Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: Tiananmen Moon



Philip Cunningham's book Tiananmen Moon starts on May 3, 1989, the eve of a planned student demonstration at the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. Before long, we are led into a bizarre scene in which the author was accompanying famous rock star Cui Jian and Taiwanese promoter Lao Ni to Peking University at midnight to feel the pulse of next day by surveying the big posters there. The surreal mixture of clandestine, excitement and fear -- Cui Jian would not step out of the car, while the author and Lao Ni pretended to speak Japanese to hide the latter's true origin -- was conveyed with excellent story telling. From there the book leads readers deeper into the "inside stories" of the 1989 student movement.

There are already many first-person experience memoirs of the movement. Some are from student leaders which tend to concern more in how they led it than participate in it. Some are from foreign reporters who cast themselves as outside observers. Cunningham's book is unique in that he is both a no-name participant (although he was frequently bothered by unwanted attentions as a foreigner) and an avid observer; sometimes the mix of the two resulted in spats of anxiety and frustration. When he walked in the May Fourth march, peddled in the May Tenth bicycle rally, and later wandering around Tiananmen Square, he provided the most vivid ground-level experience of the movement. Then he was hired by BBC to help with their coverage of the events, he gained more access to the movement but also struggled with his presumed neutrality in that role. When tanks started to charge into the Square, however, he did momentarily abandon such pretense and join into the crowd to set up road blocks and even throw a rock at a tank.

Unlike some other books of the same nature written by western authors who witnessed the movement and inevitably became enthusiastic cheerleaders and advocates of their subject, Cunningham kept his cool throughout the book. Indeed, he was sometimes even distant and cynical in the face of the excitement and hysteria of a mass movement. He displayed great disdain and concern on the movement being controlled by a few self-claimed and faceless student leaders and the herd mentality, in the name of discipline, displayed by the protesting mass.

While he was observing and interviewing students gathering at Beijing Normal University to launch the hunger strike, he wrote:
It was sad and frustrating to meet such earnest young men and women, all apparently willing to put their lives on the line, only to hear them give pat answers, sometimes even grandiose answers, magnified by peer pressure. Did those nodding in approval realize they were urging psychologically confused, approval-hungry classmates to court death? To what end?
Such sharp observations and valuable insights were frequent in the narrative, although it is not at all clear whether they were formed at the time as the author described them or with the hindsight of history.


For those who have deeper interests in the history of the movement, this book is a must-read for its detailed description of how Chai Ling, the Commander-in-Chief of students at the time, made her famous "Last Word" videotape with the author's help. Since Chai Ling herself had been silent on the details of this highly controversial occurrence, this book, along with other recollections by the author, is the only first-hand account available. As his temporary gig with BBC dragged on to the end of May, Cunningham happened upon a brief meeting with Chai Ling at Tiananmen Square. Chai Ling was planning an escape then and asked Cunningham for help. The book includes many details surrounding this event that could provide perspectives in understanding the tape but still not yet well known, including:

  • Upon their initial meeting, Chai Ling inquired about the rumor that the British embassy was planning to offer refugee protection to student leaders.
  • Chai Ling hand-wrote a note to Cunningham authorizing him to speak on her behalf, presumably after her death or disappearance.
  • Chai Ling had planned to catch the first train out of Beijing after the taping with another student/bodyguard by the name of Wang Li but not with her then-husband and fellow student leader Feng Congde. She later changed her mind after she decided to take one last look of Tiananmen Square
  • Although Cunningham was worried about the danger this tape could bring, Chai Ling insisted on its publication (contrary to her current claim). They contacted a few western media in Beijing but only found ABC News showing interest.
  • After reuniting with Feng Congde, the couple still planned to be leave Beijing together, before the tape was to be aired by ABC News (which did not actually happen).

Feng Congde has disputed some of the facts that involved him. In her own recent autobiography, however, Chai Ling chose to ignore all such details when defending herself only on general terms. She blamed Cunningham for making the tape public without her permission.


Published in 2010, Tiananmen Moon is actually a much better organized and narrated version of what the author published with the title Reaching for the Sky previously in 1999. But it is not without its shortcomings. Since the book jumped right in the middle of the movement, it felt sudden and out-of-place. (The author was not in Beijing in that April when the movement initially broke out.) It did not mention the great demonstration on April 27 which preceded and is arguably much more important than the one on May 4 at the beginning of this book.

Tiananmen Moon is restricted to what the author saw and experienced and does not attempt to give the whole picture of the movement. (The Chai Ling videotape story is the only occasion where leadership figures appeared.) The author did try to supplement his own observations with those of several of his female friends who were Chinese students. Although one of them did join the hunger strike, they all appeared to be more of casual participants or bystanders in the larger picture. It may be difficult for readers of this book to understand why the students were protesting and so on -- this may even be intentional on the author's part, as there are no ready answers.


But overall, this is the best Tiananmen book so far in recording the street-level experiences of the movement.


Books about Tiananmen


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