours. Both lie “outside” the symbolic Square in this sense, and their mutual outside-ness can be understood as a structural relation to absolute state power, defined by a sliding scale of proximity, rather than any firm opposition of belief or desire.
Similar observations can be made about the fields of visual culture. Onscreen, for example, Tiananmen crops up in films by mainland directors as well as those by diasporic ones, though in the case of Hong Kong cinema, the aesthetic of circuity appears with noticeable prevalence post-1997. The aforementioned Lan Yu by Stanley Kwan, for instance, departs from Beijing Comrade’s original text by never directly mentioning the June 4 killings, evoking them instead in one brief eerie scene of a flurry of bicyclists rushing by the distraught protagonist in a dark alleyway. Nonetheless, the “immediate legibility of this shorthand,” along with the movie’s explicit treatment of homosexuality, contributes to its ban on the mainland, where even black-market copies of its DVD have the Tiananmen scene expunged (Andrew Chan). By contrast, Sixth Generation filmmaker Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) (2006) includes extensive sequences as well as actual news footage on the massacre. Daringly marketing itself in international venues as the first mainland production to depict June 4, the movie was briskly banned by the PRC authorities and Lou Ye himself barred from filmmaking for five years.6
Despite this climate of prohibition and punishment, many mainland artists continue to commemorate Tiananmen through a range of means and styles. In the vibrant realm of visual arts, one well-known example is Yue Minjun’s Execution (1995), which made worldwide headlines in 2007 when it auctioned for nearly $6 million and became the most expensive piece of contemporary Chinese art up until that point. Inspired by June 4, the painting hybridizes Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 and Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian to summon up parallel scenes of political violence, but in the artist’s signature style of “cynical realism,” the row of doomed men now stand against a red wall in their underpants, identical exaggerated smiles frozen on their faces. The color red also features prominently in the works of Sheng Qi, the artist notorious for having cut off his own little finger and buried it in a flowerpot as a personal act of defiance in 1989. Since returning to China after living abroad for nearly a decade, he has continued to paint quietly sinister portraits of Beijing and Tiananmen Square. In works such as Parade (2007), Red floor or clean square (2008), and Under the shadow (2009), the Square is a site perpetually overcast with storm clouds and streaked with rain, and invariably awash in ominous swaths of grey and crimson.7 Other artists resort to more experimental or ephemeral modes such as performance, combining it with photography to at once reenact and retain memories of 1989. The Tianjin-based artist Mo Yi, for example, staged a performance in Tiananmen Square on the tenth anniversary of June 4 by shaving his hair, eyebrows, and beard. He then took two photographs of himself but dated them 89–6–4, with the second one bordered in blood-red and his self-image cut in half (Wu Hung 220–21). Another poignant performance is Song Dong’s Breathing (1996), also enacted in Tiananmen Square but on a subzero winter night, with the artist lying inert on the ground for forty minutes, breathing into one spot on the pavement and forming a thin sheet of ice there that vanished by morning. The disappearance of this trace of his breath conjures the government cover-up of the massacre while the accompanying photograph, taken by Song Dong’s wife, recalls the living moment of the 1989 protests (Wu Hung 228–29).
In recent years, the Internet has come to endow Tiananmen with yet another mode of artistic remembrance and representational afterlife, as more and more artists within the PRC learn to take advantage of this technology. H. N. (Hsiang-ning) Han, a China-born and Taiwan-educated artist who worked in New York City for more than three decades before repatriating to the mainland in 2000, had painted an acrylic series on June 3–4 in 1989.8 On Han’s current Chinese weblog, while he is careful to omit his Tiananmen series and to avoid labeling any piece of art as Tiananmen-related, hints to the episode are surprisingly abundant and obvious. In 2008, for instance, in the days surrounding June 4, he uploaded a series of black-and-white sketches, magnified close-ups of his own drawings, under such innocuous subject lines as “a little bit of caring” (yidian yidian de guanhuai), “a little bit of pain” (yidian yidian de chuangtong), “a little bit of history” (yidian yidian de lishi), and last, “incident” (shijian). As the days progressed, the sketches he posted, at first blurry and context-generic, became increasingly identifiable as iconic images of Tiananmen—headbanded young men gathering atop vehicles, crowds raising fists and hands waving victory signs in the air, speeding bicycles and prostrate bodies, all against the silhouette of the Forbidden City. With even greater boldness two years later in 2010, in a blog entry called “old photographs and sketchbook” (lao zhaopian huagao) posted just one second before June 4—at 2010–06–03 23:59:59—Han revisited the Tiananmen theme by intercutting his own drawings with unmistakable photographic stills of the Beijing movement. Prefacing these visuals is a thinly veiled parable of punished children pleading to their mother to redress their grievance, to say to them now as the whole world watches, “Children! You’ve done no wrong!” (“Lao”).
Finally, one other figure is of central importance for the development of Tiananmen art: the PLA soldier–turned-artist Chen Guang. A seventeen-year-old new recruit in 1989 when he served in the unit that was ordered to evacuate the Square, Chen left the army soon after, eventually enrolling in Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts to study oil painting. By the late 1990s, he had earned a reputation for his sexually explicit performance art and photographic self-portraits, but it was not until the past few years, almost two decades after the massacre, that he was able to reclaim Tiananmen as an aesthetic subject, with oil and canvas again his medium. Retrieving photographs he himself took for the army during the Square’s clearing and cleanup, Chen brought to Tiananmen art—and June 4’s historical memory—the unprecedented perspective of the former PLA soldier. His Tiananmen series comprises twenty-four works divided into eight themes: “Soldier,” “Breakage,” “Site,” “Souvenir,” “Remains,” “Secrets,” “Exploration,” and “Wind” (Shu). To my mind, the most haunting pieces are those that combine a chilling photorealism with touches of expressionism. In the foreground, piles of paper and cloth drape over vaguely humanoid shapes as uniformed soldiers mill about and rifle through the debris; in the background, columns of smoke rise from the still-burning square. In the two pieces entitled Breakage (Duan), a group of soldiers look on, curious but nonchalant, as the toppled statue of the Goddess of Democracy is replaced by the larger-than-life body of a young man, presumably that of the artist, severed at the torso and sprawling across a square’s broken beams. For Chen now, art is essentially ethical and human, and when he speaks of Tiananmen, his vista is planetary, species-embracing: “Art is not only about art, and artists need to work in the level of social morals. We often go to extremes when we talk about the incident in 1989 nowadays. We need to look at it in a more humane perspective. A lot of things, both domestic and international, happened during that period of time. Like the pull-down of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the death of Ceausescu in Romania, and also the 1989 incident and the short-lived Modern Art Exhibition. When you consider the citizens, the students and the soldiers as a whole in the incident, you will understand how the individuals, the country and the power ruined their prospects in the waves of history” (“Interview”). At the same time, Tiananmen remains deeply personal for him. When asked by Ma Jian in 2009 why he decided to resurrect the past after all this time, Chen replied: “It’s the 20th anniversary this year. I think it’s about time. Anyway, I can’t hold these nightmares inside me any longer” (qtd. in Ma J., “Great”). Along with this artistic output comes a new vocalness, to Chinese as much as Western audiences. As Chen comments in various interviews with foreign reporters: “For 20 years I tried to bury this episode, but the older you get the more these things float to the surface. I think it’s time for my experiences, my truth, to be shared with the rest of the world” (qtd. in Jacobs). Elsewhere, he insists with particular urgency on the need for historical acknowledgment and personal integrity now, in the period of China’s economic growth: “I’m still in touch with about a dozen [men] from my old military unit. None meditates about the past the way I do. Some are policemen today, or officials. They’ve got good jobs, and they owe that to what happened back in ’89” (qtd. in Harmsen). Yet the path to speech and recognition remains ridden with danger. Three days after Chen mounted his Tiananmen paintings in the online exhibition Impulsion to Extremeness (Dui jiduan de chongdong) (2008), the website was shut down by the communist censors. As of now, his work travels mainly via the overseas Internet.
One last but crucial facet of this story involves language use. Just as the geographical site of Tiananmen’s cultural production has been dispersed across the globe, so its linguistic medium has been dislodged from Chinese into a multiplicity of languages. I concentrate on the interlingual exchanges between Chinese and English writings of Tiananmen because these are the languages I work with, and because of the dominance of English in the current international publishing industry.9 One direct if unexpected repercussion of the PRC’s ban on June 4 is that English has emerged as a major linguistic platform for the global discourse on Tiananmen in almost all genres. This is not a self-important proclamation about the necessity or privileged status of English as the language of Tiananmen; any such claim would rightly meet with quick skepticism. Rather, it is an observation about English’s visibility as the linguistic route through which much Tiananmen writing passes or gets materialized in the post-1989 world. Of course, a copious amount has been written on the subject in Chinese itself, some even within the PRC despite the censorship there, as noted above. Yet the Tiananmen content of these works can attain full public scope and lifespan only outside of the mainland, many through translation—for better and for worse. To be sure, translation entails negotiation between not just words and meanings but also unequal power relations embedded within languages and cultures, so that even as a locally prohibited topic such as June 4 is brought into the open via an English translation, there can be a simultaneous “loss of ambiguity, difference and incommensurability,” and even a pigeonholing of a writer’s specific vision into the “universalizing pressures of western modernity” (Schaffer and Song, “Writing” 17–18). English hence operates as a key if also double-edged diasporic language of Tiananmen.
The famous case of The Tiananmen Papers starkly illustrates this phenomenon. As a compilation of hundreds of secret and internal documents shedding light on the decision-making processes of top CCP leaders in that fateful spring—documents supposedly smuggled out of the country by a midlevel cadre and then leaked to Columbia University political scientist Andrew Nathan—this massive volume was first published in English in January 2001, with the even more colossal Chinese edition following only several months later in April. Thus, the English translation of some of the most close-up and edifying primary records of Tiananmen preceded their originals in public appearance. According to Nathan, the book’s contents were widely discussed and excerpted in the intervening months by Chinese Internet users in the PRC, who “back-translated” from English into Chinese based on the American edition (“Preface” xviii). Furthermore, as another index of this inversion of linguistic chronology, since the Chinese publisher came second to the Western one, successive foreign translations of the volume have been prepared, not on the Chinese text, but on the English-language one (Nathan, “Introduction” xli). However, partly due to this linguistic detour, the authenticity of the documents has since been called into question by not just PRC authorities but also some China scholars in the West (Baum 130–32; Alfred Chan 190–205), resulting in yet another international controversy on Tiananmen that remains unsettled. Regardless of the collection’s authenticity, though, we cannot deny the tremendously far-reaching and defining power of English in the global circulation of Tiananmen discourse, in this case occurring a dozen years after June 4.
This commotion surrounding The Tiananmen Papers is by now a familiar tale, so let me offer a more literary example: Liao Yiwu’s long poem “Datusha” (Massacre). Composed in the dawn hours of June 4 in Liao’s home province of Sichuan, the poem is akin to a frenzied outcry, alternating between fragmented images of butchery and fierce exclamations of outrage. Its publication history is a revealing case of the priority of translation and the importance of English for Tiananmen literature. Knowing that it would not see print within mainland China anytime soon, Liao made an audiotape of his oral recitation of the poem, complete with “ritualistic chanting and howling to invoke the spirit of the dead,” and then distributed the tape “via underground channels” (W. Huang ix). Partly due to this tape, Liao was arrested in 1990 and jailed for four years (Jiang 78; W. Huang x). While the poem remains unpublished in the PRC to this day (though it continues to spread in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as the Chinese Internet), it has long ago been smuggled out of the country by Liao’s friends. Its first print publication was in English translation, anonymous and retitled “The Howl” in the 1992 anthology New Ghosts, Old Dreams. So, what is by now one of the most celebrated Chinese-language poems on Tiananmen in fact first appeared in print via a linguistic detour into English, under a name that does not back-translate.
Alongside the theoretical arc outlined above, then, my book also contains a linguistic arc. Superficially, my ordering of texts may seem to have two Chinese-language works (Taowang, Beijing Coma) neatly bookend two English-language ones (The Crazed, Lili). Over this static concentric design, however, lies a turning spiral, or more aptly, a series of rotating squares. In the first chapter, I work with the original Chinese text of Gao Xingjian’s play because this was its most widely distributed version even years after his Nobel award.10 By the early 2000s, though, both Ha Jin and Annie Wang were writing in English, so that Englishness became no longer a derivative or auxiliary feature of Tiananmen fictions but an original language of their composition, even among emigrant authors whose first language was Chinese. Finally, near the end of this millennial decade, we observe the latest twist in Tiananmen’s interlingual afterlife with Ma Jian’s novel. As I will discuss in my conclusion, Ma wrote his magnum opus in Chinese and first conceived of it under the title Routu, literally “flesh earth” or “meat soil,” evoking a host of visceral biopolitical images. The English translation, done by Ma’s partner, Flora Drew, was released as Beijing Coma in mid-2008. The Chinese original, however, had to wait over a year to appear in print, in a reversal of publication chronology similar to that of The Tiananmen Papers and “Datusha.” What’s more, Ma’s original title may be destined for the literary critic’s footnote, for the press that now publishes the Chinese edition has elected to market the novel under the back-translated title of Beijing zhiwuren—literally a “Beijing comatose person”—and Chinese reviewers almost unanimously refer to the work by this name. So, ironically, even as Ma tries to restore the centrality of the Chinese students in his narrative of the Square, the milieu in which he writes behooves him to execute this restoration first and foremost in translation, in English. In our current phase of globalization, the works of the Chinese literary diaspora have become deeply intertwined with the modes and languages of commercial production in the West, leading to disjunctures and reversals like those we behold with Routu/Beijing Coma/Beijing zhiwuren. It awaits to be seen how the PRC’s ascension as a global power today will impact this diaspora’s future. What seems undeniable is that diasporic literature now reaches beyond the spheres circumscribed by the Sinoscript and the Sinophone (S. Kong, “Diaspora” 546; Shih 28–37), in a latter-day variation of the types of transnational and translational Chinese cosmopolitanism once seen in semicolonial Shanghai’s Anglophone print culture that likewise had their “afterlife” through migration (Shen 135–60).
By way of a conclusion, let me describe my own modest route to this project. Like Annie Wang, I belong to the post-Tiananmen generation, in the sense that I am several years younger than those college students in the Square in 1989. But unlike her, I am not a Beijing native who was well-placed by history to be so near the scene of history’s unfolding. And unlike Gao, Jin, and Ma, I was neither old enough to appreciate the symbolism and momentousness of the protest movement nor invested enough in the Chinese nation to feel the raw emotional tug of those television images of throngs and tanks. In my own ten years’ dwelling with this project, I have come to share some of these writers’ emotions and identifications, even if intellectualized, and if much belated. But in June 1989, Tiananmen was remote. It was a word with little resonance for a teenager from Hong Kong in Miami who felt out of tune with Chineseness as much as world politics, and who was prone to find refuge as much as escapism in reading novels. Fiction brought my attention back, after long lapse, to the Square. Even then, it took me five years to realize that the texts I was drawn to somehow converged, as if by accident, at this point, and five years more to see the shape of this imaginary rendezvous and sort out my sense of it. In its way, this book bears homage too to the de-alienating capacity of literature and the circuitous path of some diasporic arrivals.