Yiyun Li was 16 at the time of the bloody 1989 crackdown by China's government on the protesters in Tiananmen Square, and she says it was the moment she became an adult.

"Just the fact that people would be shot at by the army - that seems like something that we would have read in novels or history books, but [would] never happen to us," she says. "That was quite shocking."

Yiyun Li

Author Yiyun Li. (CBC)

Li is one of those astonishing success stories.  Born in China in 1972, her father was a physicist, her mother a school teacher, and Li herself was something of a math whiz as a kid.

Li was in high school and already an activist in the months leading up to the massacre of June 3 and 4 at Tiananmen Square. Li, her older sister and their friends all knew, “This was our time, our story, our history” in the making, she says.

"I think there was this euphoric sense that things would change because so many people expressed their feelings for change," Li adds.

By the end of May, however, others were increasingly worried that rather than increasing social freedom for the people, the change would ultimately be to the government's tolerance of dissent.

Li's parents began to limit their children's involvement in the protests.

"My parents were always pessimistic and my father said that this would only end in bloodshed. He said there's no other way for this to end," Li says. 

"He and my mother started to guard my sister, and she was not allowed to go to school. And I was treated very carefully - I could go to school, I had to go to school, but they asked me to come back afterwards."

Tiananmen crackdown

On the night of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Li's mother locked her and her sister in their room and wouldn’t let them out. Their father stood outside the door to prevent them from going to the square.

Tiananmen Square crowd

Crowds of jubilant students surge through a police cordon before pouring into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. (Reuters)

She remembers their mother reporting that a child had been shot dead by a soldier. Other stories began pouring in about the army’s brutality.

"I think nothing surprised us, my family, when it happened, because my parents, they were the generation that were very pessimistic about what would happen. And things happened as they predicted," Li says.

In the years following the event many have come to refer to simply as 'Tiananmen," Li went on to study immunology at university in Beijing. She had always planned to go to the United States to further her education, and when she was 23 she fulfilled that dream by attending graduate school in Iowa.

Her first year there, she was lonely – her boyfriend, soon to be her husband, was still in China – and she began writing.


The bodies of dead civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing's Tiananmen Square early June 4, 1989. (Associated Press)

Before she was done, she had stories published in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and a six-figure, two-book contract.

Li now lives in Oakland, Calif., with her husband and two sons.  She doesn’t describe herself as a political writer, but she is one who has had the experience of Tiananmen Square.  And her new novel, ‘Kinder than Solitude,’ reflects that time of fear, uncertainty and confusion.

In anticipation of the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, CBC Radio's Writers & Company spoke to Li about her writing and experiences. Listen to the full interview in the link at the top of this page, or on the Writers & Company website.

[Next week on CBC radio's Writers & Company, author Luis Alberto Urrea. Through memoir, journalism and fiction, he offers an insightful look into the cross-border tensions between Mexico and the U.S.  His award-winning book, 'The Devil's Highway,' tells the tragic story of a group of Mexican migrant workers and their attempt to cross the U.S. border. Tune in Sunday 8 June at 3 p.m. ET/AT, 3:30 pm NT, 5 pm CT/MT/PT.]