Historian recalls what it was like to witness the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square

Historians in the News

Philip J. Cunningham was a participant and observer of the events in Beijing in 1989. Now Cunningham has a forthcoming book, Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989 (Rowman & Littlefield, May 2009) that details his story of the events.


If getting caught up in a popular uprising in China has taught me anything, it is that the past, present and future flow together as one with ferocious intensity. Looking back now at the eventful uprising at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 makes it all the more clear that what happened there was shaped by things that came before; and today’s China, basking in a post-Olympic glow and new-found national strength, is still profoundly haunted by the seminal events of 1989, though the topic is strictly taboo in the media and still feared by influential people in the leadership.

I initially got involved in the demonstrations because of my interest in Chinese history, the abstract study of which I had pursued at college and in graduate school. Then I moved to China. Trying to be a little more Chinese and a little less foreign, I immersed myself in Beijing campus life and cultural activities, mostly with Chinese friends. In the time it takes for a new moon to grow full and then wane back into blackness again, I was pulled so deeply into the vortex of living, breathing history-in-the-making that my life would never be the same.

More than any history book I ever read, or any period film I ever worked on, being on the streets of Beijing as history was being made was the most profoundly moving and eye-opening experience of all.

The Tiananmen demonstrations were crushed, cruelly, breaking the implicit pact that the People’s Liberation Army would never turn its guns on the people and burying student activism for many years to come, but not before inspiring millions in China and around the world to push for reform and change, heralding the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The uprising at Tiananmen, though highly controversial in China to this day, would shape many of the choices of the Chinese leadership and has been an unacknowledged inspiration for much of the change that has swept China ever since.

While residing on a Beijing campus in the late 1980’s I found myself up against the rigid social rules, regulations and racial exclusions that dampened the joy of living in an otherwise cordial and engaging environment. In times of stress, I found cycling to Beijing’s most central location a great way to get away from it all. Especially memorable was a bitterly cold winter night in early 1987 when I discovered the beauty of Tiananmen in the moonlight.

The evening started at a local dance hall. I had bicycled there in the company of someone I was fond of but didn’t get to see often. She and I happily danced the night away, sipping nothing more potent than orange soda pop, every fast dance followed by a slow one, as mandated by the cultural commissars of the time, until eleven PM, when we raced back to campus to beat curfew. We got through the side gate of the Shida campus without trouble but by the time we reached our respective dorms they were closed for the night, padlocked shut....
Read entire article at China Beat (blog)

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