Song of Tiananmen Square
From the Prologue
I GAZED after the boy as the truck carried him down the street. I
gazed until I could no longer see his face. It was that face that had riveted my
attention: never had I seen such an expression of horror, incredulity and despair.
He stood in the back of a low-sided truck, a soldier on either side of him. A
white placard hung from his neck, with large red chinese characters on it. He wore a white
shirt and blue jeans, and his hands were tied behind his back. He looked about 18.
The truck was one of a motorcade that passed slowly down that Beijing street one
spring afternoon in 1988. First came several police cars with flashing blue lights; then a
truck crammed with armed soldiers; then four trucks each with a handcuffed man standing
between guards. More police cars and another truckload of soldiers finished off the
procession, and the dee-dah sirens and the flashing lights faded slowly down past the
Friendship Hotel towards Purple Bamboo Park.
Everyone in the cycle lane, including myself, had halted to watch the show
pass by. I turned to a man beside me and mimed, 'What is it?' He grinned, and drew a
forefinger smartly across his throat.
From Chapter 2
Theres hardly a hill in all of Beijing, so cycling could be leisurely and
pleasant. More than just pleasant, for the Chinese have the worlds most beautiful
women, and they were on bicycles everywhere around me.
At first I didnt look. I simply could not look at any woman. And the better
looking a woman was, the more I wanted to turn away, with a sort of pain deep down in my
But in time Beijing began to work its magic. Maybe it was because its women are so
different that I began to look again. They seemed almost like dresden china figurines come
to life, with their slenderness and their glinting blue-black hair and their tiny breasts
and pale flawless complexions, and those almond eyes set in faces so strange and
hauntingly lovely. And the astonishing grace with which they moved. They didnt seem
quite real to me just porcelain figures without any connection with love or
betrayal or death.
So after a time I began to look at the women of Beijing. I even developed a
routine. Cyclists really only see each others rear. So the first thing I would
perceive would be one of those neat rears, the tight denim pockets rocking gently with the
pedalling. Or the occasional black miniskirt, tight as a drum. Or a summer dress flaring
out like an orchid. But always the neat rear. And always the impossibly tiny waist.
I would adjust my pace to the vision ahead, and the joy was almost like the joy of
gazing at springs first crocus: so delicate, so exquisitely made, so incomparably
After a mile or so I would get curious about the face. Would it
match the figure? My pedalling would speed up to match my heartbeat, and I would steal a
glance as I passed. Rarely would the face disappoint, and mostly my heart would tighten at
the almond loveliness of it. And I would look back for a full-faced vision.
The only thing is, I never got a smile. People didnt smile. Sometimes I might
get a coquettish toss of the head, occasionally a glare of scorn, but nary a smile.
However I didnt try to talk in those days, if indeed anyone would have understood
English. I needed to be alone. There was a kind of symmetry to it -- I needed just to
look, and those impassive faces exuded noli me tangere.
But even without the smiles, cycling through Beijing was healing for me.
From Chapter 3
Now I don't know whether the Gossip According to Lukas put the idea into my head, or
whether it was already in my head and the others sensed it before I did. Whichever, I
found myself noticing Song.
I think it began one late afternoon, when I was gazing out of my window awaiting
her arrival for my lesson. Then I saw her, some distance away, moving down the pathway
towards the building. Sometimes when you look down towards someone from a height, you see
them differently. For some reason Yeatss words came to me "I saw a young
girl, and she had the walk of a queen".
The grace with which she moved was almost feline. She wore a long black skirt that
swirled about her ankles. In her left hand she swung the light canvas bag that held her
books. So she was a leftie I had only been half aware of that. The dark hair to her
shoulders gleamed almost like metal in the evening sun and, as I watched, the right hand
came up in a graceful arc to push the hair back. I realised then I had often
subconsciously noted and admired this little gesture, so peculiarly hers. Usually done
with the left hand when free. Even with the ankle-length skirt I could see she had the
long legs of the northern Chinese. It was clear from the grace of her stride. I remembered
Kramiss remark that some of these girls seemed to have legs all the way to the
navel. She moved out of view, and as I waited for the crash of the lift doors down the
corridor that would announce her arrival, I found I was aware of my heartbeat.
From Chapter 9
It was the eve of the funeral, and Norman was on the footpath with Song and myself
watching the students file through the darkened streets on their 10-mile route to
What we now saw was light years from the stragglers of the previous Monday. These
came in their disciplined thousands out of the darkness of every street, quiet, purposeful
columns from Beida and Renda and all the other campuses, merging right in front of where
we stood. In their soft sneakers the feet made no din. The chants were rhythmic and
hypnotic. Marshals carried electric loudhailers, or linked hands in protective cordons
around each group of marchers.
In the light of lanterns the faces beneath the headbands had the sternness of
gothic saints. It was eerie, but extraordinarily beautiful.
From Chapter 11
Thursday, April 27, was the day the Miracle began. It was as if grace had dropped down
from heaven, or wherever, upon the young people of Beijing. And not just upon the young.
It was the day the Cold Face melted.
The first inkling came about 10 a.m. outside the back gates of Beida. Song and I
were among the waiting street crowd, watching with apprehension the massed ranks of police
blocking the exit from the campus, and listening to the growing sounds of the
Internationale from inside the walls, which told us the march was advancing towards the
All at once the police lines parted like the Red Sea, and there were the marchers
coming through. Rhythmically they swung left and down the street towards us. The leaders
were about nine abreast, among them Chen, Chai Ling, Wang Dan and Wuerkaixi. They carried
at waist level a scarlet banner that stretched the full width of the march. Their arms
were linked together and they moved at a measured pace to the beat of the music. The
faces, although singing, were stern and impassive.
Spontaneously the street crowd broke into applause, then began cheering and
cheering and people were holding up two fingers in the V-for-victory sign..
As we watched, the cold faces of the marchers simply melted. First they went wide
eyed with astonishment at the cheering reception in the street, then they burst into
smiles, then there was laughter, and youngsters began hugging each other as they marched
along, and some were wiping away tears, and others were weeping unashamedly.
I looked back and some of the police were smiling and some were holding up their
fingers in the V-sign.
The crowd was moving with the march, and, as we trotted alongside, I sensed that
the rhythm of the marchers had changed subtly. There was a flourish to it. The step was
lighter, the pace a little faster, shoulders were back, and chests were out, and heads
were high. And all along the way the crowd caught the smiles and tears and laughter, and
smiled and wept and cheered as if the Cold Face had never been.
From Chapter 15
I shall always be glad I was there to experience the sights and sounds of that first
night of the strike. I doubt if anyone slept much. A few people seemed to be trying to
read under the dim lamps of the Square. Some clustered in circles and talked quietly,
while others clung together under quilts for warmth. Cigarette tips glowed, and the brief
flare of matches seemed to leap from place to place like a will-o-the wisp.
For the first time I was hearing what a hunger strike sounded like. It was a great
whisper coming up from the ground, broken by occasional quiet coughing, or weeping, or
murmuring, or even laughter. There was the tiny tinny beat from Walkman earphones. And
sometimes a voice would gently rise in song, and it was like a lullaby. I was not then to
know then how drastically those sounds would change, within days, to the shriek of
Song and I murmured the night away. For some reason we talked about beauty.
'I'm not beautiful,' I remember her saying. 'Maybe pretty, or only a little
beautiful. It is Lily who is really beautiful.'
'She has grown too hard to be really beautiful,' I said. 'Kindness and softness are
a part of beauty. She has neither.'
Song snuggled closer to me. 'I will tell you the things we Chinese call beautiful.
The eyes -- they must be the shape of almonds. The breasts should be big, and pointed. The
legs must be long, especially below the knee. The buttocks -- high, not drooping. And the
hair -- it should cascade, like a dark waterfall. And the heart -- it should be kind. Yes,
you were right about that.'
Zijun coughed. I looked over and noticed she was shivering. Without a word Song
pulled off her sweater and went over to her.
'But what about you?' I asked when she came back.
'She giggled. 'Remember you once called me an onion? Well, I have three vests under this
We were silent for a while.
'Maybe people will start to trust again,' Song whispered. 'Maybe this will change
'How do you mean?'
'We have a saying, it's your friend that will betray you - the friend you confide
everything to. The friend you trust. That's since the Cultural Revolution. The people's
heart is broken, because so many betrayed each other in those days. So many people are
mental cripples -- their souls are twisted.'
'I got the idea from Man of La Mancha. Remember, dreaming the impossible dream? I
cried when I heard it. You know the lines:
'This is my quest, to follow the star,
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
With untwisted soul.
'Well, that's the dream China has lost. We're all twisted, warped right out of
shape.' She looked around at the hunger strikers on the ground beside her. 'But there's
trust here,' she said. 'And there's goodness. Maybe this is the beginning of untwisting
We were silent again, and I was pondering her words. Then Song was humming
something gently to herself. She turned to me. 'There's a song I love. Would you like I
sing it for you? Quietly?'
'I'd like it very much.'
'It's about the rain that washes the chest of the earth.'
'Breast. Breast of the earth.'
'Well, breast, then. I sing it for you now.'
Without a trace of self-consciousness she sang this haunting melody. I had to lean
close to listen. By the gentle sound must have carried, for by the second verse a few of
the people around us had quietly joined in. By the third verse it seemed the whole white
mass of hunger strikers had joined in, but almost as if all were whispering together.
We must have dozed off after that. It was broad daylight when I awoke to find Chen
squatting beside me. He had a white laboratory coat over his arm. My gut gurgled for want
From Chapter 14
The girl on the step beside Song caught my eye, smiled and give me the V-sign. 'Can I
speak English with you?' she asked.
God, do they ever give up?. In the middle of a bloody hunger strike, and still
trying to practise their English. She looked about 17 years old.
'Sure,' I said. 'Why don't you tell me what you're doing on hunger strike? What's
your name, by the way?'
'So why are you doing this, Zijun?'
'To help others. To help China. Like Lei Feng did.'
'He was a good soldier who gave his life to helping others.'
'Why bother to help others? What's in it for you?'
She thought for a moment. 'When I was only six,' she said, 'my mother took me on a
visit here to Beijing. I saw my first beggar, sitting on the side of the street. I didn't
know what he was. Then, when we were eating in a little restaurant, someone came in from
the street and asked my mother for what was left on her plate. I've never forgotten that.
'If I come out of this alive,' she said, 'I want to go to Africa and work in one of
those English-speaking countries there. As a teacher for the poor.'
'Will you come out of it? Are you prepared to go to the end?'
'What if the authorities don't give in?'
'They will give in,' she said fiercely. 'They'll have to.'
'Aye, sure,' I said. 'They'll have to give in.'
From Chapter 18
On the dot of ten a helicopter thudded down along the ravine of Chang'an Avenue, well
below the tops of the buildings. It banked in front of Tiananmen Gate and swung in over
the Square. It was one of those french-made Gazelles -- I recognised its faired-in tail
rotor. We shaded our eyes to watch it hover right above us.
A huge bulk appeared below the helicopter, falling directly on top of us. Song
screamed and I thought I was going to die. The thing exploded and became thousands of
They had put it in writing, the bastards, their fucking Declaration of Martial Law.
From Chapter 23
It could have been a film set. That part of the boulevard that passed right in front
of me was empty, and most of the street lights were off, making it a sinister no-man's
land. Drawn across the boulevard, where it vanished into darkness on my left, was a
barricade of buses. Hundreds of people massed behind the buses, and some people were lined
across in front of them.
To my right, a little way up the boulevard, the military waited. There was no moon,
and I dimly discerned helmeted soldiers in the darkness. Rearing up behind them were the
silhouettes of battle tanks with their cannon arced low, and open trucks crammed with
'But why tanks?' I muttered to no one in particular. 'Why
tanks?' I felt that momentary dizziness a condemned man must feel when he gets the first
glimpse of the noose.
There was a faint acrid smell in the air, that made my eyes water.
I had arrived during a momentary lull in whatever had been happening. It may have
been only the briefest of pauses, but it seemed as if it had been like that for an age. It
was as if time had stopped. Silent. Still. It could have been some 19th-century painting
entitled, Before the Battle.
I could think only of getting to Tiananmen Square. Sidling along the edge of No
Man's Land towards the bus barricades, I squeezed myself between a bus and the sidewalk
railings. Immediately after I passed, the bus exploded into flames and I felt the heat
sear the back of my neck. And then the tableau came to life.
The first sound was the clanking moan of tanks and I looked back to see blazing
buses buckling, as tank turrets with their obscene long cannon poked their way through the
barriers. Helmeted men were leaping through the gaps and there was a sound like monster
firecrackers, louder even than the roar of the flames.
'Zhen zi dan! Zhen zi dan!' people were screaming. 'Real bullets. Real bullets.'
I stood there stunned in the glare of the blazing buses, watching the soldiers go
by on the double, flashes licking around the muzzles of their guns. People thudded to the
pavement around me. I didn't know if they were dying, or dead, or just trying to save
I too threw myself down, and watched the boots thud past, and saw the tank tracks
clanking and squealing within a foot of my head. A man who had thrown himself down beside
me, almost on top of me, suddenly grunted and I could feel his body lurch. Then there was
something oozing underneath me and I pushed him away. The small of his back was
discoloured and a lavatory smell came from him.
One of the blazing buses exploded with a woomff. I raised my head to look: the
vehicles and figures were black shapes against the orange glare. Heat seared my face and
eyes, and I covered them with my hands, to discover my brows and lashes were gone.
The tanks were now gone and armoured vehicles and trucks piled with helmeted
figures were roaring by. All were moving at a brisk pace.
One of the armoured vehicles seemed to hesitate, as if unwilling to smash into the
crowd. It stopped, and the other vehicles simply went around it. Suddenly it seemed as if
a swarm of bees had engulfed the vehicle. But the swarm was human, and what looked like
iron bars rose and fell. I saw a figure dragged out of a hatch. For an instant he was
silhouetted against the flames, and I could see hands tearing at him.
A figure leaped up on the vehicle with something blazing in its hand, and everyone
jumped away, and there was a roar and a cheer as the vehicle went up in flames, and a
flaming figure jumped from the hatch and down into the crowd on the far side and there was
a cheering roar.
The shooting seemed to have stopped and some of the people on the ground were starting to
get up. Some just lay there. I stood up and I was wet and sticky with the blood and
excrement from the body beside me. I had a momentary, insanely selfish notion that I'd
just go home and shower before coming back to get Song. The notion was gone as soon as I
thought it. I hurried east along the boulevard towards Tiananmen, following in the wake of
the soldiers and tanks.
Here and there trucks and armoured vehicles were blazing, and people were lifting
bodies onto the flat carriers of tricycles. The bodies all seemed red and white, even in
the glare of the flames -- white shirts, and blood soaking them. But they weren't pure
clean colours: the bodies seemed filthy, and it was strange how shapeless they had become
in death, strange how they seemed to lose human form, and how anonymous a body looked when
the face had been shot away and someone had pulled a transparent plastic bag over the
remnants of the head.
A young man ran past me with joy on his face, pointing to blood coming from his shoulder.
He was clearly proud of his wound.
From Chapter 24
As I trudged westward along Changan, three tanks came behind me from the direction of
the Square I had just left. They were going at an incredible speed for tracked vehicles,
and I felt the wind of their passing. With tracks screeching like dying animals, they
disappeared into the smoke ahead. It was evident the drivers had learnt what could happen
to a vehicle that slowed down or hesitated: these tanks were clearly not going to stop for
What that could mean I realised when I reached the Liubukou intersection, a mile
further west. I heard the screaming before I got through the smoke and tear gas.
In the very middle of the intersection was a pink spaghetti-like heap of squashed
human bodies and entrails, with black bits of crushed bicycle frames tossed among them
like seasoning. The marks of tank tracks were a straight, hard line through the ooze.
An animal howling mingled with coughing from the smoke and gas that still hung in
the air. My own eyes were streaming. A girl in pigtails was kneeling and beating her fists
on the roadway: beside her, students were trying to tie a tourniquet on the thigh of
another girl. Both the legs were gone, bones squashed flat by the tank tracks, and the
stumps ended in a horror of red sausages and blue jelly and jagged bone-ends. Blood was
pulsing from each stump in rhythmic gouts.
I pulled off my shirt, tore off one of the sleeves and tried to use it as a
tourniquet on the other thigh, twisting it tight with a bit of bicycle-frame from nearby.
Like a garrotte. We lifted her onto the flat wooden bed of a goods tricycle. She died as
we did so, head lolling back, mouth gaping, eyes staring.
What had happened here? I asked the student who had tied the tourniquet. With
gestures and halting English he told me how the students had left Tiananmen Square by the
south end, as ordered by the military, had looped around Qian Men and were heading
northward towards the university district. Their path took them at right angles across
Changan Boulevard. A crowd of students had been straggling across the boulevard when the
tanks came out of the smoke and just kept on going. There was no way they could have
stopped anyway, going at that speed, he said.
There was no more I could do. I checked if Song was among the squashed bodies, but
could not see her. I left and shambled and coughed my way along Changan. As I passed the
Minzu Hotel the doorman was still standing there. I thought of that Roman sentry found
standing to attention in Pompeii, who had remained at his post as the Vesuvian ash
From Chapter 24
God's curse upon you, Li Peng. God's curse upon you, for silencing my Song.
God's curse upon you, you child molester, who molested them with lead and left them
dead. God's curse upon you, you cannibal, you Chronos devouring your own children.
God's curse upon you, Herod who slaughtered the Innocents to keep your crown.
God's curse upon you, you coward, that betrayed the little ones entrusted to you by China,
for fear that a dwarf called Deng might take away your job.
You, who met mercy as a parentless child, when Zhou Enlai fostered you and made you
his son, could show no mercy to China's children.
God curse your owlish face that insults the wisdom of that bird, and curse your
false black hair that truly reflects your falseness. The curse of God on you, Li Peng, you
malign bastard masquerading as a government minister. I hope you die, but not soon.
God grant you live long enough to know in full measure the contempt in which you
are held by the children you did not get to kill. And in your long, last agony, may you
see the face of that child cut in half at Muxidi, and may you see his belly squashed flat
so that yours might stay full, and may you see the cleanness of his socks and shoes that
never waded through blood as yours have done.
May the words of Mao Zedong be true of you -- 'He who injures the students will
come to no good end.' And may the roars of your dying be heard by those children of China
whom you did not get to kill, now grown and taking over a China you thought was yours, and
building it into a land you could never have dreamt of.
God damn you, Li Peng. May the God you don't believe in damn you to the hell you
thought was not there. I hope there's a hell. And if there is, may you go to that special
place that Dante reserved for cannibals that eat their children.
From Chapter 29
All that night I lay curled up in the fetus position. The sentence would be carried
out, the girl has said. She hadn't said it would commence -- which is what
you'd say if it was a prison sentence.
It couldn't be... Jesus, they're not going to do me in. Come on -- they're mad, but
not that mad. No, they wouldn't do that. Not to me. Not for just fucking. Or even for what
happened at the Square. But look at what they already did in the Square. No way. No. I'm a
westerner. I'm an Irish citizen. As if they'd have even heard of Ireland. But no. No way
they'd do anything like that.
Terror cannot be described, only experienced. Like looking through an airplane
window and seeing an engine in flames. Or crouching in a Bosnian cellar and hearing the
shells bursting. Or the moment before your car hits the truck head on. Your life lurches
up into your throat. Terror means gazing into the iris of death.
I even tried to pray.
When morning came I got no rice. And when the boots thudded in the corridor I
thought I was going to faint. The door clanged open, I was turned around and handcuffed,
and marched along the corridor and up the stone stairs.
I was momentarily dazzled when I came through the door into the courtyard. But when
I saw what awaited me my knees actually did give way, and I had to be grabbed and held up
by my two guards. I discovered later I had wet my pants.
What awaited me was one of those tumbrels -- an open truck with waist-high sides.
And a helmeted policeman with a large white placard, which he proceeded to hang around my
neck. There were red characters on the placard. I don't know what the characters said.
One of the truck sides was lowered. I was simply unable to climb in, so I was
hoisted in, one guard pulling my arms and another pushing from below. They put me leaning
against the truck side, a guard on either side holding me, as I could hardly stand.
The dee-dah sirens began, lights started flashing on two police cars which drove
out through a gateway ahead of us, and then we were in the street. People glanced
curiously up at us, then looked again when they saw it was a foreign devil in the tumbrel.
I saw one little boy excitedly pulling at his mother's arm and pointing at me.
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