A piece of creative life writing from the archive. I lived in the People’s Republic of China in the early 1990s and again at the turn of the Millenium. For anonymity, all characters are composite, names and situations have been changed, and conversations amalgamated. However, each section of each conversation is based on conversations I’ve had over the years.
One of my students, ‘Robby’ (to use his English name), had invited me and some other students to his parents’ home for dinner. It was in a typical Chinese tenement, third floor up, with mops, brooms and buckets stored neatly outside the apartment on the landing and faded red banners from last year’s New Year attached to its front door. We walked straight into the reception area, which doubled as a dining room, with a small kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom radiating off in all directions. Before we had even opened the door we could smell the food: garlic and ginger, the piquant flavours of the local cuisine. Inside, there were already some cold dishes on the round table, such as crushed cucumber salad and a local favourite, peanuts, shelled and wok fried with salt. The latter went very well with the province’s famous beers, of which there were also several bottles. Robby ushered me to the head of the table, facing the door, and placed himself next to me. ‘Tiger Joe’ sat on the other side and Xiao Wang opposite. My host put his head into the kitchen. Steam and a jocular voice came through in reply, followed by his very red faced father, who shook my hand thoroughly, and after saying something I failed to catch, went back to the stove. Chinese men are proud of their cooking skills, often cooking for company, although some of my female colleagues grumbled that their husbands, like husbands the world over, were not always so keen to cook for everyday. But it wasn’t long before the beer and the conversation were flowing. Tiger Joe offered Xiao Wang Sprite, because she was a girl, prompting Xiao Wang to make it very clear she would be drinking beer like the rest of us.
Considering that every foreigner I ever met had advised me that I should never talk about religion, politics or sex with anyone Chinese, especially my students, this was well-nigh impossible to avoid. In my very first class I had been asked if I believed in Jesus, did I think China should be allowed to join the WTO and did I think Andy Lau, Chinese film and Canto-Pop star, the most handsome of the Four Heavenly Kings? In fact, whenever I got together with my students, in or out of class, we never seemed to talk about anything else, try as I might to change the subject. At first I had been afraid of the consequences of such talk, but the class monitors, Robby included, engaged in it and encouraged it as much as anyone else. Deng Xiaoping’s China had opened its door to the outside world and there was a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for debate. Of course, the fact that I believed that faith was down to personal conscience and that, fresh out of university with a degree in English Literature, I genuinely knew very little about the WTO or, for that matter, the IMF, meant that I was hardly going to get into a heated argument about any of these. I often let students choose conversation topics, especially outside of the classroom, and I only remember two conversations that had to be closed down: one was about the Dalai Lama and Tibet and the other was about what Chinese people wore in bed. I closed down the first when an angry exchange had broken out between two students and had shifted into Chinese, and the other one, bizarrely, was closed down by Robby. Chinese nightware, it seemed, was a bit too risqué for a discussion point.
So not surprisingly, that evening we had covered whether Chinese babies adopted by Americans and other foreigners should be baptised: as one of the students had seen it, ‘having Western religion stamped on their heads’. We had then moved onto homosexuality, with Tiger Joe annoyed that Leslie Cheung, his screen idol and my heavenly king, was now ‘suspected’ of being gay after playing a sexually ambiguous role in his latest film, Farewell My Concubine. This was the second time that evening that he riled Xiao Wang. ‘I do not think it is important, whether he is or is not a gay,’ she said emphatically. ‘The papers say that other actors turned down working in this film because of how it shows about sexuality, but I read that Leslie Cheung wants to play this part because of this. He says that in Chinese culture there is too much prejudice. He want to show that gay person is also a person with feelings, like other persons. This is what we should be discussing, not you taking down your poster if he is gay!’ She sat back defiantly. ‘He did not look like a gay in John Woo films,’ sulked Tiger Joe. He was a big fan of the A Better Tomorrow trilogy. ‘I read Cheung was engaged for many years to another Chinese star,’ added Robby. I had the feeling that he said this to reassure Tiger Joe, however, rather than through any real interest in the private lives of Hong Kong celebrities. He was more interested in calligraphy. ‘That is true, but in the end he did not marry her!’ Xiao Wang concluded in triumph.
And from there, but I don’t know how, we somehow got onto the Tiananmen Square student protests, which had taken place just four years earlier in 1989. By this time we were eating. Because I was vegetarian, there was a lot of home-style cooking – braised aubergine; Chinese youcai, green and garlicky and fresh; hot and spicy shredded potatoes; and the classic Chinese scrambled egg and tomatoes, which may sound like nothing, but I swear is the vegetarian ambrosia of Chinese food! There must have been more than four dishes, of course, because it is very bad luck to serve only four. The word for that number, si, has exactly the same pronunciation as the word for death. Maybe we had soup. Robby’s father, who was still wearing his green, military-looking uniform, brought out each dish one at a time, freshly cooked. However, picking up on the repetition of the word Tiananmen, he hovered by the doorway. Xiao Wang was getting frustrated. ‘How are we supposed to find out what really happened? You foreigners are always saying, the Chinese news, it is propaganda. But your foreign papers, they are propaganda too. They lied.’ I was surprised. ‘What do you mean, they lied?’ I said. ‘About the bodies in Tiananmen Square, that the tanks ran over the students in the Square while they were sleeping,’ Robby explained. ‘How do you know that it isn’t true?’ Well, it was not as if I had raised the subject in the first place, so I felt I could challenge them. ‘Because it was Chai Ling who said so! Even the other student leaders say they saw no such thing!’ Xiao Wang looked defiant now, not like earlier when she was talking about Leslie Cheung. This was real. Chai Ling was one of the main student leaders in 1989: Commander-in-Chief of the Defend Tiananmen Headquarters. With her tiny, childlike body, neatly bobbed hair and passionate rhetoric, she quickly became in Western eyes the symbol of the small, oppressed individual standing up to state totalitarianism. She was the main reason I had joined the nightly vigil outside the Chinese Embassy in London, in hopeful solidarity, until the soldiers went in on the fourth of June. I was shocked when, a few months after my dinner at Robby’s apartment, one of the foreign teachers got hold of a video of a recent documentary, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, which had been broadcast on the BBC and in the US. We saw the archive interview Chai Ling gave during the protests to a foreign journalist, in which she described the students in the square as mere children: ‘I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, for the moment when the government has no choice but to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes.’ Perhaps because she sounds a little too much like a Red Guard, this interview isn’t widely broadcast in the Western media when we commemorate Tiananmen. Nobody really knew what happened that day. Chai Ling escaped to Hong Kong and lives in exile, but protest leader Hou Dejian equally insisted, even from the safety of Taiwan, that he was in the Square until the early morning and saw no such thing. He said that if the protesters resorted to countering lies with lies, then their enemy would win. Yet a forty-two year old worker was sentenced to ten years in prison for insisting that he saw students crushed. And this was what Xiao Lin seemed to be so upset about, that there was no longer any way to disentangle rumour from truth. Robby’s father asked what it was that we were talking about. Robby translated. His father drew up a chair and joined us at the table, looking at everybody with a mixture of pity and indulgence.
‘He says June Fourth Incident is pity. But young people do not know best,” translated Robby. “We see freedom fighters, he says. His generation see thousands of students in Tiananmen Square, shouting change, wanting to change everything. His generation think it is like Red Guards again, Cultural Revolution.” His father paused for us to think about this, then continued, and Robby again translated. “Should China be like Russia now? Is Yeltsin better than Gorbachev?” There was an awkward silence. The former USSR was disintegrating, the Balkan states in civil war as we spoke. “He says, what do you think Deng Xiaoping should have done?’ This last was directed at me. Deng Xiaoping had himself been purged from the Party as a Rightist under Mao. His son had been thrown from an upper window during the Cultural Revolution and was in a wheelchair to this day. As Jung Chang noted in her 1991 autobiography Wild Swans, her feelings about Deng were complex. He was, after all seen by many Chinese as a liberator and a bringer of hope after the Mao years. We changed the topic quickly: the food was delicious, I said, and Robby’s father was a very fine cook. Nonetheless, his culinary skills wouldn’t be the only food for thought I would be digesting that night.
I’m not Chinese. I stand on the outside looking in. A colleague I met several years later told me he had been part of the protests and was sent down from university as a punishment, not able to complete his education until a number of years later. But “Deng is dead now,” he reminded me. “He made great changes in China, most of them good changes. He lifted most of us out of poverty. We can study abroad and buy cars because of him. This is what we should remember him for now”. Can I criticize somebody for aspiring to a normal life?
Having said that, the residing image of Tank Man is what I shall take to bed with me tonight.