Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. In 2009, The Paris Review published Liao Yiwu’s “Nineteen Days,” an essay in which he chronicles his imprisonment after the atrocity. He wasn’t there, but in his outrage he recorded a poem, which was enough to get him arrested for years. His piece is a haunting testament of a nation still struggling to reckon with the import of the event:
Three years after the massacre, I was in jail. Five years later, police were stationed in front of my house. Seven years later, there were sporadic memorial activities organized by individuals or small groups—petition letters, candlelight vigils, the burning of paper money to appease the dead, poetry readings, and hunger strikes. On the tenth anniversary, I repeated my poem “Massacre” for an overseas radio station by chanting and yelling into my telephone receiver … I remembered the story of Sun Jinxuan, a poet who died of lung cancer in late 2002. On June 4 that year, he woke up with pain. He called a dozen of his friends, most of whom were poets, writers, and celebrities. The first thing he asked on the phone was: “Do you know what day it is?” … Believe it or not, I was the only one who correctly pointed out the anniversary. Sun felt embarrassed and outraged by the answers of his friends. He yelled loudly on the phone, announcing that he intended to stage a one-person demonstration on the street. His slogan would be: “Killings, killings. No memories, no memories.”
In China, June 4 is also known as “Internet Maintenance Day”; authorities censor Weibo, a Chinese social network like Twitter, making it next to impossible for anyone to recognize or remark upon the political weight of the occasion. As a post on Language Log attests, the list of redacted words is remarkably thorough: even the usage of a simple word like today is enough to merit suppression. Subversive workarounds like “May 35,” a coded reference to June 4, are blocked, too, as are many others:
- 今天: today
- 89＋（任意字符）: 89+(any keyword)
- 廿五周年: twenty-fifth anniversary
- 致敬: pay respects
- viiv: Roman numerals for six and four, i.e. June 4th (“Six Four” 六四).
- 己巳月+乙未日: Jisi month+Yiwei day. In the traditional 60-year cycle, the first term is equivalent to May-June 1989, the second to a number of dates in the same year including June 4.
- june 4
- 六+四: six+four
- 六4: six4
- 6四: 6four
- liusi: pinyin for “Six Four” (六四 Liù Sì)
- bajiu: pinyin for “Eight Nine” (八九 Bā Jiǔ), i.e. 1989
- 陆肆: six four
- 陆四: six four
- 六肆: six four
- 捌玖: eight nine
- 捌九: eight nine
- 八玖: eight nine
- 六four: six FOUR (combination of Chinese character and English)
- six四: SIX four (combination of character and English)
- 8的平方: square of 8, i.e. 64
- 八的平方: square of eight
- 祭奠: memorial ceremony
- 黑衫: black shirt
- 烛光: candlelight
- 维园: Victoria Park – a candlelight vigil for victims of the crackdown is held every year in Victoria Park, Hong Kong.
- 蜡烛: candle
- 平反: redress
- tank man
- TAM: short for Tiananmen
- 天安门: Tiananmen
- 广场: square
- 占占人: characters used as pictures to respresent a person standing in front of tanks
- 占占点: person being crushed by tanks
- 占点占: person being crushed by tanks
- 反官倒: oppose official profiteering
- 坦克: tank
- 戒严: impose martial law
- 学运: student movement
- 学潮: student strike
- 北京＋屠城: Beijing+massacre all the inhabitants of a conquered city
- 丁子霖: Ding Zilin – Mother of a teenager killed on June 4th and founder of the organization Tiananmen Mothers.
- 邓屠夫: Deng The Butcher – i.e. Deng Xiaoping
- 胡耀邦: Hu Yaobang – Liberal Party leader whose death on April 8, 1989 sparked pro-democracy protests
- 赵紫阳: Zhao Ziyang – Hu’s successor as Party General Secretary. For his support of the student protesters, Zhao was purged from the Party and put under house arrest for the rest of his life.
- 袁木: Yuan Mu – State Council Information Office spokesman during the 1989 protests and apologist for the regime.
- 严家其: Yan Jiaqi – sociology student who went into exile in the US.
Of course, there’s no way to stop linguistic ingenuity, and users in China were quick to discover alternatives. “1-9-8-9” was among them, until the officials caught up; more creatively, someone uploaded an image of a poem that said: “Sail the ocean, sweep the square, clan king and eye field cannot be stopped!”
In Chinese, the characters for “clan king” resemble those for “democracy”; “eye field” looks roughly like “freedom.” The poem evaded detection.
“Nineteen Days” is available in its entirety online.