Tiananmen Square

Lai Wen (pseudonym)

Spiegel & Grau, New York  2024

ISBN: 978-1954118393

Thirty-five years ago, Chinese students, journalists, pensioners and shopkeepers took to Beijing’s streets to protest new restrictive government regulations imposed by Prime Minister Li Peng.

Thousands were camped out in Tiananmen Square on that decisive time in 1989, the day of Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing. The protests forced Peng to tone down fanfare for Gorbachev’s visit, to his great embarrassment. That’s suspected to be the reason he decided not to negotiate with protestors and instead send armed forces to crush them. The assault was widely covered by journalists who were in Beijing to report on Gorbachev’s visit.

The event is detailed in a new coming-of-age novel, “Tiananmen Square.” The writer, who uses the pseudonym Lai Wen, casts herself as the protagonist in the novel, a witness to a historic event. Lai Wen, we learn, grew up in the 1970s in a complex household: Her father, a quiet, broken man persecuted during Mao’s cultural revolution; her mother, who viewed China’s government as fair and the USA as an evil empire, and her grandmother, who recalled painful memories of cannibalism and starvation during the Mao Zedong era.

In 1978, Lai is a young child, playing outdoors and pulling silly pranks on the neighbors. During the summer of that year, China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, interested in modernizing the economy by moving toward a more free-market paradigm, invited President Jimmy Carter’s top security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to tour major Chinese cities. For “us kids,” Lai writes, this event was an excuse for a more dramatic stunt: they violated curfew to watch his convoy.

Subsequently, she wins a scholarship to Peking University where she feels lost. Her time is largely spent with a manipulative boyfriend until she meets and becomes friends with a group of misfits, a theatre group, “The Marauders”, who staged performances at Tiananmen Square during the days of the protest.

She vividly describes life on the campus before the new restrictions were imposed, and then painful observations when the tanks and armed forces gunned down protestors. For those who may have forgotten what happened back then, and new readers who are unfamiliar with this decisive event, this novel offers valuable historical perspective on political and economic changes in China during the late 20th century that are still reverberating today.