Dispatches

The Hungry Ghosts of June Fourth

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

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.