Backbeat in China

Backbeat in China


A hundred days ago Wu’er Kaixi was a fugitive…. Yesterday, before an audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of an earth-shaking movement.
      He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi…
      The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students and their bewildered elders.
            (Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)

John Sebastian’s famous lyric about the impossibility of “trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll” notwithstanding, it was a special moment indeed when Wu’er Kaixi–the flamboyant Tiananmen student leader–attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers who heard him sing Qin Qi’s “Wolf From the North” and explain what its celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said, but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)

When I witnessed Wu’er’s performance, even though I was no longer a student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the “delighted” camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of 1989. I was struck then by the Western media’s tendency to overstate the dissident Fang Lizhi’s impact. Students found his speeches inspiring, but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at–of all things–a Jan and Dean concert.

Another reason Wu’er’s performance pleased me was that I was to give a presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a song, albeit one without a backbeat: “Frère Jacques.” Why that one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949 protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen protesters had just followed suit. Wu’er used a new song to argue for his generation’s uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited tradition.

I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of “Frère Jacques” (which began “Down With Li Peng, Down With Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping,” and which went on to refer to these and other Communist Party leaders as “bullies”) expressed contempt for corrupt, autocratic officials.

A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the streets–not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared completely. The country’s leaders now seemed only to care about protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era (1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist Party’s leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the revolution that had brought them to power.

In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen books–including the two under review–have singled out for special attention one of two songs that neither Wu’er Kaixi nor I discussed. These are a Communist anthem (the “Internationale”) and a composition by Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian (“Heirs of the Dragon”). Students frequently sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing fields by the People’s Liberation Army.

Zhao Dingxin’s The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long line of works to treat the “Internationale” as the movement’s most revealing song. He claims, in a section on “The Imprint of Communist Mass Mobilization,” that students were drawn to it because it is “rebellious in spirit” and because a steady diet of post-1949 party-sponsored “revolutionary dramas and films” in which the song figured had made singing it “a standard way of expressing” discontent with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach, which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the (“pro-Western”) Tiananmen ones.

The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the “Internationale” and many other compositions (from Cui Jian’s rousing “Nothing to My Name” to the punk-rock song “Garbage Dump”), but the gently lilting “Heirs” gets most attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin’s book is not a Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw “Heirs” become a hit (and be appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin) by defecting to the mainland–only to quickly become a gadfly to the authorities there.

Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a song for the movement, “Get Off the Stage,” which called on aging leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990 the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, “the first Taiwan defector to be returned to sender.”

Patriotism is the central theme of “Heirs” (the “Dragon” in its title is China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song’s appeal to a generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou–particularly because his song was used to express it. Her discussion of “Heirs” thus plays up 1989’s nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949 struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).

These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First, China’s 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple “democracy” movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing’s self-serving “Big Lie” about the government’s supposed need to use force to pacify “counterrevolutionary” riots. Third–and this is a much more general point–providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never easy.

This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of detail–right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu’er), a cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful and sometimes self-indulgent journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters can create big gaps in overall perspective.

Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major differences in presentations of an American student movement–that of the 1960s–depending on the answers given to the following questions: When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much weight should we give to the protesters’ stated goals? How much to actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote. The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins (irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).

Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot about “political opportunity structures” and “rational choice analysis,” can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for what might best be termed–for lack of a more precise word–magic? I mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of inspiring heroism.

It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle’s protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao’s study and then Jaivin’s book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived and self-contained, yet accounts of China’s 1989 spin off in dramatically different directions.

This is not to say that Zhao’s and Jaivin’s treatments of Tiananmen never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different authors–Jaivin’s previous writings include a rollicking novel called Eat Me, while Zhao’s peer-reviewed scholarly articles are peppered with charts and tables–their books have much in common. One author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols, but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.

Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian) who are not even listed in Zhao’s index. And there are aspects of the struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin–what Zhao calls “campus ecology” (the physical structures and social patterns of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989 is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin’s interests.

The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take sociologist Craig Calhoun’s justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods Nor Emperors. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly, sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989’s links to pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin’s reliance on Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams, were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that none of Barmé’s writings are listed in Zhao’s bibliography. This wouldn’t matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese culture and politics.

Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese students–of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such admirable things–lashed out against African males whose freer lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on occasion even toward Westerners).

Surprisingly, given Jaivin’s greater fascination with pop culture, among the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986 event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic. He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai “as a protest against the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the stage” with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement’s focus shifted to “democracy and other issues,” Zhao continues, when news arrived of campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates like mere “workers,” not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of China’s youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.

In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one (Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies and rational calculations of risk.

In Jaivin’s book, magic–of varying sorts–figures centrally. Even the book’s title is a nod toward the magical, since the “Monkey” in it refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the novel) and Hou (in Jaivin’s biography) is an ability to transform himself and contribute to the transformation of others–something often associated with spells of enchantment.

When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the “magnetic pull” (Barmé’s term) that the square exerted. And she emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar, seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did this, and I doubt any “model” can do justice to his choice. Moreover, Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.

Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example). But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with Tiananmen–and perhaps many mass movements–you have to take seriously not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and magic.

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