Where Brightness Ends

Bei Dao’s nostalgia for a pre-liberalisation Beijing

01 June 2017
Daily life in the hutongs, or alleys, of 1980s Beijing was destroyed when many of the hutongs were bulldozed to make way for a glittering transformation of the city over the last three decades.

ON 28 MAY 1989, Lijia Zhang, a twenty-something factory worker, addressed a political rally in the Chinese city of Nanjing. This was unusual for her. A high-school dropout, Lijia had up until then been largely apolitical. But the pro-democracy student demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square—going five weeks strong, and days away from massacre—had captured the public imagination. Like many workers, she had followed the events on the radio for weeks. Learning of a nearby demonstration that day, she impulsively decided to attend.

At the rally, Lijia somehow found herself on the podium. Speaking without preparation, through tears, she began modestly enough, expressing solidarity with the students at Tiananmen. The crowd egged her on. Emboldened, she went on to denounce the People’s Republic of China as a “dictatorship,” and even led a chant for democracy. She then ended with these lines by the poet Bei Dao:

Let me tell you, world

Ratik Asokan is writer based in New York.

Keywords: china Cultural Revolution Beijing economic liberalisation Mao Zedong chinese literature Tiananmen Massacre 1989