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Revolution in the Streets: in Tiananmen Square with my Father, May 1989

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the mass demonstrations and eventual violent crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Amazingly, my father and I were in in the square just two weeks earlier, before the violence began, when up to a million people were flooding into the city to voice their dissent in peaceful protests. I recently discovered a cache of photos in my parents' basement so thought it would be fun to interview my father -- a Southeast Asia specialist and historian -- about his recollections and also hear his thoughts on China today. What follows are some photos from our experience but you can find the full story on the podcast (click here to listen).

My father and I flashing the "peace sign" in Tiananmen Square, May 1989

After finishing degrees in French and philosophy I decided to jump down from my "Ivory Tower" and get out into the world, so I signed up to teach English in China. I spent the 1988-89 school year at a big university in Guangzhou (Canton) called Zhongshan Da Xue (Sun Yat-sen University). My father (Dr. William J. Duiker) was a professor of Southeast Asian History at Penn State University and just happened to be coming to China, so I went up to join him in Beijing just as the city was being rocked by anti-government demonstrations.

Click on the podcast tab (above in menu) or find me at your favorite podcast provider via this link in Buzzsprout to hear my interview. My father retired 20 years ago but he has kept up with global events as co-author of one of America's best-selling college history textbooks (you can also check out his masterwork, the Pulitzer-nominated biography of Ho Chi Minh). Here are a few of the photos that we took during our time there. Unfortunately we didn't take many and the quality isn't great, but it gives you an idea of what it was like.

Both my father and I spoke Mandarin Chinese at the time, though his was much better than mine, so we were able to converse with the people we met in the square.

What was going through my head???

The banner below says something like "collective responsibility, one-man rule" (basically criticizing the despotic nature of Chinese leadership).

I remembered it being like a big party and was excited to see the young people engaged in their future, but my father knew what a risk they were running and how unpredictable the government could be.

The event was covered by all foreign media, which of course meant that anyone seen in video footage later could be interrogated, imprisoned, or worse...

Banners criticizing Deng Xiao-ping and inspiring people to join the fight
Zhou En-lai was a moderate in the government of Mao Tse-tung

The Monument to the People's Heroes was built just after the founding of the People's Republic of China under Mao in 1949, and it became the focal point for the demonstrations of 1989. Some students began a hunger-strike and were housed in tents around the ten-story obelisk, dubbed "the Freedom Monument."

We left Beijing after a few days and later saw a small demonstration in the countryside outside of Guilin, a small town known for its towering karst-limestone mountains. Here below there's a banner reading "oppose dictatorship, support democratic society."

We also saw this, taken directly from the American revolutionary Patrick Henry (I have blurred the faces to avoid incriminating anyone!)

The American Revolution was an inspiration to many!
Biking in the countryside around Guilin

The experience was a powerful lesson for me, as I realized how naive I had been to encourage my students to go out and "stand up for their rights" as if there would be no consequences. After the trip with my father I returned to my university, where classes were canceled and foreign teachers were told to go home. I never saw my students again and will never know what happened to them.

My parents and I still travel together and they're both still fascinated by Asia. Our last big trip together was in January of 2020 (a cruise through Latin America, below), just as news reports were starting to talk about a new virus discovered in Wuhan...

谢谢 Xièxie! Thanks for joining me on this trip down memory lane, and see you again soon! If you enjoyed your tour you can drop a couple of yuan into the tip jar to help me through this interminable furlough. One day soon I hope to be able to guide in person again!

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