Monday Marvels: Tiananmen Square, Part I

Like most archivists, I love studying the past in order to better understand the world we live in today. There are many great stories to be told, and many lessons to learn. That is why it is such a joy to find items in collections that directly relate to important moments in history. Encountering a letter from a soldier who witnessed firsthand a watershed moment in wartime; reading a speech given during a major civil rights protest; holding a photograph documenting the first instance of a new technology emerging: these things have a certain quality about them, and that quality is part of what draws people to primary sources in the first place. We read about these moments in history and social science textbooks at school, but seeing a firsthand account of them brings us something more – these objects tend to add more humanity to past events, allowing us to put ourselves into the shoes of these people, to see that actual human beings participated in these unforgettable moments, helping to shape their contemporary world as well as the one we live in today.

One such event took place 25 years ago – in the spring of 1989, student-led demonstrations were happening in Beijing, China. Gathering mainly in Tiananmen Square, the protestors called for widespread economic and political reform, and the government responded by declaring martial law. On June 4th, the military was sent to the square in an effort to displace the protestors. Arrests were made, and soldiers opened fire. Because the Chinese government refused to release any information about the event after it happened, casualty estimations range from several hundred to several thousand. I don’t condone using Wikipedia as a serious scholarly resource, but it’s great for learning basic information – the page on the Tiananmen Square protests is certainly worth reading if you’re interested. The BBC also offers a very short version of what happened in their “On This Day” feature. Most of you have probably seen the photo of a man (known only as “The Tank Man”) standing in front of a line of tanks – it is widely perceived to be one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and was taken during these protests. Stories about the 25th anniversary of the June 4th incident have been peppering the news lately, showing up everywhere from Time to The Washington Post to The Guardian.

At this point, you might be asking yourself how this is related to the ACLS collection. I’ve written before about the international focus of the organization, so if you’ve been following along, you will see a pattern emerging – international programs are so important to the ACLS that there is currently an entire department devoted to them. Some of the boxes that arrived with Part III of the collection hold materials from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC, later known as the CSCC). I won’t delve too deeply into the details, but the CSCPRC was partially sponsored by the ACLS, which is why we’ve got some of their files here at the Library of Congress now. China has always been a main area of interest for the ACLS, and Chinese studies are heavily represented in all three parts of the collection.

In the first grouping of boxes I went through, I came across some grant materials from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Included were memoranda, pieces of correspondence, briefings, and notes about the Tiananmen Square protests to, from, and about scholars who were studying in China under the CSCPRC at the time. I thought it was worth taking the time to look more closely at these materials than I normally would, due to the historical importance inherent in them. Needless to say, I found them fascinating, and I hope that you all feel the same.

This first document, dated a few days after the June 4th incident, is a one-page letter from the Acting Director of the CSCPRC, Robert Geyer. In it, Geyer states that the committee is doing its best to get its sponsored scholars out of the country in order to ensure their safety. The seriousness of the situation is very clear:

CSCPRC - letter from June 7th, 1989

The following three-page fax sent to the D.C. CSCPRC office is worth reading in full, as it details the definite or assumed whereabouts of each of the program’s scholars on June 6th, noting that some scholars’ whereabouts were actually unknown at the time. I can only imagine how frantic and nerve-racking it must have felt to be in this situation, unable to find certain people. If you read nothing else, read the last paragraph. I can’t put into words how amazed I was reading this, so I will let the document speak for itself:


You might have noticed that Melissa Macauley’s name was highlighted in the above documents. That’s because they were with other documents related to her – for each scholar, the committee kept a packet of materials documenting their time in China. With Ms. Macauley’s permission, I give you one more document that I find to be particularly enlightening – a briefing from her to future scholars titled “Tips for a Safer, Happier Stay in the New, New China” from September of 1989:

Melissa Macauley - September 1989

The paragraph about demonstrations and mobs is especially interesting, with strong enough language that anyone reading it could imagine being there.

Documents like these ones always make me feel like time is suspending itself – there is nothing quite like a firsthand account of an important moment in history, the humanity jumping straight out of the source to engulf you in a true experience. I look forward to finding more documents like these as I continue processing the collection, and can only hope that researchers for years to come will use them to help us all better understand the human experience.

One thought on “Monday Marvels: Tiananmen Square, Part I

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Treasures: Tiananmen Square, Part II | Documenting the Humanities

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