A Handbill of Tiananmen3 min read

Documents of atrocity, resurfacing after thirty years – by Roger Huang

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

A few months ago at a book fair, I met a book dealer who specializes in antique Chinese and Asian books. The conversation flowed to a point where I talked to them about my personal connection with the Tiananmen massacre. In my childhood, I had a family friend in the US, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who as chief surgeon on duty at the 301 Military Hospital on June 4th 1989 witnessed countless bodies pocked with live ammunition, killed and wounded in a crackdown the Chinese government would try to hide from history.

The book dealer told me that somebody had smuggled out of Beijing a cache of handbills and original documents written by students of Peking University who had participated in the Tiananmen protests – and that they were on the market now. A private owner, who didn’t want their name associated with the documents, was trying to sell one of the largest caches of first-hand documentation about the Tiananmen massacre.

I picked out a piece that struck me to my core: a handbill printed after the massacre which contains eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed against civilians by soldiers in the aftermath of the crackdown. A translated section goes:

“This morning, an old lady who lives at Chaoyang District was shot after saying to the passing soldiers that “your guns should not aim at students and citizens, they should aim at foreign invaders.” According to some sources this morning, two two-year old girls screamed when they witnessed the gunfire. One of them was shot on the spot and died, the other was bayoneted and seriously injured while running away in terror.”
The handbill detailing continued violence against citizens in the wake of June 4th (photo: Roger Huang)

Most strikingly, the handbill contains printing errors – a diagonal line of type runs through one sheet – of a kind that you might expect in a pamphlet rushed to production in the need to explain what had happened after so much chaos and death. The two sides carry the same message, yet one side is reversed while the other is not. It finishes with the date and the inscription that it is a handbill from Peking University students. 

Another chilling quote from the handbill goes:

“Around the time of the morning news, two armored vehicles on Chaoyangmen drove from east to west. There were more than one hundred military vehicles following. They came from Xiaozhuang, firing along the way, hitting pedestrians who were going to work. Bystanders suffered casualties and ten people died, mostly members of the public. Chaoyang Hospital is therefore full. Their surgery department has admitted more than 100 people.”

China has never reckoned openly with what happened that long, dark night and devastating morning when soldiers fired at civilians indiscriminately. To this day, there is no accurate count of how many died. The Tiananmen mothers, so named because their sons or daughters died during the crackdown, are not allowed to publicly mourn their dead children. On sensitive anniversaries, they are shipped back to their hometowns, hidden from public view. Political and military leaders who were sympathetic to the students were purged from the ranks of senior leadership in the CCP. Those who remain repress the past to control the present.

The tragedy of Tiananmen is not just a relic of the past. It is a fork in the present and future for China. I am keeping this piece of Chinese history to remind myself that extraordinary events are forged by ordinary people, and that the past can still be changed. I hope to one day donate this handbill to a library that can archive and digitize it – or better yet, a museum in mainland China that can openly reckon with its significance. ∎

Photos courtesy of the author.