Hidden in a Harvard Library is a Vast Collection of Tiananmen’s History

Grace Wong
Dec 28, 2017 · 6 min read

To read about and look at photos of a movement online gauges personal curiosity. To see the artefacts in person however, arouses a feeling of shock and personal revelation.

While in Boston, I had the fortunate opportunity to view and touch some archives from boxes of long stored memories hidden in the Harvard-Yenching library. Many of these boxes contained an overwhelming number of English and Chinese language articles, records, videotapes, photographs, and objects, most never published. I had just enough time to study the latter two materials and take down some notes.

In due keeping with the library’s policies, I decided not to take photos of any of the archives I looked at. So instead, I decided to draw some of these from memory. As for the photos, I noted down the content within each photo and included some personal impressions of why the particular image stuck with me (what was shocking, questions to consider, some speculations), or what photo theorist Barthes would have called the punctum.

Blood Stained Clothes

Box #1 included five items:

  • Bloody jacket with handwritten Chinese commentary
  • Bloody navy trousers
  • Handmade English banner
  • Two handmade Chinese banners

While feeling through these objects, chills ran down my spine in an inexpressible manner words on this page cannot justify. I don’t know if this feeling came out of excitement or horror. One could say that I embodied the pain of the moment. If history could be fully learned and experienced, it was through the crusted blood, rough fabrics, and overwhelming stench of antiquity that punctured my senses.

Enlarged Photographs

Box #2 included 30+ enlarged photographs, over 40 albums of small prints, and a collection of photographs from the Robert F Kennedy Memorial recording overseas Boston protests led by Chinese students in 1989. Of the ones I managed to go through, I found nine photographs particularly memorable, which I try to re-visualize here through my captioning and thoughts towards each photo.

#1 — In a disorderly row of shoddily made bamboo tents covered in sheen plastic, several men sit in clear view. One is reading the news, another is smoking a cigarette, a few others are sitting or waiting around. Their banners are thrown above the tents. The mood is anticipatory.

The students are sitting in a moment of rest. Unlike the American media’s tendency towards heroistic portrayal or the Chinese media’s criminalization of students, here, I see extended layers of these youths which I could not have seen before.

This is a visual of Tiananmen removed of impassioned action yet bears forshadowing of an event whose outcome we already know. That we know the fate of these students makes this photo even more agonizing.

#2 — A crowd of young Chinese protestors take the streets with exhilaration. Some are shouting and many others are smiling. Many have their hands in the air and wave with clenched fists. Dozens of people on the sidelines are also engrossed in the moment and clap for the protestors with enthusiasm.

There is a feeling of hightened tenor in this photograph as we witness a crowd of people engrossed in a moment. Yet it would be a generalization to say that all here are united with a common mode of thought. What caught me was the variation of expressions, which this photograph reveals in its complexities and ambiguities.

Some seem to be incredibly engrossed in the moment and make bold bodily gestures. Others look slightly more confused and are looking to others to follow social cues; they seem to be smiling because that seems to be the acceptable gesture in the crowd. Onlookers on the sidelines are more subtle in their smiles as they detach their presence from the crowd of protestors. They seemed to be relieved more than ever.

#3 — A man is perched atop a bus, raising a sign surpassing the size of his body. In the background, rows of other students sit atop busses which are lined up in orderly fashion. Some are sleeping, others are raising their banners.

Students literally take over the streets, not just in public places but atop anything and anyplace that could be used for public demonstration. One media source estimated over 1 million protestors at its largest.

#4 — Several men wheel away a bloodied protestor on a wooden stretcher. Bystanders look behind the scenario in shock.

Looking at a side by side comparison of this photo and #2, I see two extremes of a protest that leave me perturbed. A hightened moment of exhilaration that inevitably came to a tragic ending. As #5 foreshadows, the often quoted slogan for all-or-nothing freedom in American history became a brutal reality for China.

#5— Stretched above the infamous democracy wall, is a banner proclaiming: “GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH”

1978, the Democracy Wall was the first time notions of democracy, freedom and human rights began to be widely circulated across China. These were in the the form of dazibao or big character posters, which were pasted on public walls and bulletin boards, often criticiting Deng Xiao Ping and Mao Zedong’s undemocratic practices.

After Deng illegalized the Democracy Wall in 1979, the movement largely went underground and posters were covered up. Given that this photo was among a pile of other photographs from the 1989 movement I would assume that this photograph is also from the same time period. Were students in resuming the Democracy Wall then, attempting to re-ignite at decade-lost practice of free expression?

#6 — A man is fallen to the ground while protestors and policemen circle behind him. Some are staring at the injured man, while others seem to be engaged in inner conversations. Half of the fallen man’s head seems to have been scraped open and his brain is in clear view.

This was the most shocking of all the photos I went through, particularly because one can clearly see the man’s brains in the pictures.

Is he dead or alive?

The picture tells us nothing about the fate of this man, but what it does tell us is the amount of brutality the government took to clearing the student protest. A UK report written on June 5, 1989 but only recently disclosed to the public, reported over 10,000 deaths from Chinese army troops. Before this disclosure, reports were unclear, estimating from two hundred to several thousand deaths.

#7 — Several injured men lay atop a pile of broken bikes. A line of pedestrians are standing behind the pile, with looks of confusion. One of them is visibly crying in the background. It is unclear from the picture whether the injured men are dead or alive.

On June 4, Deng Xiao Peng called for the military to apply violent force against all students present on the square. Military tanks were reported to have run over potentially thousands of students. The contents within this image lead me to bigger conundrums. Why are the bikes broken and lain in a large pile? Did military tanks run these men over whilst they were biking? Were these bikers innocent pedestrians or was this injury a result of a conscientious resistance? Does the one man crying in the background have any relationship with one of these injured men? Why are the witnesses behind the injured man not taking action in that photographed moment?

#8 — Monks donning saffron robes and shaved heads join in on the protests. They are carrying handmade signs.

The spread of these protests stretched nationwide. In my chat with former leader Chen Pokong, he stated that groups in over 300 provices held protests as part of the movement. Chen led the movement in southern China, in the Guangdong provice.

Monks, far removed from the students’ lifestyles have even joined in, perhaps under the premise that the Tiananmen was not just a protest for democracy, but for human rights.

#9 — A close up shot of a large banner depicts two hands bearing peace signs, while shackled with chains. The wrists are in bloodied condition.

Students ask for peace, and yet they are punished brutally for their actions.

Grace Wong is an interdisciplinary artist and arts administrator. She is interested in the potential for photography, writing and media to address humanity and human rights.

You can find her on Instagram, Are.na or LinkedIn

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