When you’ve lived through an iconic event of history your life is transformed.
Words: Bravery, disgust, disbelief, betrayal, horror.
Smells: Innocence, idealism, cordite.
Sounds: Crackle, loudspeakers, sirens, pop, Bang, shouting.
Colours: Green, white, blue, orange, red, bruised Purple.
Feelings: Numbness, silence, despair, anger, fear, dismay – Why?
Sights: The scorching heat, the pickets, the helicopter, the blank stares of bus loads of apprehensive People’s Liberation Army soldiers surrounded by Beijing’s irate mothers and fathers, the water tankers, the chuandan (pamphlets), the handwritten messages on the school noticeboard, real tears, fleeing, panic, emptiness, dry tears, bloated bodies. How many more?
Tastes: Dry, salty and bitter.
Time: Central Beijing – 3.45pm Saturday June 3, 1989, the first time I heard the traumatising sounds of teargas canisters exploding all around me, gunfire. A wave of spine-chilling panic and astonishment shuddered through the maddened crowd.
“Look at what the People’s Liberation Army are using against the people”, said my local friend.
I was standing near Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party of China and central government’s seat of power. Nine hours later from the safety of my dormitory my eyes were fixed on the horizon where a menacing, murky pall of orange hung over downtown Beijing. June 4, 1989, one month, two weeks, six days since the popular student-led ‘nothing to my name’ [Read more at: http://wp.me/p15Yzr-19] demonstrations began in Tiananmen Square. All was eerily quiet in the immediate vicinity, but we knew, the rumour machine knew, and it wasn’t long before the first of the bloated purples would be carried back to the campus. No wailing, just lifeless silence.
The most dramatic and formative event of my life, all permanently etched in my mind as if it was yesterday.
“You missed Woodstock” said my brother upon my return home.
In August 1969, forty-four years ago this Summer, during the height of the Vietnam War, and a year after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a 450,000-strong hippie commune established itself at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair to hear rock legends the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” “Gimmie Shelter” and a feast of other rock bands belt out some of the most powerful rock music ever written. Braving rain, mud, heat, cold, poor sanitation, and food shortages it was just another typical rock concert they were all going to. None of them had come in search of a huge historical turning point, they just wanted to listen to what is still the most powerful rock music ever made. As it rained and rained the calmness and undisturbed feeling of the gathering grabbed the attention of the world’s media who gazed in grudging admiration at the 450,000 [the same as the number of American soldiers at the time fighting the Vietnam War] number spectacle.
People turned to each other and said “Can you believe this?”
It wasn’t a rebellion, rather the people doing as they pleased for the happiness of it, enjoying the freedom. Towards the end of the Fair when much of the crowd had already left, Jimi Hendrix, intoxicated by the mood, took to the stage: “No to the Vietnam War, No to racism...” and then came his 4 and a half minute rendition of the American National Anthem the “Star Spangled Banner“…. the culmination of a new patriotic counter culture that was questioning the direction of American society.
American journalist and educator Max Lerner summed up Woodstock as:
“a turning point in the consciousness generations have of each other and of themselves“.
People who were there spread out across America and the world to relate stories of an ideal and perfect time and place called Woodstock, where for three days everyone lived in harmony and everything was for the best in size and spirit surpassed all fantasies. They find themselves part of history.
Woodstock was proof that America was still big enough to contradict itself on a huge scale, and to stand up in the best possible spectacle against its worst excesses.
“We have kneeled down too long and are getting up to stretch our legs” (Anonymous 89er)
I recall the heady weeks leading up to June 4, 1989 as vividly as if it was yesterday: a passionate flowering of student idealism, mingling with the students, exchanging stories, philosophising about the differences between capitalism and socialism, how energetic, so full of life they were. Their thirst for information, their frustrations with the harsh restrictions of life, their optimism for the future, the music, the sense of intellectual excitement, a free-spirited atmosphere, more debates, pasting their manifestos on campus boards across Beijing, the marching, the banners, the hunger strikes, the city at a complete standstill, the enormous public compassion and understanding, being in Tiananmen Square staring at the statue of the lady in white and realising this was their rebellion not mine. The cry was for reform. An entire nation was about to blossom, but then came the cruel response, and with it the death of hope, romanticism and idealism in China.
China’s Woodstock? Yes, flattery indeed. The bands didn’t play on.
In the intervening time the Zhongnanhai Establishment still advocates the same lamentable verdict in relation to the events of June 4, 1989...
… Modern China’s enduring transformational pain.