The following review is written by a 16-year-old "bibliophile" growing up in the US, whose mother was an active participant in the 1989 Chinese student movement. It was originally posted on the author's own blog and is reproduced here with permission.
STANDOFF AT TIANANMEN - EDDIE CHENG
Can I have a congratulatory pat on the back? BECAUSE I. HAVE. FINISHED!
Though how much I actually remember is a different story.
Trying to collect my thoughts about it is something of a different story, because had one thing gone differently, I might not even exist. So obviously, it’s something I feel strongly about, something I feel strongly connected to, beyond just the “human spirit” and the human desire for free will and a voice that was so exemplified here.
But being emotional doesn’t help anyone in a review of a nonfiction book. So, I will try not to.
To be honest, I don’t know shit about the Tiananmen Square Protests (and subsequent massacre) beyond the (little) that my mother has told me of her own experience (she was a grad student at Beijing Normal University at the time, and was among the protesters in the Square). So I don’t know how accurate it is — and, given the secrecy of the Chinese government, I doubt we’ll ever get acompletely accurate account of what went down in the Square — especially concerning the number dead (Chinese officials say that only a few hundred died, whereas most estimates rank it in the thousands).
I am inclined to trust this account, though, simply because there is a level of objectivity in the book — though many of the protesters were his peers, the author was studying in America at the time, and he does not seek to glorify the students or the student leaders as many (mainly Westerners, I find — in watching a short Al Jazeera documentary, Wu’er Kaixi, one of the main student leaders from Beijing Normal University, does express certain amounts of regret about how they handled the incident, whereas people like my APUSH teacher and my art teacher tend to romanticise the incident as an exercise in democracy) do. He does not seek to make martyrs of the people dead — though martyrs they were — there were flaws and in-fighting and factions and a highly hierarchical "government," as it were.
And because he is a peer of the student leaders, he does have access many first-hand accounts and primary resources that make his book credible.
I get the sense that the protesters were not truly protesting for democracy but rather against totalitarianism, which is a very interesting concept, as many people regard them as one and the same. The students were very careful not to make themselves opponents of the government, but rather patriots who wanted to reform it. (My mother and her peers were raised in a society that taught reverence to the government and to Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-dong) — she remembers saying “万岁万岁万万岁 (essentially — “long live”)” to portraits of Mao, as you would to an emperor, so it’s very hard to openly and abjectly criticise something which has had a more paternalistic role in your life for so long.)
I didn’t realise how hard it would be to feel any sort of sympathy for the student leaders. I came into this wanting to revere them for their bravery and their idealism and their sacrifices, but it’s so hard to do that, especially in retrospect, when you see that if they had just listened to those who were older and wiser than they, instead of just rushing impetuously into drastic action (the hunger strike, the sit-in), they could have prevented so much bloodshed. When you see how, if they’d only kept their mouths shut at certain critical periods, if they’d only opened them during others, if they’d only done a better job organising and uniting the other students, China may have been a democracy — a true democracy, perhaps even a socialist democracy (I will not deny that that is my favourite form of government) — by now.
Maybe I’m influenced by my mother’s opinions (of course I’m influenced by my mother’s opinions), but I found Chai Ling and Li Lu to be extremely unlikeable (and I don’t mean that to be critiques of their representation, and certainly I would never say such a thing in a review of a novel, where likeability isn’t a factor into how strong the novel is, but these are real people whose actions have had real consequences for thousands of people who lost their lives or their loved ones or their futures that day). Wu’er Kaixi I can tolerate, if only by virtue of the remorse he showed. Liu Gang and Feng Congde and Shen Tong I can stand — I can like, even (I’m following Shen Tong on Twitter) — but that Chai Ling took every suggestion Li Lu had without even critiquing or thinking about them first, that she was the one who lead the students into the hunger strike (there had been rumours that the government was willing to cooperate prior to this), that she let her tears instead of her brain do the reasoning — is extremely obnoxious to me. These are real people she was toying with, not tin soldiers.
If I were honest with myself, which I should be — this whole Tumblr is supposed to be dedicated to my growth as a person, as pretentious as that inevitably sounds — the writing kind of…sucked.
It wasn’t horrid, but it was so boring. He was trying to cover too much ground. The book had neither flow nor form, and the only reason I read it is because this movement means so much to me. Had it meant only a smidgen less, I would have surely put it down. (I would recommend that everyone read it, because I think it is a relatively unbiased portrayal of one of the most important events of the 20th century and has severe implications in the 21st, but it takes a certain amount of gumption, I would say, to a person with my reading tastes.)
There was endless history about the movement — the stressing of the April 15th (was it 15th?) and May 4th movements, Tiananmen’s connection with the French Revolution, the backgrounds of each of the student leaders, the background of the American-founded Beijing University — and not enough about the movement itself (it seemed to be more of a rundown of events, and did not discuss the impact or the implications of the movement — globally and domestically — enough for my taste).
For a book about the “Standoff at Tiananmen,” rather than a detailing of each of the student leaders’ lives, I read far too much about where they came from and who their families were.
When he does get to the movement — and the massacre itself, though, it’s probably best to have a box of tissues nearby. I was literally sobbing into my pillow — not because the language he used was particularly evocative (I can’t exactly fault him for that — his English is better than my mother’s, and like her, he was an immigrant), but because what happened was simply so awful.
Overall, I would hesitate to say that this was a bad book, though certainly there were aspects of it that could have been so, so much better. The language was stilted, much of the background unnecessary (for example, we do not have to know the geography of the Beijing University, merely that it has a tradition of heading political movements), but nevertheless, it is an important chronicle of an important event.
Sorry about this rambling, half-incoherent wall of text, though. And also the lack of a conclusion. Can I blame it on my tiredness? Or is that not sufficient?
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