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Tiananmen tales from the dark side

May 23, 2009

Tiananmen Moon by Philip J Cunningham
Reviewed by Kathryn Minnick
Asia Times
May 22, 2009

Philip Cunningham has regularly stirred up the
sediment of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement
over the past 20 years, trying to keep the
silt-like memories of the movement from settling into obscurity.

After tens of thousands of words on the uprising,
Tiananmen Moon is his best work on the subject
yet. Two decades have finally allowed
Cunningham's eye for cultural and narrative
detail and his penchant for political analysis to find their right proportion.

Cunningham, now a professor, freelance journalist
and writer, has extensive first-hand knowledge of
the movement as witness, occasional participant,
and interlocutor for a videotaped statement by
student leader Chai Ling. He has used that
knowledge as the basis for numerous commentaries
as well as a previous book-length memoir of the movement, Reaching for the Sky.

Published in 1999, it is a remote ancestor of
Tiananmen Moon and shows how Cunningham has
evolved in the past 10 years into a superior - and often brilliant - writer.

As a disclaimer, I have known Cunningham since
1984, when we were both graduate students at the
University of Michigan. However, I wasn't in contact with the author in 1989.

Given the fodder the Chinese student movement of
1989 has provided journalist Cunningham, I
wondered, somewhat cynically, what more
Cunningham had to say. While many of the themes
and anecdotes in Tiananmen Moon are echoes of
Cunningham's earlier writing, the new book stands
out because Cunningham has now fully mastered the narrative style.

He presents richly drawn characters and dramatic
threads that pull us in like a novel, while
providing remarkable yet organic insights. In
Tiananmen Moon, Cunningham's high points - which
are many - are equal to the best of any nonfiction author writing today.

The book is not just a well-wrought story,
though; it is a seamless blend of memoir and
history; past and present; narrative and
reflection; gemlike description and unadorned
information. It tracks Cunningham's involvement
with the student movement, beginning on May
3,1989, when he joins student demonstrators in a
large march on Tiananmen Square.

The movement has been building for a couple weeks
by this time - information the reader needs to
piece together himself. Tiananmen Moon would
benefit from a clearer explanation of the
movement's timeline, one of the book's few flaws.

Picking up the movement on May 3 apparently
corresponds with Cunningham's involvement and
also with the device that gives the book its
name: the author follows the gradual waxing and
waning of activity and hopefulness on the square
as it perfectly mirrors the cycle of the moon.

The uncanny correspondence of lunar brightness
and darkness with the tide of events on the
square is partly a fortuitous moral symbol and
partly a practical matter: the full moon of May
20 provides a protective shield of light to the
protesters; two weeks later the dark, moonless
sky of June 3-4 gives Beijing the obscurity
leaders want for a nighttime assault.

The new moon of June 3-4 is not only the end of
an old lunar cycle - once full of ecstatic
promise - but the beginning of a new celestial
and political era, which many would argue fundamentally continues to this day.

The book's moon template - with the story divided
according to the four phases of the moon -
initially feels like a gimmick, especially when
explicitly spelled out in the preface. But the
larger-than-life forces of celestial bodies soon
become an apt counterpoint to the potency and
uncontrollableness of a heaving, breathing,
million-strong human organism on the square that,
like a hydra, has no clear head.

Tiananmen Moon is the story of a movement, but
also of the place that vivifies it: Cunningham
insightfully calls Tiananmen Square the "navel"
of Beijing. The movement promises to redefine
Tiananmen, but later falls victim to the same
political rigidity that the square - so close to
China's political heart - represents.

The moral chiaroscuro of the book's characters is
subtly rendered. Cunningham categorically
condemns the government's use of lethal arms
against the demonstrators, but nothing else is
black and white. Cunningham shows, for example,
students treating their hunger striking comrades
reverentially. But he also describes a malignant
peer pressure on the strikers, who must stick to
their fatal course or lose face.

Cunningham sees them much like kamikaze pilots
who, once strapped in, can't turn back even if
they have second thoughts. He also introduces us
to a student demonstrator from Xi'an city, in
northwest China, whose behavior and easy
adaptation to the perks of working for a BBC news
crew make Cunningham occasionally wonder if the
man is a spy. Cunningham even shows himself
tossing a rock at a People's' Liberation Army
armored vehicle and describes the moral chill he
feels at adopting the bloodthirsty mentality of the crowd.

Cunningham's treatment of student leaders is
particularly nuanced. He portrays them by turns
as idealistic, narcissistic, passionate and
sometimes dangerously single-minded and abstract
about the harm their decisions might cause.
Cunningham devotes more than a chapter to his
interview with the movement's commander-in-chief,
Chai Ling - an interview that arguably made her
famous and gave him cachet as an expert on the movement.

The story behind the interview - Chai Ling's
labile mood and an hours-long circuitous drive
around Beijing to find a safe interview spot -
are the most compelling parts of this section.
But Cunningham gives too much space to a dry
recounting of her interview - in her words, a
"Last Will and Testament". For some, this may be
one of the book's high points. For me - perhaps
because I'd seen the material before - it was the
only place where Cunningham misplaces his formidable storytelling gift.

Today's China - especially in its recent role as
host to the opulent and successful 2008 Summer
Olympic Games - might seem to have little in
common with the China of Tiananmen Moon. Chinese
students today have a hair trigger nationalistic
sensibility. They are more apt to demonstrate in
support of the Communist Party and its
nationalistic pronouncements than against it.

For example, Chinese students' online hostility
to CNN and other Western media's supposedly
biased reporting of unrest in Tibet last year
shows that nationalism, not democracy, is more on
student lips. But Cunningham shows that the
students of 1989 were not entirely different from those today.

The use of minzhu (democracy) as a slogan 20
years ago and the creation of a "Goddess of
Democracy" were phases of the movement, like
phases of the moon. Cunningham describes how the
movement's theme morphed over its short life from
seeking dialogue with the government, to
"supporting the students" (whatever people wanted
that to mean), and later democracy.

It was never the stark good versus evil,
authoritarianism versus democracy narrative often
portrayed in the West. The movement was not
really about adopting a Western political model.
It was about saving the nation from its worst
tendencies and about a generation of students'
desire to be patriotic, as they understood patriotism.

Cunningham urges the Chinese government to allow
free discussion about the 1989 student movement,
to heal old wounds and give rise to more than one
version of the truth. But today's China has
recovered from numerous self-inflicted national
tragedies over its brief 60-year history, often
without any discussion. There is no reason to
think the government will change now.

In the absence of a full airing of the story of
the 1989 Tiananmen student movement, Tiananmen
Moon provides the next best thing - the steady,
reflective, nuanced eye of someone who knows
China and is not afraid to let the truth fall where it may.

Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student
Uprising of 1989 by Philip J Cunningham. Rowman &
Littlefield Publishers, Inc (May 28, 2009).
ISBN-10: 0742566722. Price US$39.95, 304 pages.

Kathryn Minnick lived in Beijing for 11 years and
has a MA in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.
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