No. 75 (Spring 2011) Special Section: The Seventies

Out of Context
By Bei Dao
Translated by Theodore Huters



ON 8 January 1976 Zhou Enlai 周恩來 died. The news of his passing left a dark shadow and all sorts of rumours began to circulate. From the order of names published in the newspapers and reading between the lines people could make out the implications. Beginning at the end of March flower wreaths large and small filled Tiananmen Square, piling up like little mountains around the Monument to the People's Heroes. The pine trees surrounding the square had been filled with white paper flowers.

Every day when I got off work I would get on the subway at its western terminus at Pingguo Yuan and go straight to Tiananmen Square. Walking through the vast sea of humanity there I for some reason felt my whole body covered in goose pimples, and looking at the poems that had been posted I impetuously felt like posting my own there as well, but couldn't help feeling that I didn't quite fit in.

The Qingming grave sweeping festival was on 4 April, which happened to be a Sunday, and the commemorative activities reached a crescendo. That morning I took the number 14 bus from home to Liubukou, from there following the crowd east all along Chang'an Boulevard, eventually arriving at the square. Mingling in the crowd I had a happy sense of anonymity and having disappeared, as well as of sharing this warm feeling with others—the happiness of being able to take my leave of personal choice in the name of the collective. I thought of Lenin's words: 'Revolution is the great holiday of the oppressed and exploited.' Beneath the camouflage of the wreaths and white flowers, the square had an almost mystical feel of holiday about it. I looked all round: there were people standing on high ground giving speeches, to which everyone cheered and applauded; afterwards, as if by plan, the speakers were shielded and made to disappear into the crowd.

I went home to eat, but returned to the square after dinner. Taking advantage of the darkness, people became bolder. About nine I strolled over to the south-east corner of the Monument and suddenly heard a voice from out of the throng reading a denunciation out loud: 'Jiang Qing 江青 is changing the direction of the "criticize Confucius and Lin Biao" movement so as to aim it at our beloved Premier Zhou …' He stopped after reading one sentence, with those surrounding him repeating what he said in unison, the sound rippling out from the centre. To publically name Jiang Qing moved much further than writing poetic innuendo, and I was so agitated that I was trembling uncontrollably. As the dusk gathered I was firmly convinced that earth-shattering events were in the offing.

On Monday, 5 April I was quite distracted when I got to work; leaving work I saw Cao Yifan when I got home, only then learning how events had developed: that afternoon an angry crowd not only attacked the Great Hall of the People, but also overturned vehicles and burned the headquarters building of the workers in the square. That night news of the suppression circulated via non-official channels; it was said that batons had been used to kill numerous people, and the square had run with blood.

The next morning Shi Kangcheng rode his bicycle over to see me and Cao Yifan. With a dignified expression he knit his brow and said calmly that he had come to take his leave and entrust his girlfriend to our safekeeping—he was going to the square by himself to sit in meditation so as to express his resistance. To do that would be to court death, but at that juncture we were powerless to dissuade him. After he left I felt guilty: why had I not accompanied him in this time of national crisis? I acknowledged my inner cowardice and felt ashamed, but at the same time found a way to explain things to myself: 'Heaven has endowed me with talent, so there must be a place to use it'—I needed to write more poetry and complete the revisions to Waves as quickly as possible. Because it was under a state of siege there was no way Shi Kangcheng could even get onto the square, so he returned from the bourn of death to the world of the living and the company of his girlfriend and the rest of us. Two months later I completed the revisions to the second draft of Waves.


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