Dispatches

The Hungry Ghosts of June Fourth8 min read

Concrete and memory is all that is left on Tiananmen Square Isaac Beech

“Twenty years have passed, but the ghosts of June Fourth have not yet been laid to rest.” –Liu Xiaobo, December 23, 2009


A hungry ghost, or e’gui (饿鬼), is the lingering spirit of a person who has met a violent or miserable end. In Buddhist tradition, it is the evil deeds of the individual which lead them to be reborn as a hungry ghost, below even the lowest of animals. But in more popular belief, the cruel end of a life cut short is enough to leave a ghost unanchored, unable to rest in peace: forever hungry, never sated.

On the night of June 3, 1989, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping sent some 200,000 troops into Beijing and created anywhere from several hundred to several thousand hungry ghosts. That we don’t know the precise number – likely something less than 3000, despite recent claims of 10,000 or more – is only a testament to the efficacy of the cover-up. If the human tragedy of it all feels too far removed geographically or generationally (I was three in 1989), videos and pictures remind us of what we were not there to witness.

A hungry ghost, in Chinese tradition, will cause trouble for future generations if left ignored”

The Chinese government would rather that we forget. Despite a rare admission of the events of 1989 by Defence Minister Wei Fenghe – who recently defended the army’s intervention as the “correct policy” to “stop the turbulence” and ensure “stability and development” – June Fourth, or May 35th as netizens call it to avoid the censors, has become in China a national day of forgetting. The legacy connecting it to the May Fourth youth movement of 1919, let alone the protests of 1976 or 1986, has come unthreaded. And a combination of education policy and censorship has ensured that most Chinese in the know find it easier not to think of the “incident” at all, as if it were a cold sore.

Two years ago, in the midst of this collective forgetting, I wondered: what is left, on Tiananmen Square, of the carnage? There are, of course, no blood stains – not least as the killings didn’t occur on the square but around it, most of them on the strip of Chang’an (“Eternal Peace”…) Avenue to the west. But what of the square itself today? The psychogeography of it, the feeling of standing on it as one thinks of events long past that one didn’t witness? With no ghosts to speak, what ghosts of the mind still haunt?


I decided to use an otherwise idle Sunday to visit Tiananmen Square on June Fourth. This was perhaps the fifth time I had been on the square, not to mention countless passes. Tiananmen exerts a powerful pull: the sheer size of it, its negative space, its empty potential. The Forbidden City, before which the square was built in 1651, was once the very middle of the Middle Kingdom. Now, the former seat of imperial power has given way to adjacent Tiananmen Square as the symbolic center of the Central People’s Government. While the official compound of Zhongnanhai surrounds an artificial lake just to the west, Tiananmen still feels like the political heart of the city, just as the eponymous Gate of Heavenly Peace to its north had been, before Mao bulldozed it to expand the square fourfold.

To the Chinese psyche, this rectangle of oppressive flatness at the centrepoint of Beijing is not associated with the protests of ’89 but with China’s power today, and with nationalistic pride. It is a must for any domestic tourist to the capital to visit and take selfies with the red Chinese flag, where a flag-raising ceremony each day at dawn can attract huge crowds. Your first visit to Tiananmen leaves an indelible impression of the nation’s expanding strength, but not of the square itself – rather, in all of its dull concreteness, you can never quite remember exactly it is that you saw there.

What of the psychogeography of the square? The feeling of standing on it as one thinks of events long past that one didn’t witness?

On this particular day, of course, the mood was different: awkward, as it is at a dinner party when a guest has mentioned the host’s divorce. The trappings of security were only the most noticeable element: “public security” police cars drove in low-gear loops around the square, and an open-topped van with camouflage-uniformed members of the People’s Armed Police was parked across the street, guns in laps. Even the metallic barriers on wheels that are a regular feature of Tiananmen seemed to have multiplied. But the atmosphere wasn’t so much of oppression as embarrassment: an entire apparatus there in order to make people forget there was anything to notice.

The People’s Armed Police, parked on standby near Tiananmen Square

To get onto the block to the west of Tiananmen, I had to pass by a checkpoint, where my passport was scrutinized to check that I wasn’t a journalist. I am not, but I still dressed up in my best impression of a clueless tourist, topping it off with a cheap straw hat. A visiting student to Beijing and I even teamed up to better pass as an idly curious couple. On the wide pavement of the perimeter road outside the square was a handful of blindingly obvious plainclothes policemen, who would pointedly look away when I caught their eye. One instinctively moved towards me when I took a photo. (On the 20th anniversary of June Fourth, they made YouTube fame by blocking reporters’ cameras with umbrellas, a tactic repeated this year.)

There was only one entrance to the square itself that I could make out, at the far south, marked by the usual tarpaulined security booth with bag scanners and a metal detector. I went on alone, but a guard in a visibility vest told me I couldn’t cross the road to get there. I pulled the foreigner’s privilege I usually try to avoid, pretended I couldn’t speak a lick of Chinese, and crossed quickly with a broad smile. To my surprise they let me through the booth, and I was on the square – together with a very sparse crowd, and no other foreigners I could spot, although there was a row of tour buses parked on the east side of the square.

The view of the Forbidden City from the West of the square: a photo watched over by plainclothes police

From this southern, “front” gate to the square, you walk past Mao’s mausoleum, an eyesore of a building that Mao himself did not want constructed, containing embalmed remains that may or may not belong to Mao. Past it, the enormous size of the square presents itself: 880 meters lengthwise, one of the largest in the world. The Monument to the People’s Heroes is the only major punctuation of the expanse, although a steel pole topped with floodlights and security cameras dwarfs it in height. This monument was a meeting point for many of the student protesters in ’89, and in pictures one can see the same socialist reliefs of the sculpture beyond their defiant or glazed expressions.

None of that spirit inhabits the square on this day. It is overwhelmingly, crushingly, the same as every other time I have been there, only this time with no tourists asking to take pictures with me, and more plainclothes policemen sizing me up in case my linen jacket conceals a forbidden banner. At the north end, the national flag sways proudly, nearby to where the Goddess of Democracy once stood, a papier-mache sculpture modelled on the Statue of Liberty that students erected to face off with the portrait of Mao that hangs over the gate of the Forbidden City. Tiananmen today would not give way imaginatively to that high-stakes staring contest – it was too dull, too hot, and there was too much of it. There was only empty space.

The cruel end of a life cut short leaves a ghost unanchored, unable to rest in peace: forever hungry, never sated”

As I set off to walk the kilometer back and escape the concrete heat trap, I idly asked a middle-aged woman near me, who looked like a civilian and carried no umbrella, if she remembered seeing any images of the square on TV in 1989. I could see she got my point, but she only replied bu zhidao, “I don’t know,” in a single breath with a nervous laugh, then kept repeating it. Bu zhidao, bu zhidao. It’s a familiar enough refrain in China, used to avoid awkwardness rather than out of rudeness, and I didn’t feel in the mood to press further. But the words took on a new meaning in the square that every Chinese tourist is supposed to visit, but is not meant to truly know.

A hungry ghost, in Chinese tradition, will cause trouble for future generations if left ignored. Thirty years ago, hunger strikers here starved themselves to the bone, only to see their fellows shot at the end of it all. Maybe if more Chinese visitors on Tiananmen square could acknowledge the ghosts that still haunt it, unsated and unseen, all of their hunger could be appeased. ∎

All images courtesy of the author.