Friday, May 1, 2009


The post that follows, excerpted from "Tiananmen Moon," describes the mood at Beijing Normal University in between the Tiananmen-bound marches of April 27 and May 4, 1989.

...We ended up gravitating to one of the informal “democracy walls” on campus to scan the latest posters.


Until recently, most of the student posters that could be found on campus, pasted onto walls with or without permission, were handbills and fliers about upcoming dances, drama productions, and club activities. Then there were the official bulletin boards erected and maintained by school authorities, authorized messages stamped and approved, locked behind glass cases, mostly unremarkable news items, laced with rote propaganda. Newspapers like the People’s Daily were exhibited in a similar fashion.

The biggest of the informal democracy walls was right across from the Insider Guest House. Given the central location and the ceaseless foot traffic in an area which boasted the campus shop, the post office, a tiny branch of the Xinhua bookstore, three food halls, the hot water shack and the campus baths, the long unadorned wall which ran along the side of the girl’s dorm was a great place to post messages.


The footpath saw considerable traffic on regular days but today it was all a tangle. The gray brick walls of the girl’s dorm were covered from top to bottom with hand-written posters, the day’s bulletins freshly pasted on top of the tattered remnants of yesterday’s news.

“HOW MUCH LONGER CAN WE GO ON LIKE THIS?” entreated a poster citing corruption as the key. The ink-brushed illustration showed a mop-haired scholar in tattered clothes bearing the weight of a fat bald official on his back, loaded down with a TV set, a sexy female, loose cash and a club.

A short distance away there was a similar profusion of political manifestos pasted on the wall of the hot water shack; the campus equivalent of the village well.

Every student visited this condensation soaked, steam-blowing shack at least once a day to fill a thermos with scalding hot water. It was more than a place to replenish a day’s supply of drinking water, which bubbled out of the tap hot enough to make tea, but also a place to find out the latest news and gossip. Like the dorm wall, the outside wall of the hot water shack was so aggressively plastered with posters, original poetry and strident pronouncements, that one would have to visit several times a day to keep up.

Ling and I skirted the crush to scan the latest posters, closing in on a promising stretch of wall to study. Reading was difficult enough for us foreigners, given the diverse styles of calligraphy, but getting a clear line of sight was thwarted by the determination of students in front not to budge until they had jotted down, word for word, a personal copy of the inspiring poems and provocative messages, all the more precious for their wind-blown, papery transience. Some of them riffed on the contrast of the original May Fourth and this year’s anniversary.


I knew about the once fervid hopes invested in “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy” from my study of Republican China, but there was stuff about princelings too, not of the Qing Dynasty but the Communist Party. There was a vicarious thrill in seeing critiques alleging nepotism and corruption in high places, veiled criticisms of the communists in power if not the system itself. Then there’d be a poster calling for a student strike, partially covered up by another poster saying the activist students were fools, which in turn was covered up by an even more strident call to strike.

Certain repetitive buzz words started to emerge from the mass of messily written polemics.


I stepped back a bit to remove myself from the scrum of earnest scribes when I sensed someone was watching me. I turned around and there she was, a beautiful someone, a someone I wanted to see. Someone I would like to have seen more often, and would have seen more often had she not imposed strict limits to the terms of our interaction with the words “I can’t. This is China.”

“Jin Peili!” she called me by my Chinese name, beaming.
“Bright,” I answered, using her nickname. We looked at each other and couldn't stop smiling. She was so willowy and graceful, I felt like hugging her. But then I thought better of it. Now that things on campus were more politicized than ever, I realized that the need to keep a polite distance, or at least the appearance of such, would be greater than ever.

I looked around to see if we were being observed. In accordance with the low-key paranoia common at the time, I even wondered if there might not be informants and undercover agents in the gathering immediately around us.

Bright’s alert eyes required only a quick glance in my direction to understand what I was feeling.

"Don't worry,” she said in a reassuring voice, her eyes now smiling. “No problem. It’s safe. Things are different now."
"Are you not afraid of being seen with me?"
"Why do you say that?" she said, tugging on my arm playfully.
"Well, you know, the April 27 demo..."
"Oh that? It was really exciting. The police pushed and shoved but we broke through, and it was hot, in the sun all day and by the time we got back..."
"You what? You, Little Conservative, were in that demo? You?" I asked in disbelief. "That was illegal wasn't it?"
"Things are really different now. The students, we have more power, China is changing..."

So it was, apparently. Bright was changing too. Here was the young woman who had once asked me to pretend not to know her in public places because she didn't want her teachers to know she had a foreign friend. Here was the woman who could effortlessly join the Party and become an elite bureaucrat due to her family’s top connections.
Just then, Jenny came running over.

“Aiyo! It is good to see you” she exclaimed.
“Win any medals lately?” I asked. She loved sports.
"Remember that sandstorm in ’87, when the sky turned all yellow and thick with dust?”
"Only Jin Peili would think of bringing the guitar and having a picnic in the middle of a violent dust storm!" laughed Jenny.

We all exchanged some small talk. A foreign student had been killed in a traffic accident; there was a tightening of regulations that put limits on inter-racial fraternization. Foreign students had been told by their teachers to stay away from the protests or risk expulsion. The bans on fraternization were just the sort of thing that got under my skin and had been the bane of my existence in China. After a burst of student unrest in late 1986 and early 1987, which involved demonstrations in provincial capitals such as Hefei in the central China province of Anhui, and in the metropolis of Shanghai, there was a crackdown on inter-racial relations in the hifalutin’ name of combating “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalization” which translated, in simple terms, into police messing with people’s personal lives, a sense of which I tried to convey in a film script called Chinabeat. A few of my friends read it and liked it; even filmmaker Chen Kaige found it intriguing, especially the irony of family members spying on one another, but all agreed it was too touchy for the moment.

A posse of foreign journalists turned the corner by the hot water shack and came traipsing past us, loaded down with TV cameras, boom microphones, aluminum ladders and boxes of other gear. I knew a few foreign journalists but a quick glance was enough to tell me I didn't know any of them.

Suddenly I was faced with an old conundrum. Should I say hello to the other foreigners?

In China, especially in settings where foreigners were rare, I often found myself curious about whom the other foreigner might be, but did it really make sense to be friendly to a stranger just because they weren’t Chinese? If I saw a white person walking down the street in New York it is unlikely I would be prompted to say hello, so why here? Why? Just because they're also white?

However, to eschew contact with other foreigners out of “sensitivity” to the feelings of Chinese friends made no sense either, especially since so many Chinese seemed to assume it only natural that the handful of white people resident in Beijing should want to know each other, if they didn’t know each other already. After all, isn’t that what friendship stores and friendship hotels were all about, creating a habitat where foreign “friends” could be with their own kind?
Bright, Jenny and Ling Shuying were overly familiar with my misgivings on the topic and immediately started teasing.

"Look, they're your compatriots.”
“Why don't you talk to them?"
“Say hi to the laowai for me!”

I turned my attention to the retreating journalists, trying to decipher the logos on their gear, wondering what bureau they were from, but by the time I had made up my mind to "talk to my own kind," most of them had passed by, too tired or absorbed in their own thoughts to even notice me. Then on an impulse, to amuse the girls as much as anything else, I decided to approach one of the stragglers in a show of inter-Caucasian solidarity.

"Oh, hi. Hey, how’s it goin’?” I offered. “So, what brings you to campus?"
"Eh? Vat you say? I no understand, you see?" The man, evidently European, responded brusquely in an undecipherable accent.
"Never mind," I said, nodding goodbye.

It took Jenny only a brief exchange of whispers with some passing dorm-mates to get the information I had failed to obtain.

"There was a student press conference for foreign journalists," she explained. "It was in Southwest Dorm, you know, near my old room."
"A press conference in that dorm?" It sounded incongruous, even absurd, given the run-down condition of that particular boy’s dorm, where puddles and garbage in the hallways were not an uncommon sight.
"That's where Wuerkaixi lives. You know Wuerkaixi, don’t you?" Bright and Jenny smiled knowingly. I’d heard of his reputation as a playboy, but the name drew a blank for our friend from Japan.
"He's just a freshmen, he's from Xinjiang, he's a Muslim, from the Uighur minority,” Bright explained. “Do you know, he actually has an accent in his Chinese!" Bright looked at me, for she often teased me about my accent. She was trying to make me feel better, or at least less alone.

And she had a point. Foreigners often find common ground with China's minority peoples because they share a common distaste for, and are often victims of, Han Chinese chauvinism. Minority group members, like foreigners, are sometimes given special privileges, but it doesn’t begin to make up for the systemic racism that they endure, and unlike foreigners, China is their only home, the People’s Republic passport the only traveling papers they can ever hope to acquire.

Wuerkaixi piqued my curiosity. There was something appealingly impudent about him, why he didn’t even go by a Chinese name! I had already surmised he was a master at playing the minority card, he had earned a campus reputation for being outspoken, but sometimes it’s easier to be outspoken when you lack normal status and have nothing to lose. He could afford to be different because he was different. In a political culture where the majority group tends to straitjacket itself with a kind of groupthink, there were subtle advantages in being a minority out of the loop.

"There was an article about him in a foreign newspaper," I recalled. “How many students at Shida can say that? And he's got a father in a high position, doesn't he?"
"I don't know," Bright continued, "but he likes to talk big even though he's just a freshman. You know he's in the Education department. He has a girlfriend, she always goes with him."
Somehow it made me annoyed and a little jealous to hear Bright talking about someone who spoke Chinese with an accent, and who was “always” with his girlfriend on this supposedly puritanical campus. How many times did she make herself scarce with the words, “This is China"?
"Let's get something to eat!" I suggested. “How about the Happy Masses?”

The Happy Masses Canteen was a food hall slightly more upscale than the student cafeteria, if only very slightly so. Not only was the food a bit better, but Bright and Jenny would be free from the gaze of fellow students. Happy Masses was luxurious in the sense that it provided dishware and chopsticks, unlike the Spartan food hall assembly lines that required one to carry one’s own utensils and a metallic bowl into which the servers would slop out generous portions of hot food. On our way there, we passed the hot water shack, which was already jam-packed; the evening rush hour for hot water and hot air had begun.

Beautiful calligraphy was displayed on all four walls of the boxy dining room, but it was hard to appreciate due to the harsh reflection of the overhead fluorescent lights on the glass-covered picture frames. In keeping with the price differential, one only had to stand on line three times --first to purchase your meal coupons, then to order your dishes and finally to order your drinks-- but the lines were short and you didn't have to bring your own utensils and there were usually more than enough seats for everyone to sit down. This was one of the cafeterias frequented by the campus elite, those who had perhaps only pennies more in pocket money, mainly teachers, lowly officials and graduate students.

One distinctive feature of this eatery was the wooden furniture. Perhaps due to the work of an exuberant or drunken carpenter, the round wooden tables were oversized, rising about a foot higher than usual, well above comfortable elbow height, with the comical result that diners looked like a bunch of kids sitting at a table built for adults. White plastic tablecloths graced the altar-like tables, signaling not only that this was a class institution, but also that one could eat with abandon because the mess was easy to clean up. Beer and orange soda, mostly imbibed from bowls rather than glasses, left puddles and spills all over tables dotted with chicken bones, gristle and heaps of the other unwanted food matter, a lapse of decorum you wouldn’t easily get away with in the student canteen. Was it acceptable to leave a mess because one paid more or was it the other way around?

For the luxury of thoughtful food in this cheerful but thoughtless environment one had to pay twice the price of the student canteen, but even so, a meal could be had for less than a dollar. Like elsewhere on campus, food was purchased with meal coupons rather than cash, but the Happy Masses meal tickets were not interchangeable with either Chinese Canteen meal tickets or the Foreign Canteen meal tickets, so I always ended up with a pocketful of incompatible plastic coupons.

After dinner in the hot, noisy and smoke-filled canteen, we take a walk to reacquaint ourselves with relatively fresh air. Eventually we sit down on a bench outside Southwest Dorm, the same one that had been graced by the foreign journalists a short while ago and which remained unusually agitated, even now. A makeshift PA system rigged up by the student activists emitted a non-stop crackle and hiss as self-appointed campus leaders took turns making breathless political statements that mirrored Hot Water Shack announcements.


The three of us settled into a comfortable cacophony of the courtyard, watching people come and go by, observing a line of thermos-clutching students snake around the water shack, trying to make sense of the latest posters. Political polemics done up in a fine hand of calligraphy were interspersed with dance and drama announcements on rectangles of colored paper, taking on an artful aspect from where we sat.

The homely soot-stained brick walls of the coal-fired shack concealed a utility most indispensable; it provided sterilized drinking water for thousands. Inside the shack, a dozen spigots fed thirsty thermos bottles, while an elongated cement sink contained any scalding spills. When things were going full bore, the inside of the shack was like a steam room, thick with fog.
At twilight the atmosphere on campus became borderline magical, the harsh details of unsightly facilities faded into shadow, the little indignities of the day all but forgotten. In the lingering glow of a spring sunset we watched students dodge in and out of billowing clouds of steam.

Nearby, clusters of socially guarded but physically at-ease students lounged about, memorizing vocabulary, singing pop songs, picking their noses or just hitching up their trousers legs to enjoy a furtive smoke. In addition to the usual joking around, shouts of laughter and the constant hum of conversation, there was the crackle of announcements about going on strike and heated political talk. The fact that several hundred people were packed and pressed together in a courtyard the size of a tennis court did not make it seem crowded. Places like this only felt crowded when you were in a rush or didn't want to be around other people.

People accustomed to communal living conditions learn to move with a certain grace and agility. The flow of the water-gatherers was joined by a stream of bathers, washbowls, shampoo and towels in hand, going to and from the campus bath. Just around the corner were the pool-sized bathtubs said to serve over ten thousand bathers daily. The bathhouse generously accommodated a seemingly endless stream of sweaty, sticky and smelly individuals, only to emit, an hour or so later, an equal number of squeaky clean, rosy-cheeked students with wet hair dripping on towels wrapped around the neck.

Wafts of steam and the scent of shampoo permeated the dusty evening air. Freshly scrubbed students paused to chat on their way back to their congested rooms in nightclothes and pajamas. Campus life was not luxurious by most standards, but the sheer mass synchronicity of little rituals centered around procuring one’s daily dose of hot rice, hot water and a hot shower made for poignant moments.

This evening the mood was grounded in just such habitual rhythms, so calming and restful, but it was also laced with a touch of political idealism; life in China at its best.