Resilience Does Not Forget: June 4, 1989 by Sherry Cheng

Years after a catastrophe, resilience continues to express itself. Memory lets us relive and reinterpret past events, unpacking things that overwhelmed us and growing our response over time. It is not an easy process. The approach of a date, a particular smell, image, or snippet of music can send us back to a deeply fearful place. Some try to forget, but the things we hide from the daylight have a way of resurfacing in our dreams. Unexpressed emotions can be powerful poisons. A world that suppresses history is a world in which violence simmers continually just beneath the collective consciousness. Resilience grows in the soil of our stories, informing the people we become, passing through us into our relationships and communities. We must share with one another if we want to survive.

This prose poem is the work of my friend, Sherry Cheng, a vibrant, warm and intelligent Chinese American woman who came to the United States in her teenage years. In it, she relates how the catastrophic events that happened in Tiananmen Square on a fateful day in 1989 impacted her, her family and her future husband. Her raw honesty speaks volumes, simple and clear. There cannot be many things more terrifying than a government that kills, imprisons and intimidates people with impunity.

Let me set the stage. On June 4, 1989, a peaceful, student-led protest is violently suppressed by the Chinese government, as the military, armed with rifles and tanks, kills at least several hundred unarmed people in Tiananmen Square. The images of tanks plowing down students shocks the world. Wei, Sherry’s future husband, is at the Central Conservatory, where he studies viola. Almost a decade before he will meet his wife, he steps out of the conservatory into a war zone. Sherry is sixteen and sits in front of a television set in an apartment in Starkville, MS, as horrific reports of the violence in her homeland flood the screen. Sherry’s aunt, a student at the University of Chicago who had taken donations from Americans to the student protesters at Tiananmen Square, boards a plane back to Chicago with her three year old son. She is also pregnant. Plain clothes police waiting on the plane meet her and take her and her son to prison. They will be missing for nearly two weeks, while her family uses every connection they have to find them. It will take a couple of months and a promise that she will never again be politically active for the family to secure their release.

Violence is not an anonymous phenomenon. The aggressors, the injured, the killed, the witnesses: they all have faces.


June 4, 1989

29 years ago today the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square,
bullets flew overhead while a young man lay prostrate on the ground right outside the Central Conservatory gates.
He saw a little girl shot down,
an innocent bystander,
her Mother wailing.

A 16 year old girl across the ocean sat transfixed,
as events transpired on her TV screen.
She could not control her tears as images passed by of bloodied bodies piled on makeshift carts.

Hope turned to fear that day and for months after.
Innocent deaths, interrogations, terror, arrests…
The girl’s aunt, who had helped distribute funds to the peaceful protesters,
disappeared from the airport on route to Chicago,
her whereabouts unknown for weeks.
She had her 3 year old son with her, as well as another one on the way.

Fast forward 29 years…
I mark this day every year because forgetting is easy,
even for those who experienced the terror first hand,
like my husband.
even for those who believed so strongly in an ideal that they would’ve given their lives for it,
like my aunt.
Because life does go on.
We move forward.

So many have forgotten.
For each new generation the memory grows dimmer.
History is reevaluated and reinterpreted.
Black and white, right and wrong, everything is blurred.
Amnesia sets in. Ideals are lost.

But I’m still here, so is Wei.
We carry that history with us.
We will tell our stories every year,
even when no one is listening.


Icons of Irony: The Grinning Faces of Yue Minjun

What remains when our faith in the institutions around us is shattered? Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s work gives an answer.

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun, Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Yue Minjun was born in the town of Daqing, China in 1962. His parents were nomadic oil field workers and he seemed destined to follow in their footsteps, but a brush with art during his high school years planted a seed in his soul. Minjun, like many others of his generation, was working hard to survive. He became an electrician at an oil firm while a teenager and later took a job drilling for oil on deep sea rigs, all the while indulging in his passion for painting. He would go for days without sleep, balancing his career with his calling. It wasn’t an easy time for anyone in China; at least his art gave him a creative outlet for his angst.

In April 1989, the former Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, died. He had been a liberal voice against hardliners controlling the government, a champion of young people fed up with inflation, corruption and limited opportunities. Students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mourn him and to call for the freedoms for which he stood. Over the course of the next seven weeks, around a million people assembled, drawing the attention of the international community. Panicked at the prospect of losing control and at smaller protests breaking out across the country, the Chinese government declared martial law. The world watched in horror as 300,000 troops with assault rifles and tanks killed unarmed civilians. Images streamed over western television of young men and women standing bravely before tanks that rolled mercilessly over them, crushing their bodies and the hopes of Chinese youth. But that spirit is far more resilient than anyone expected.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995 Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.

Yue Minjun, Execution, 1995
Inspired by the events at Tiananmen Square, but not a depiction of that horrible day.
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Minjun had grown up relying on police and the state for a sense of order and protection, but the Tiananmen Square Massacre and subsequent crackdowns shattered his faith in the government, as well as the idea that he could continue his former lifestyle. In 1990, he quit his job and moved to Hongmiao, an artist’s collective in Beijing, where he began to paint and sculpt with a vengeance. Most of his output consists of images or figures of himself laughing, wide-mouthed, toothy, grinning at the edge of madness. The biting irony of this smiling figure who holds pain in his heart has great resonance in China and beyond, making Minjun an artistic and commercial success.

Amaze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun image © Wee Sen Goh with CCLicense

Part of A-Maze-ing Laughter, Yue Minjun, Vancouver
image © Wee Sen Goh
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

© Cameron Norman with CCLicense

A-Maze-ing Laughter, Vancouver © Cameron Norman with CCLicense

The meaning of his grin is intentionally vague. Is it frivolous escapism or is it a confrontational espousal of emotion from a man trained at a young age to mask his feelings? Minjun has been labelled a leader of the Cynical Realism movement, a group of Chinese artists who mock themselves and society to make a point. He does not accept the label. Doubtless there is an element of ridicule and mockery in his work, and he certainly attacks convention and social norms, but, I think that, rather than depicting insincerity or even cynicism, Minjun’s figures depict a taunting resilience. It’s as if he is saying, “I’m still here and I’m still laughing,” the artistic equivalent of thumbing the nose or flipping the bird. I admire his boldness immensely.

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Image via Chinese Contemporary Art Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005 via the Saatchi Gallery  Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Untitled, 2005
via the Saatchi Gallery
Used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Despite his fame, Minjun keeps a relatively low profile, living in the Songzhuang art colony, the most famous and largest artistic community in Beijing. He has shown work all over the globe, from Singapore and China to London, Vancouver and the United States.

He’s still laughing.


Image used in accordance with Fair Use Policy