initially posted as a comment on MetaFilter earlier today

In summer of 1989 I was in college and had been taking some summer courses. In one class I was taking, a drawing class, a fellow student and I were the most accomplished draftsmen in the class. Interested in each other’s work and one another, we struck up a casual friendship. He was from Beijing and he and his wife were enrolled in grad school at Indiana University.

He had graduated from a Chinese art school and repeatedly expressed frustration with his mastery of beaux-arts style draftsmanship – his work was astonishingly precise and controlled, and it was this reined-in quality that frustrated him about his own work. My bold slashing charcoal marks seemed liberated to him, just as his polished work appealed to me as beyond my own skills at the time.

As the protests gathered momentum in China, he became increasingly involved in the overseas support network, and we had many exciting discussions about what was happening in Beijing and what it meant within Chinese history and culture. He was quite certain that the protests were a watershed for the country, and based this partially on the numerous other turning points in Chinese history that had been catalyzed by student protests. The details escape me now, alas.

My parents and my younger sister had lived in Shanghai together and separately for a total of about two and a half years over the preceding four, while I remained in the states in (and out) of college. I was somewhat regretful that I had been too busy with my early-twenties concerns to go visit, a regret that has intensified over the years. I was a fool not to go.

As the news of gathering Army units passed into the square, the information (and attendant rumors) were transmitted back through the support network and in turn to me, when I would see my friend in class. It was electrifying to hear him recount the latest news and rumors and then to hear or see news coverage on CNN and NPR that would essentially confirm the information my friend was recounting.

As the end of May approached, his news became ever more daunting, ever more promising, ever more frightening. Factory workers had gone on strike all over the country. Beijing’s public transportation workers were joining the strike. It was a general strike that was affecting the entire country. Miners from a rural province were advancing on Beijing, determined to oust the students by force. There were tank brigades in the streets of Beijing. Entire battalions of the military had gone over to the students. There was a rift in governing council of the state. Civil war was imminent. The governing council had acceded to the student’s demands. Party newspapers were covering the protests accurately and openly. People were being kidnapped form the Square under cover of darkness. There was a ‘good army’ and a ‘bad army’ and there would be street warfare in Beijing. A thousand rumors, all shades of truth and fear and wishes.

At some point an important government official appeared in the square and was said to have tearfully begged the protestors’ forgiveness before leaving. My friend took this as a bad sign, and he told me that civil war was the only likely outcome. He told me bluntly that China was on the verge of returning to the era of the warlords in the 1920s and 30s. We parted on a somber note. It was June 2 or 3.

On my way home, I realized that my parents had mailed me an itinerary for a long international trip, as they did with numbing regularity (and still do, I must admit). The information was overwhelming in each one of these documents, and so I rarely examined them closely, noting only with great vagueness their departure and return dates, and almost never the destinations the trips involved.

On arriving at my house, I found the note and opened it to see the, um, concerning words:

“Shanghai, Shanghai Institute for Mechanical Engineering, International Business Association Conference, June 5-8, 1988. Travel dates June 2-4, arriving in Shanghai on June 4.”

(Please note the actual name of the conference and specific dates are fudged. Travel dates are correct, I think).

I do not recall if this was on June 3 or June 4. The dateline complicated things quite a bit.

I called my folks’ house. The phone rang and rang. They had already left. Looking over the itinerary, they had a serious haul to get in to Shanghai. I estimated that the travel day they had slated amounted to about 24 hours of solid travel, including layovers. I began trying to leave messages for them, hoping they would get one and call me back so i could review the news about the protests with them. I ended up leaving messages with every travel organization and airline and at each desk of each airline that they might pass by on the way to China. My best hope was in Hong Kong, where the airline personnel were as aware of and concerned about the latest developments as I.

In the end, unfortunately, my parents received none of the messages.

The next day, I began to call every number I had access to from my parents and my sister’s time in China. As I was doing this, I turned on CNN and saw that the Army had begun the advance into the square. Most of the people I reached did not speak English well enough to be of assistance. However, a native Chinese speaker picked up the phone in what had been my sister’s dorm and went to find another American who was living in the dorm. She did not know my sister, but she did speak Chinese, and of course was full of questions about what was happening in Beijing, as the Chinese media had gone dark.

I tried to describe what I was seeing on the TV, but of course could not (my recollection is telephoto night shots of the square, fires burning here and there). I ended up simply hanging the phone in front of the broadcast for about a half hour, until the newsreaders cycled back to the top of their headline list. The news was pretty thin, mostly US media noting that the Army was clearing the square, that events were underway, and the scale of the casualties was not known – more or less what we still know today.

I got off the phone and had a few moments of looking into an abyss – my friend had told me he expected the state to disintegrate. Although it is only tangential to this narrative, my frame of mind will be better illuminated if I note that my sister, who had been in Chine with my parents, had been killed in an auto-bicycle accident the preceding fall. Losing my parents to history was something that I was not prepared to accept. If things went they way my friend had predicted, I would have to go to China to find them, and I would have to do it very soon.

In the end, I am happy to report, they called me from Shanghai. They had no inkling of what was happening for the duration of the trip. The first they learned of things was only very obliquely, when my father’s colleague, a fellow professor at SIME, met them at the airport with a couple of grad students in tow. Things were vary bad, he told them, but would not elaborate. Public transportation workers in Shanghai were on strike, it turned out, and the only way to my father’s colleague’s home, where he insisted my parents stay, was to walk in to Shanghai from the airport – a distance, my parents told me, of about 20 miles. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that estimate. I am certain that it felt like twenty miles after that punishing flight schedule.

They called me on arriving in town and after some sleep. I begged them to turn around and leave immediately, which they declined to do, as my father and his colleague were the co-chairs and primary sponsors for the conference. They determined to cancel the event and tried to contact the attendees, with varying success. As it happened, nearly no-one showed up, as one might expect. My parents remained in Shanghai as scheduled and departed as initially planned (as I recall).

My father’s colleague was actively disinterested in hearing the news I had passed on to my father on the phone – he had been through the Cultural Revolution and feared a rerun.

My father maintains strong professional ties to Chinese colleagues and travels to China frequently. I still haven’t ever been.


After writing this I wanted to call my father. I can’t; he and my mother are on an international trip and out of reach. I also had though that this tale was one I had long ago blogged in detail, but scrubbing my archives reveals only an oblique mention committed to the bitstream back in 2005.

My exposure to my friend’s excitement and disappointment (our class ended within a week of June 4, and I do not recall seeing him again) colored my expectations, concerns, and hopes for the Seattle WTO protests of 1999, I will note. By then I had also married a woman whose family fled a successful revolutionary moment, and my understanding of the consequences and opportunities of such a moment were correspondingly more nuanced. Perhaps this ten-year will again bring the tide of festival and revolt to a peak.

A happy update to my update! My parents arrived home today and called as I was serving dinner. We had a long, loving chat.