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For the 25th Anniversary: The Music That Inspired Chinese Students in Tiananmen Square | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

For the 25th Anniversary: The Music That Inspired Chinese Students in Tiananmen Square

Mao Zedong

A graffiti portrait of Mao Zedong by the artist Li QiuQiu.

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.

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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.”

 

As a member of the intelligentsia, the embrace of “counter-revolutionary” ideas—and who could tell what these were from day-to-day—made Feng a suspect in a thought crime yet to be committed.

 

On the Square, Beethoven’s Ninth became part of Feng’s crime against the state. Once engaged as an organizer, Feng set up a makeshift broadcasting system, cobbled together with car batteries and loudspeakers provided by both university students and working people from the surrounding neighborhood. The improvised system could not compete with the government speakers that lined the Square, broadcasting the droning speeches of Lin Peng and other lesser apparatchiks who tried to convince those arriving by the tens of thousands to stay home or return to school.

 

Feng described a singular moment on the Square when Beethoven’s Ninth summed up everything he hoped for his country.

 

With over a thousand students on a hunger strike in the Square, Li Peng announced martial law on May 19th. The droning began in earnest: “Comrades, in accordance with a decision made by the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee, the party Central Committee and the State Council…to restore normal order in society, and to maintain stability and unity in order to ensure the triumphant implementation of our reform and open policy and the program of socialist modernization….Their [the students] goal is precisely to organizationally subvert the CPC leadership….The reason that we were so tolerant was out of our loving care for the masses of youths and students. We regard them as our own children and the future of China. We do not want to hurt good people, particularly not the young students.” And on and on, with the carefully chosen audience clapping on cue.

 

In the Square, Feng pulled out a cassette. “The students, when we heard the announcements,” he told me, “we were so angry—and I put on the cassette of Beethoven’s Ninth to cover the voice of the government system. So there was a real battle for voice. Hundreds of thousands of students shouting, as we broadcast the music on the square louder than the government system. I just had a feeling of winning. Of triumph.”

 

Feng played the final movement of the Ninth, featuring the “Ode To Joy” with the key line Alle Menschen warden Bruder (“All men will be brothers) because “it gave us a sense of hope, solidarity, for a new and better future. And it was really fantastic that it changed us, transformed us. We feel finally we regained our dignity as human beings. We were separated by the government, but now we are free. We just feel free. So on the square, we feel a collective feeling of joy. We were free at last.”

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