In late may, as the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre was approaching, the Chinese government prepared by beefing up security all over the nation. In America, many Chinese expats and immigrants were organizing memorial observances. A group of dissidents from the Democracy Party of China asked Tian to perform in Central Park together with some artists who lived in New York. Yabin, though active in promoting the event, told Tian to be careful—he was sure that the Chinese consulate would keep a record of those involved and that Tian risked getting blacklisted if he joined them. By disposition Tian abhorred politics, but he had his principles and believed in justice and personal freedom. He remembered how he had burst into tears when he heard two boys in his high school, who had gone to Beijing to demonstrate against corruption and demand democracy, give their account of the bodies and bicycles crushed by tanks near Tiananmen Square. The killing of the peaceful civilians by the standing army was more than he could stomach. At that time, in the spring of 1989, he was in his late teens and regretted not having gone to the capital to join the demonstrators. Now, far from the clutches of the Chinese police, he had access to the censored information on the tragedy and had seen many of the horrific photographs and videos and footage that the CCP kept suppressed. If he didn’t protest this atrocity and fight the official effort to erase the public memory of it, he’d feel like a spineless coward.
So he agreed to sing at the memorial concert in Central Park without getting paid. Within days he saw ads in community newspapers about the event, which listed him as a performer. There was also a bigger ad in The Epoch Times, the English paper of Falun Gong, which announced it was an event free and open to the public. Tian noticed that besides the Chinese performers, some American artists would attend the gathering too. This was heartening, though most Chinese artists in New York seemed to shun it, fearful of the mainland government’s retaliation. He wondered whether he was too rash in agreeing to sing, but he dismissed his second-guessing, convinced that he must not remain silent. “I protest, I exist,” as a Hong Kong poet had claimed recently.
Two days before the memorial concert, he got a call from a Chinese official, Vice Consul Kong. The man spoke in a smooth voice with a trace of a Henan accent. He said he was in charge of cultural affairs at China’s consulate in New York and would like to meet Tian in person. Tian was unsure of his motivation and claimed that his schedule was full for the next two weeks. A prolonged pause ensued. He guessed that Kong seldom encountered such a refusal. Then the vice consul bluntly asked Tian to cancel his commitment to the memorial in Central Park. For a moment Tian was too rattled to answer coherently, but he collected himself and said, “I can’t back out now. The concert is only two days away. It would be unprofessional for me to withdraw.” The truth was that he just wouldn’t give up such an opportunity to sing publicly, though he could not explain to the official his artistic yearning and reason. To Kong, everything must be political, and the concert was reactionary by nature. Then, everyone with a free mindset and believing in human rights must be a troublemaker to the CCP.
The official replied, “Is it because they pay you well? If that’s the case, we can pay you double or triple the amount.”
“No, no, I’m not taking a penny for this appearance.”
“Mr. Yao Tian, you know our Party’s position on the Tiananmen event, which was a riot, and the organizers of this concert intend to vilify our country. We hope you won’t help them carry out their vicious plan.”
“You know, I know, everyone knows the massacre was a terrible tragedy and the Party made an atrocious blunder. Some people even consider it a crime against humanity. It’s about time the Party righted the wrong and apologized openly. Otherwise how can you inspire people’s trust and continue to keep peace and order?” Tian was surprised by his own blunt words, which he realized he could voice only because he was here.
“I’m not arguing with you about the nature of the tragedy. We simply advise you not to associate with this group. Some of them are criminals and enemies of China.”
“I don’t see it that way, Mr. Kong. We ought to let people remember an event like that. I’ve never been interested in politics, but this is a different case. To my mind, the cause of the tragedy is clear: A bunch of old oligarchs were holding on to power at the cost of young lives. The old killed the young in order to—”
“Yao Tian, you have an attitude problem! Keep in mind that your family is still in China. You must be careful and responsible for what you say and do here. You’re a smart man and I don’t need to dwell more on this.”
Tian was incensed, his temper smoldering, but before he could respond, the official hung up. His mention of Tian’s family unnerved him, yet he was not intimidated. He was just a singer, and to sing a couple of songs at the memorial concert couldn’t possibly be a crime. Every year on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, more than one hundred thousand people gathered at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, where musicians would perform, and none of those artists had been punished. If what they did was considered a crime, then there’d be too many criminals to prosecute. Yet, while Vice Consul Kong’s warning might not be an empty threat, Tian could ignore it partly because his wife was in academia and their livelihood didn’t completely depend on the Chinese state, since her school, though a public university, was unlikely to fire her because of his activities abroad. Above all, as an individual he needed to hold on to his integrity.
He planned to sing two songs. One, written collectively by some twenty Taiwanese artists in memory of Tiananmen, was titled “The Wound of History.” It was usually performed by a chorus, but Tian would be the lead singer. The other song was “In a Blooming Season,” a recent collaborative project between a composer and a poet in Hong Kong to commemorate the tragedy. Tian was unfamiliar with the second song and had to learn it and rehearse it, but it wasn’t a difficult piece. The organizers were pleased about the way he delivered the two songs, with both poise and feeling.
It was a little overcast on June 3, and the evening in Central Park was cool and slightly hushed. Yabin, who had helped to publicize the concert, assured Tian there’d be no rain according to the weather forecast. About six hundred people, mostly Chinese, attended the concert held in Sheep Meadow, a beautiful open field at the west side of the park. Many of the attendees had brought candles for a vigil later that night, but Tian didn’t plan to stay for the entire program. His job was to sing; what he had was a voice, which he would contribute as his support. Several exiled men and women who’d been involved in the Tiananmen movement were present. They were all in middle age now but looked spirited. Apparently the banishment from their homeland had not diminished their vitality—the new continent seemed to have given them a new life. At the back of the low platform hung a wide screen, on which footage of the violence and bloodshed was being shown. A bespectacled older man spoke first. His Mandarin had a Shandong accent, but his voice was resonant and a bit metallic. He told how the Chinese government had been mistreating a group of older women, the Tiananmen Mothers, who had lost their children in the massacre; the police would routinely stop them from leaving home on holidays and whenever there was an important event in Beijing. He also testified that Chinese diplomats in America had attempted to sabotage the memorial efforts made by local communities. He raised his voice to declare that the organizers of this memorial night, the Democracy Party of China, had decided to hold such a gathering every June, until the Communist regime redressed the wrong and the criminals were brought to justice.
After him, the dissidents in attendance spoke by turns. Among them was Chai Ling, who’d been the student commander in Tiananmen Square. She had bulked up some now, with raven-black hair and bright eyes. In the 1989 photos, she’d been skinny, haggard, even a little timid. Now she spoke in a quiet but assured voice. As soon as she started, some people booed and a man shouted, “Get off the stage! You too have blood on your hands.” Tian knew that some people believed she was partly responsible for the bloodshed, having fled the square before the students in her command had found safety.
Chai Ling straightened up, staring at the man, unintimidated. She then told the audience, “Truth will prevail sooner or later. We are gathering here to commemorate the dead and to condemn the atrocities, not to point fingers at each other.” She sounded familiar with this kind of challenge. Calmly she said a few more words and then left the platform in scattered applause.
Tian looked at the printed program, which didn’t specify all the individual speakers. He wondered why so many people would go up to give speeches at this concert. Then he realized this must be mainly a memorial gathering, advertised as a concert so as to draw a bigger crowd. Among the speakers, he was especially impressed by a man in a wheelchair. His name was Fang Zheng and he’d lost both legs, crushed by a tank outside Tiananmen Square. Fang said he had been trying to help a girl who had fainted from a gas bomb, then couldn’t get out of the way of a tank charging toward them. The girl was saved, but his legs were crushed. His thick shoulders shook and he raised his voice to say, “I saw with my own eyes people shot on the streets. Some officials claim there was no death or bloodshed that night. That’s a bald-faced lie. If I were not rushed to a hospital by some goodhearted people, I would’ve been among the dead. Now I am a living witness for those who didn’t make it.” His voice was even and a touch monotonous, and it was clear he wasn’t used to giving speeches, but his mere presence spoke volumes. He was the most eloquent among the speakers.It was a little overcast on June 3, and the evening in Central Park was cool and slightly hushed.
As the twilight was deepening, people began to light their candles. Yabin was standing in the front row; although not belonging to the Democracy Party of China, he was an enthusiastic promoter of this event and was regarded as an active dissident. His face and upper body were dappled with patches of light in the crowd. More bloody footage appeared on the screen, demonstrators fleeing soundlessly, gunfire and flames flaring in Beijing’s night sky. Against this silent, violent backdrop, the concert began. Tian was first to perform. He held the mic and said, “I’m not a political person, but I want to support what is just. That’s why I’m here to sing two songs, to entertain you and hopefully bring you some moments of peace.”
About a dozen or so young people were getting on the stage as the chorus, standing behind him. He started with “The Wound of History.” He was touched by the shadowy faces wavering below him as he sang:
Eyes closed, you might not see,
Ears covered, you might not hear,
But the truth is in your heart,
The wound in your chest.
How long can you endure?
How long will you keep silent?
If hot tears can wash dusts away,
If warm blood can be exchanged for freedom,
Let tomorrow remember today’s howling,
Let the whole world see the wound of history!
Together with him, the chorus repeated the lyrics while some in the audience hummed along. Tian had heard this song a few times at small underground gatherings back in China, but this was his first time to sing it publicly. Never had it been so moving and so meaningful to him. He tried hard to hold back his tears while singing along with the chorus and the audience.
The next song was new to the audience, so they listened quietly and attentively. The piece was like a mourning lullaby:
Mama, don’t be upset, don’t yield to them.
Together we will look after the children
And let them sleep in peace.
When the right season comes
They will again bloom everywhere. . . .
The moment he was done, he bowed to the audience and hurried off the stand, even as, behind him, a female voice called for an encore.
An American band got on the stand next. Their lead guitarist, a lanky man with long hair, thanked the audience: “We’re honored to be here and to take part in this memorial service. Thank you all for being here.” Without further ado, the rock group started their set, which sounded angry and loud and fierce. The audience, mostly unfamiliar with heavy metal, seemed bewildered and less engaged, some shifting their weight from leg to leg and talking to each other in whispers. Tian had never heard of the local band—Trust No More—which might have made itself available free of charge for this gathering. By now all the candles were lit, flickering among the crowd.Yabin was standing in the front row; although not belonging to the Democracy Party of China, he was an enthusiastic promoter of this event and was regarded as an active dissident.
Tian saw Yabin emerging from behind a large maple tree. He held a square lantern draped with double tassels. Tian went up to him and said, “I should be going.”
Yabin looked puzzled. “Leaving so soon? Don’t you want to see the other performances? There’ll be a group doing a drum dance, and the former student leader Wang Dan might show up.”
“I’ve done my part. You know I don’t like crowds. There’s nothing else for me to do here.”
“Good night, then.”
Yabin waved his lantern. Tian turned and headed for the nearby entrance of the park.
Excerpted from A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin. Excerpted with the permission of Pantheon Books. Copyright © 2021 by Ha Jin.