Chinese American authors remember the anniversary of Tiananmen square


(AP Photo / Jeff Widener, File)

The Tiananmen Square massacre took place 25 years ago this week. Chinese American author Yiyun Li was 16 years old at the time, but she felt it was her generation who put their lives on the line. Her new novel Kinder Than Solitude looks back on those horrific events. She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel on Writers and Company. Rowena Xiaoqing He is determined to keep the memory of Tiananmen alive through non-fiction. She was a seventeen-year-old student in Guangdong at the time of the uprising and spoke to Michael Enright about her book Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy on The Sunday Edition.

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li


Kinder Than Solitude comes on the heels of Li's previous successful works. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, her masterful first collection of stories, won four major prizes, including the Hemingway/PEN Award and the inaugural Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She was also named by Granta Magazine as one of the best American novelists under 35. Later, she was among the New Yorker's Best Writers Under 40. In between, she received a MacArthur 'Genius' Award.

Her latest work is set in the shadow of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4th, 1989. Kinder Than Solitude was also inspired by real events but focuses on the psychological violence that marks the central characters. The book is about the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, when a college student calls the government "a breeding farm of fascists." Soon she's expelled and then she's poisoned. You can listen to Li's conversation with Eleanor Wachtel here:

media clip

Li tends to set her characters at an emotional distance and she told Wachtel that she's more interested in telling the stories of people in the margins. "In fiction, as in life, I am drawn to not the centre of drama, because if you are looking at the centre of drama, you can have a lot of dramatic feelings and moments, but they are like fireworks."

The characters in her novel all share certain traits. "They are all very stubborn and they like to live seriously," she said. "Their seriousness and their stubbornness is a rebellion against a life they don't want to conform to."

Li's writing is informed by her own experience in China during the massacre at Tiananmen Square. She was an activist in high school and felt a real connection to the time: "This was our time, our story, our history."

Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy by Rowena Xiaoqing He

tiananmensquarebook-180.jpgRowena Xiaoqing He participated in the demonstrations from the Chinese south, far away from Beijing. "The movement was a nation-wide movement, it happened all over the country," she told Enright. Xiaoqing He's new book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy, tells her own story as well as the stories of three student leaders who were exiled from China. The book aims to bring the events back into the forefront after what Rowena Xiaoqing He explained as a rewriting of history. You can listen to her conversation with Michael Enright here:

media clip

It's hard to imagine how any government in this day and age could keep the truth from 1.4 billion people, but according to Rowena Xiaoqing He, the regime has been successful in trying to enforce its accounts of what happened in 1989. "It's more about the values that surrounded the events of 1989," she said. "If you run into the younger generation they will probably tell you that, 'Yes, I know what happened, but so what?'"'

How did the Chinese government manage to keep history from generations to come? "The regime has a history of being very successful in erasing history, but of course Tiananmen is different." Xiaoqing He said it came down to government-controlled media. "Immediately after the crackdown [they] started this elaborate campaign through controlled media and school education," she said. "The army soldiers become the guardians of the republic and military crackdown has been justified as one that's necessary for stability and prosperity."

After 1989, she said, the government learned that brute force isn't the answer to controlling the people. "They need to lock their minds, instead of locking the doors."