Tiananmen Square historian talks of frustration

In April 1999, author Terrence Cheng was riding in a Beijing taxicab with a driver who did not want to discuss Tiananmen Square. Visiting China after conducting two years of research for his first novel, “Sons of Heaven,” Cheng had been carefully raising questions about the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. But like other Beijing locals the author had encountered, the cab driver remained unresponsive — until the end of the ride.

“[The driver] said, ‘What happened back then was very bad.’ And that’s all he said,” Cheng said.

Speaking at a Branford College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, Cheng said the incident was another reminder of Tiananmen’s lingering effects on the Chinese psyche.

Cheng also detailed his own metamorphosis from the “normal dopey teenage guy” he was when he first saw live television footage of an unknown man facing a Chinese army tank, to the author of a story behind that now-famous image.

Along the way, Cheng said he formed a connection to his Chinese heritage, something he felt he had lacked at age 17 watching news coverage of Tiananmen Square in his Long Island home.

“[The protesters in Tiananmen Square] looked like me, and yet I’m sitting here in this comfy living room in Long Island, while they’re fighting and dying for this thing I take for granted — democracy,” Cheng said.

The tea, which was co-sponsored by the Chinese American Students’ Association, was intended to educate students who are unfamiliar with the massacre, CASA president Steven Hsu ’04 said.

“I get the feeling that a lot of people, even though they’re Chinese-American, tend to distance themselves from China,” Hsu said.

Cheng’s visit was coordinated by CASA political chair Byron Sun ’05, who began making plans and exchanging e-mails with Branford College Master Steven Smith in July.

“My objective was to appeal to the whole Yale community, because I felt that this was a very important milestone in Chinese and world history,” Sun said.

Cheng said that in writing about Tiananmen Square, he faced a series of difficult fundamental questions.

“As a craftsperson, I was left with questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why?” Cheng said. “How could a nation’s leader ultimately give the mandate to kill his own people?”

In “Sons of Heaven,” he attempts to answer these questions by creating identities and histories for the anonymous young protester and his fictional soldier brother. He also writes part of the novel from the perspective of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader at the time of the massacre.

“The more I read about Tiananmen Square, the more I became infatuated with this idea of the man who stood in front of the tanks and stopped them,” Cheng said.

His research for the novel entailed two years of reading academic accounts of the Tiananmen incident as well as his 1999 visit to China. However, he did not interview Tiananmen survivors during the writing of the novel, because he wanted to maintain balance in his account, Cheng said.

Now that “Sons of Heaven” is complete and in bookstores, Cheng said he is ready to move on to his next project, a novel dealing with the Japanese occupation of China and the Rape of Nanjing.

“I get feedback from people sometimes: ‘Why do you have to keep bringing this up, ripping open that scar?’” he said.

But, Cheng added, “Tiananmen Square doesn’t go away just because it isn’t a big anniversary.”

Author Terrence Cheng discusses his novel about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre at a Branford Master's Tea Wednesday.
Rebecca Dana
Author Terrence Cheng discusses his novel about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre at a Branford Master's Tea Wednesday.

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