On the eve of twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre of students in China after weeks of protest in Tiananmen Square, I’m proud to say that one of the five major segments in our current film Following the Ninth features footage of the protest and interviews with student leader Feng Congde.
Congde tells how he accidentally became part of the protest on the way to that area to get his computer fixed. Soon he became one of the top leaders. The students rigged up a PA system and played Beethoven’s Ninth over and over, first to block out transmissions and announcements by the Chinese government, then to keep up their own spirits and inspire them during the long days and then the fears on the eve of the massacre.
I don’t have a full clip of that section but our original lengthy trailer (below) includes about a minute of that segment. And there’s a full chapter in our book. Excerpt here:
As the students had no weapons, music and other forms of symbolic communication would serve as a fragile carapace under which students and others could shape, if only momentarily, the resources for resistance while simultaneously telling the world via music what their struggle meant. Or as Feng put it, “We used the Ninth to create an ambience of solidarity and hope, for ourselves, and for the people of China.”
And true to every social movement, the students spoke in various accents. Freedom banners appeared everywhere, often written in English with a sense that the whole world was indeed watching. Clever hands built scurrilous effigies, witty epigrams competed with scatological humor for space on cardboard signs, and later, during the final days of the protest, the iconic “Goddess of Democracy” was carried to the center of the action. The papier-mache and foam statue, sculpted by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, was large and menacing to those watching from Party redoubts, as it resembled the Statue of Liberty. A tent city was built, and a minor infrastructure cobbled together for handling the everyday problems of food distribution and keeping conditions sanitary (again, echoed years later at the many Occupy Wall Street camps). And the marching, the shouting, the trucks and buses with people on top arriving from throughout the city and countryside just didn’t stop. And then there was the music.
One image in the footage that appears again and again in the early days and weeks of the protest: people singing. The communal joy is obvious, impulses given free reign, righteous ecstasy coming out from its hiding places into a nearly soulless situation for students in China who wanted more than the dreary future on offer. Singing commanded attention and brought people face-to-face with what Feng called “their dignity as human beings,” as if for the first time.
Beethoven’s Ninth provided a bridge for those connections. Classical music in general and Beethoven’s Ninth specifically was considered a symbol of Western bourgeois decadence and cultural imperialism by the Communist Party, especially during the years of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” from 1966 through 1976. Even in 1989 Feng felt the lingering effects of a decade when the “violence of culture” meant “all the good things were denied. If you liked modern dance, that was bourgeois. If you liked modern painting, that was bourgeois.”