My art does not tend to be political. I am more interested in exploring the human imagination and its quest for meaning as revealed through myth, culture and story. However, today was June 4 and, upon its 25th anniversary, I found myself reflecting upon China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – and not for the reason you might think. I was attending art school at the time, my sophomore year about to give way to summer break, so those young protestors putting themselves in harm’s way were the same age I was – full of ideas and a natural human desire to express them. They were attempting to secure for themselves those fundamental freedoms that I in the United States took for granted.
So it was, as I attended a college actively teaching me how to think outside the box and encouraging me to express my ideas openly and creatively, that I suddenly became fully aware of the billions of people who live in political systems where freedom of speech and of expression is far from guaranteed and often nonexistent – places where it is literally dangerous to claim these simple freedoms as basic human rights. My understanding of such places to that point had been purely intellectual – seeing the instantly famous images like the one of the loan student facing down an entire column of tanks made it real for me. Here were young people putting their lives on the line for something I woke up with every morning – the freedom to express themselves without fear.
Only a handful of places can compare with the level of government censorship endured by the people of China. Surely North Korea has taken it to even greater extremes and I cannot help but pity those who are forced to live in such abject darkness. But however distasteful I find the suffering of those living in that type of closed-circuit system – shut off as they are from the world around them – what gave me reason to reflect was an article in the Los Angeles Times. It tells the story of how, despite the government’s best efforts to seal them, people continue to find creative new ways to shine slivers of light through the cracks. Every year, it seems, there is a dangerous game of cat and mouse being played between small groups of citizens trying to keep the memory of Tiananmen Square alive and the government who is trying to eradicate all record of it. This has forced protestors to be innovative and to find ever more creative ways of sharing their story.
Just as 9-11 has become short hand for one of the greatest tragedies in American history, many Chinese came to refer to the events at Tiananmen Square as simply 6-4. When censors realized this, they established a ban on this number combination for weeks before and after the infamous date. People reacted by calling it May 35th or 63+1 to get past the censors and I imagine this worked a few times before officials caught on. As stated in the article, “as the date gets closer, even words as innocuous as tomorrow and today are often banned from the Chinese Internet.”
Since signs and banners are prohibited in the square, one group tried to get thousands of people to come to the site and join together to perform “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables. I have yet to hear whether this flash mob style protest succeeded and, if it did, I am waiting with fingers crossed to see if someone managed to capture it on their smartphone and smuggle it onto the internet. Innovation and creativity has kept the events of 1989 alive. Again the article tells how someone armed only with a deck of playing cards took a photo at the square directly behind a guard, arranging a hand to display cards that read 8,9,6,4 (in reference to the date) and A,K,4,7 (referring to the rifles that cut down so many innocent students 25 years ago). They blocked their face with the fanned out display to avoid the punishment that would surely befall them were they to be caught by authorities.
To me, these attempts and the hundreds like them, demonstrate that the human spirit will always find a way to express itself despite any and all attempts to oppress it and that the capacity of the human imagination to find a crack no matter how thick the wall, is truly boundless.
You can read the Los Angeles Times article in its entirety here.