Thursday, April 17, 2008

So It Starts, With A Smashed Little Bottle

The spontaneous memorial activities immediately followed Hu Yaobang's death made its first appearance in New York Times on April 17, 1989:
In a nation where there are no opinion polls to assess the popularity of national leaders, what people do with small bottles may be the best indication of the remarkable rise and fall in the popularity of Deng Xiaoping.
''Xiaoping'' in spoken Chinese can mean ''small bottle'' - although the written character for ''ping'' in Mr. Deng's name is not the one used for ''bottle'' - and people seized on the symbolism a decade ago, when Mr. Deng was struggling to power and embodied the nation's hope for non-revolutionary prosperity. At that time, ordinary people registered their support for Mr. Deng by leaving small bottles in conspicuous places. These days, some people are expressing their feelings by smashing small bottles.
A decade ago, it was more talk than action, and these days, too, more people speak of breaking bottles than actually smash them. ''What's the point?'' explained a young man in Beijing. ''If you smash it in public, you might get arrested, and if you smash it at home, you just have to sweep it up.''
In any case, even Communist Party officials acknowledge that the public is growing tired of Mr. Deng. Some of the pent-up hostility has come into the open after the death Saturday of the former party leader Hu Yaobang, who was ousted two years ago after being criticized by Mr. Deng for tolerating intellectual dissidents and student unrest. Deng's 'Stature Isn't Going Up'
In the early hours this morning at Tiananmen Square, the center of Beijing and the political focal point of China, white paper flowers fluttered in the breeze where mourners had left them to honor Mr. Hu. The only sign of litter was a freshly broken small bottle.
The last sentence is particularly interesting as it refers to "a freshly broken small bottle", in the singular form. Was there only one smashed bottle in the Tiananmen Square that morning?

The first big wreath to reach Tiananmen Square came from the University of Political Science and Law. Normally an ultra-conservative school, UPSL was never known for political activism. That was Beida's job. But in 1989, a group of graduates from Beida has settled in UPSL and formed a core of young teachers in that school, including Chen Xiaoping and Wu Renhua.

Chen Xiaoping learned about Hu Yaobang's death on the same day, before it was broadcast. He brought the sad news to UPSL and gathered his fellow young teachers in his dorm room. Wu Renhua proposed to build a wreath and place it under the Monument of People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square. They spent a day building the wreath, a big one indeed, and placed in front of the main building on campus to raw attention. An announcement accompanied the wreath, declaring the intention of sending the wreath to the Square next day. There was no organizer on the announcement, just a note saying anyone interested could join.

At 1pm on April 17 (Beijing Time), Chen, Wu, and others led their contingent of several hundreds out of the campus, with the wreath on a flatbed tricycle. Wu Renhua had a bottle of Maotai, the most famous spirit in China. He tied the bottle to the wreath, as a dedication to the dead in the traditional Chinese fashion. He didn't think much of it. But it would eventually come back to bite him in the aftermath of the Massacre, as the bottle was re-interpreted as an insult to Deng Xiaoping.

On that day, however, the possession marched through main streets of Beijing without incident, under the watchful eyes of police. They reached Tiananmen Square by 5pm. By now they had drawn a crowd of more than 5,000. Fearing for the situation getting out of control, they rushed through a simple dedication ceremony, sang The Internationale, and placed the wreath on the basis of the Monument.

The bottle on the wreath disappeared soon after they left. Someone might have smashed it in the Square. But there is no way to know if that is the one reported by NYT's Nicholas Kristof.

Beida's students, having been late out of the gate, also reached Tiananmen Square in the pre-dawn hour that night. They placed a gigantic banner, inscribed with three huge Chinese characters: China's Soul (中国魂), on the monument. More would be coming in the following days.

The Beida contingent was led by Wang Dan. And they did not immediately leave the Square the next day.

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