Rebirth of Reason

Sense of Life

The Morning of June 4
by Hong Zhang

I proposed to Gene the morning of June 4, 1989, over long distance telephone. By that time, Gene and I had been dating for two and a half years. I had earlier received admission letters to the graduate programs of three US universities and had left Beijing on May 30 to start the long and unpredictable process of applying for a passport and visa and to arrange my trip to the US.

I had been delaying leaving Beijing for quite some time. Since the very beginning of the student movement in mid-April, which demanded more democratic reforms, Gene and I had been watching closely the development of events from the sidelines, conscious that we were witnessing history. We were both graduate students then at two different institutes with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and lived in the same student dorm, “Building 88,” which housed a few hundred CAS students. Beijing University, Tsinghua University, and several other universities were located nearby. This cluster of higher education and research institutions was dubbed the “Academic District."

We were on the street with the students on April 27, in the first major rally (in which over a million people participated) to rebel against the April 26 People’s Daily editorial that, in all-too-familiar language, officially denounced the student movement as a “plotted conspiracy and upheaval to negate the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system,” and accused the students of “instigating dissension, creating national disorder, and sabotaging the stable unity in politics.” Ever since the student’s hunger strike started on May 13, we had been going to Tiananmen (TAM) Square almost every day, riding our bicycles between TAM and the Academic District daily, about 15 kilometers each way.

We had spent the night at Tiananmen Square on May 20, the day Martial Law was declared and a government crackdown on students appeared imminent. I remember trembling uncontrollably when at around 10:30pm a voice from the public address system at TAM Square started to condemn the demonstrators, to order everyone to clear out of the Square, and to declare that the People's Liberation Army was marching in to maintain order. That night, many residents of Beijing came out to be with the students. Some, like us, went to TAM Square; others went to the major roads at the edge of the city that led to TAM. Everyone shared the same thought - that, without an inch of iron in our hands, the collected mass of our human flesh would be the only weapon we had to win over the guns and tanks that our government was about to unleash on the students.

As the dawn slowly drew near, the night of May 20 passed without an incident at TAM. When we came back to our dorm in the morning, we heard that some people indeed had encountered the solders and tanks at the edge of the city. And the advance of the army was stopped by the enormous number of people gathered there; most of them were common citizens.

A couple of days later, I had a surprise visit from my younger brother, who was then a college sophomore in the city of Harbin in the far Northeast region of China. I found my brother sleeping in my bed when I came back. He was dirty, tired, and very tanned. He and some of his schoolmates, like many other students from universities all over the country, had come to Beijing to support the students and presently camped at Tiananmen Square. I felt the hardship he and his friends were willingly enduring, but it all seemed so natural at that time.

A few more days passed and nothing seemed to be happening. I couldn’t wait any longer since there were many obstacles to overcome in order to get my passport, and as it was I might already be too late to make it to the US before the fall semester began. So I left Beijing on May 30, to go first to my undergraduate Alma Mater, which was about 18 hours by train from Beijing, in order to get certain necessary papers for me to apply for a passport.

I was thus in the city of Hefei in Anhui Province on June 4, when the news came in the morning: they had opened fire in Beijing. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. It was the single most momentous turning point in my life. If I had before held only contempt for the Communist Party for its corruption and malevolent practices, it was at that moment that I finally snapped out of a 25-year numb existence and realized the true magnitude of its evil. My perished family members in the 1959 famine flashed in my mind, and I finally made the connection between them and those students and citizens in Beijing who were dying now. I myself, though hundreds of kilometers away from Beijing and thirty years away from 1959, had now also became one of them, the dead and dying; we were the same small people who were the bolts and nuts of the country, who had been forced to support the Communist party and its government for all those years and who had long been the nameless victims of the most evil and atrocious ruling party ever in history. Our mind had been twisted and numbed, mouth gagged, will raped, spirit annihilated, body withered and now killed.  At that moment I felt all of these things acutely, and I came to the conclusion that, No, theirs was no longer a legitimate government of my people and my country. They had long lost their legitimacy - ever since 1959, when they let millions of innocent peasants die of starvation. And now they again were killing the young and the most innocent of the country, simply because the students had demanded a few most basic rights. I was overwhelmed by a sense of utter desperation and helplessness.  All lights of hope went off and I became a person who had just lost his country.

Then I thought of Gene, the love of my youth, who was then for sure still in Beijing. It occurred to me that, yes, he could be dead. For the past two and a half years we had experienced everything, and he had become part of me. All that could be gone now if anything was to happen to him, and I could lose that part of my life forever, with nothing to hold on to except my own memory. I also thought about my baby brother, who used to be the spitting image of me and who might also be dead. As I marched with other students from the university in a protest march on the streets of Hefei, my heart literally ached thinking about my loved ones. As soon as we came to the downtown area, I left my friends and went into the Telephone and Telegraph Bureau’s building. The operator connected me to “Building 88” in Beijing. There was only one phone in the whole building located near the front entrance. I asked if somebody could go find Gene and I gave his room number. As it so happened, Gene was just standing by with a group of others near the entrance right at that moment. He was badly shaken up and told me that everyone was afraid that the government and soldiers might come to the Academic District and go after them. I told Gene to immediately go to my parents’ home in Tianjin, a city about 110km away from Beijing. And then I said to him,  “Let’s get married.” He answered, "Yes."

When I returned to my parents’ home a few days later, Gene was there. He had managed to reach the Beijing Railroad Station located a couple blocks away from Tiananmen Square by taking the smaller roads and back alleys to avoid the swamp of soldiers on the ground and horde of helicopters overhead, while scattered gun shots could still be heard clearly. My parents told me that my younger brother had come home on June 1, returned to Beijing on June 2 with the plan to go back to his school in the morning of June 3; but there had been no communication with him since. My father thus went to Beijing the afternoon of June 4, trying to find out what had happened to his son. It turned out that my brother indeed had left Beijing in the early morning of June 3. He was safe.

When Gene and I returned to Beijing a few weeks later, we learned that two students from our “Building 88” had been killed. One was my classmate from the same institute. During the night of June 7, when wild rumors were still circling Beijing, he had borrowed a bicycle from another classmate and had gone into the city, wanting to see things for himself. He never came back. He was later found in the morgue of a hospital with five bullets in his body. One of Gene’s classmates from university was also killed near Changan Avenue during the night of June 4. Even though we knew about the deaths, this news hit us yet harder than anything else.

For the next few months I remained in China; I felt literally that I was living in enemy territory. We often encountered armed soldiers patrolling the quaint streets of the Academic District in the evenings of that summer. It was eerily unreal and the places we had been so familiar with were now a completely different world.  Also, my passport application was put on hold at the Public Security Bureau for a long time because I needed to recount, in writing, my specific activities in Beijing. So I lied. I also had to obtain a false statement from the CAS institute I had worked in to back up my lies. That, plus pull from a friend of my parents, finally got me my passport in late August.

Gene and I got married in Beijing during that August, without our parents’ knowledge and without ceremony. The only thing I did was to go to a salon to have my plain long hair permed. We then took the standard picture at a studio to be put on the marriage certificate. As I got my passport and visa to come to the US, Gene was left behind and we had no idea then when we would see each other again.

It was thus with a broken heart that I alone took the flight on September 13, 1989 to come to America, to start my life anew, and to find my lost soul. Gene was able to join me a few months later in January 1990. After five years living as a couple, we were separated in 1995 and divorced in 1996.
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