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From Tiananmen to Wuhan: China by the book

A pair of new documentary novels give shape to suppressed memories of two national tragedies
July 10, 2024

On 4th June 1989, China’s then leader, Deng Xiaoping, unleashed the full force of the People’s Liberation Army against tens of thousands of students and other citizens occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand democracy and accountability from the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Unknown numbers died—for the most part on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, which was the military’s main approach route to the square. Others died in the square itself. Eyewitness accounts describe tanks rolling over tents, crushing their occupants, and troops shooting at unarmed students who had failed to obey the order to leave. Thousands were arrested in the subsequent purge and thousands more fled the country.

Censorship of this national trauma has been so extreme since 1989 that the date—4th June—is routinely erased from Chinese social media, along with the popular substitute, 35th May. The suppression has been so thorough that, in 2007, a newspaper in Chengdu accepted an ad saying, “Saluting the strong mothers of victims of 64,” apparently unaware of what “64” might denote. Three editors of that newspaper lost their jobs. Even today, the image of a tank in any artwork is liable to prove a shortcut to detention.

In the relatively liberal decade of the 1980s, following Mao’s death, there were the beginnings of a literary reckoning with the final decade of violence Mao had unleashed with the Cultural Revolution. A wave of writing emerged that became known as “scar” literature, in which former Red Guards, many of whom had been party to savage violence against their teachers and other people they knew, struggled with the aftermath, including their own guilt. The party even held its own inquiry, concluding that Mao was indeed responsible for 10 years of mayhem—but that, nevertheless, he was mostly a good thing. Tiananmen, however, produced no comparable acknowledgment of responsibility: the fault, the party insists, lies entirely with the student victims. The window of literary reckoning, at least for writers who stayed in China, snapped shut.

Tiananmen is not China’s only unresolved national trauma. The citizen journalists who chronicled the beginnings of Covid-19 have disappeared or been silenced; memories of other horrors, such as the blood-selling scandal in Henan that spread the Aids virus to thousands of poor farmers in the 1980s, or the government-made famine in the early 1960s that killed between 40 and 80 million citizens… in China, these memories are confined to private circles. In exile, however, they can be remembered and repurposed through memoir, poetry and fiction.

There are no reliable figures on how many Chinese writers and intellectuals stayed abroad or went into exile after 4th June 1989, but the numbers seemed so substantial that Gao Xingjian, the Paris-based writer who would go on to win the Nobel prize for literature in 2000, announced in 1989 that Chinese literature in exile had been established in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Not only were Chinese writers finding a voice abroad, he noted, but, after Tiananmen, they had found a readership.

For some writers, exile can bring a sense of hopelessness and of the futility of having sacrificed so much for so little apparent result. Others continue to find their voices: the novelist Ma Jian, for instance, who lives in London, US-based Ha Jin or Gao himself—all write successfully from afar. Liao Yiwu, who lives in Berlin, is still writing, while at the same time publicly grappling with both a recurring sense of the futility of pitching words against dictatorships and the compulsion to continue to do so.

Two new documentary novels serve as vehicles for national memory

In this 35th anniversary year of Tiananmen, memories are taking fresh literary shape. Two new documentary novels serve as vehicles for national memory. The first is Wuhan, by Liao, in which he explores the beginnings of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the other, one exile—going under the pseudonym “Lai Wen”—has been moved to draw on the events of June 1989 for her first—and she writes—only novel, Tiananmen Square.

Both books are testament to the importance of literary memory. In the absence of reliable history, each aspires to document not only the actions and experience of characters of the imagination, but real events and real participants. Both remain preoccupied with the brutalities of the regime and the meaning of the act of writing in the context of a powerful and unaccountable dictatorship. In a separate monograph, entitled Invisible Warfare, Liao continues to grapple with the imbalance of power. “Evil regimes may seem powerful,” he writes, “but… they don’t amount to anything because their crimes have been recorded. We feel very insignificant when we create these records, but the testimony we leave behind, in historical terms, will last longer than any evil regime.”

Liao began his career as a poet. He suffered years of imprisonment for composing a poem about Tiananmen; yet continued to write during his confinement and, remarkably, to smuggle that writing to safety. He produced literary reportage from the bottom of Chinese society in The Corpse Walker and documented the experiences of survivors of Tiananmen, which was published as Bullets and Opium after he fled into exile in 2011. 

In Wuhan, Liao chronicles the beginnings of the pandemic in China, which he tracked from Germany. He obsessively downloaded scientific and medical materials, as well as the tide of Chinese social media posts and official and citizen journalism that swamped the internet and, for a few early weeks, seemed to outrun the capacity of Chinese censors to block it.

It is tempting to speculate that Wuhan was written as a documentary novel because the author could not go and report the events he describes. The novel was published in Germany in January 2022 and, as the author explains in an epilogue and several appendices to the English edition, it provoked discussion on the boundaries between fiction and documentary, with its mix of reportage, real and fictional characters. 

Wuhan opens with an episode involving a Kcriss Li, a 25-year-old former CCTV news reporter turned citizen journalist. Kcriss Li exists, and the dramatic scene Liao describes was livestreamed and can still be found on YouTube. In it, Kcriss had parked near the Wuhan Institute of Virology, now famous for its research into bat viruses and for the gain-of-function experiments performed there. As he drove away, he was followed—and it quickly became a car chase. He recorded his return home and his terror as the police worked their way through the building looking for him. His online audience commented liberally throughout. Kcriss was eventually detained and forcibly quarantined, briefly reappearing two months later to post a single video which his fans judged to have been recorded under duress.

Investigating the origins of Covid is described as the ‘ultimate taboo’

In Liao’s novel, Kcriss has been inspired by the example of the novelist Milan Kundera, one of the author’s heroes, to give up his safe job with China’s official media in favour of investigating the unfolding events in Wuhan and the origins of the virus, described in an appendix to the novel as the “ultimate taboo”. The main plot is carried by Ai Ding, a fictional historian who tries to return home to Wuhan from Germany to celebrate New Year. Wuhan is locked down and, through Ai’s communications with his wife, we follow the unfolding tragedy, the official lies and cover-up, the desperation and deaths of the citizens, all interspersed with journalistic and official reports. As Ai attempts to make his way across an unrecognisable landscape, a disaster on individual, national and international scales is relived through a dramatic, hybrid narrative.

The second novel returns to 1989. The author of Tiananmen Square tells us that she was born in Beijing in 1970, won a scholarship to Beijing University, and was “an unimportant” part of the student movement. We learn little more, beyond her confession that she has long wanted to write about the events of 1989 but found them too painful. It was only when inspired by Elena Ferrante that she embarked on what is both a coming-of-age story and a record of terrible events. Like Ferrante, Lai Wen also had a brilliant friend who plays a key role in the novel.

The result is a book with strong Chinese roots that also, like Wuhan, owes much of its character to the experience of exile. In Tiananmen Square, the spirit of Ferrante hovers over the storytelling; in Wuhan, Liao connects the effort to document truth in the teeth of repression to other places and histories, while shades of Elie Wiesel and Solzhenitsyn haunt his account of vanishing truth tellers. In his epilogue, Liao writes: “From start to finish, all of the characters in this book have been taken away and, ultimately, they’ll be forgotten. And I’m nothing but an insignificant narrator of events, a useless thing with a heart that is always aching.”