Tuesday Treasures: Tiananmen Square, Part II

Last week, I posted some materials from and about scholars who were in China during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. This week, I’d like to expand on that post by showing you all two more items related to the protests – I just found so many interesting documents that I couldn’t confine them all to one blog post!

In the last post, I wrote about the importance of primary sources: they give us a glimpse into the past by allowing us to see first-hand accounts of it, and pull us into history by making it more human. They can give us stories, memories, and cultural insights. Likewise, they can pull us straight into the heart of an important event from the past, allowing us to see details that might otherwise have been lost forever.

If you’re interested in history, though, you can’t just think about the details. You also have to make an attempt to see the bigger picture – context is important! Some questions we could ask about the Tiananmen Square protests include (but are not limited to): What happened in the months or years leading up to June of 1989 that might have contributed to these protests and the government’s reaction to them? What types of people were protesting, and what were their reasons for doing so? How did the rest of the world view China at this time, and vice versa? Did any non-Chinese agents play a part in these protests? Were there similar movements happening elsewhere? How did the protests change things in China and the rest of the world, if at all? How did the government react to these actions in the long term? Did the lives of normal Chinese citizens change at all on a day-to-day basis as a result of these protests? Did the educational system in China change, due to these protests being student-led? Primary sources can help us answer these types of context-driven questions.

This first document is a memorandum from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC) to their National Program scholars who left China early because of the protests. In the memo, dated about a month and a half after the June 4th incident, the CSCPRC urges the scholars not to return to China before January of 1990:

In terms of context, this quote is of particular interest:

The current political crackdown by the present leadership is having a profound impact on the Chinese academic community in China. Students and faculty are being arrested, and it is not unlikely that ties with foreign scholars will be viewed suspiciously by the government in the coming months. At the same time, it is also clear that some Chinese scholars are under pressure to inform foreign friends that their institutions are open for business as usual, that nothing happened on June 4, and that everything is back to normal.

This next document is a trip report by previous ACLS President Stanley N. Katz written a year after the 1989 protests took place – the first page gives a general introduction as to why he took the trip in the first place, explaining that his Chinese colleagues very much wanted him to return in the aftermath of the protests:

Stanley N. Katz: American studies trip, page 1
Later in the report, President Katz makes note of what has happened to institutions of higher education, American studies, and scholarship in general as a result of the previous protests. I found this segment of the report (the end of page 20 through the beginning of page 22) particularly interesting:

If you don’t want to read all of that, here are a few quotes:

…individual programs…have been temporarily badly damaged by the political repression following June, 1989. (p. 20)

The faculty seem determined to settle in for the long haul not at all confident that anything positive will happen soon, but seemingly sure that in the long run more reasonable values and policies will win out. The graduate students, on the other hand, seem angry, openly defiant and quite aggressive in their pro-democratic values. Their comments after my lectures, refusing for the most part to pursue the discussion of American studies and insisting upon talking about rights and constitutionalism, showed just how unafraid they are. (p. 21)

On this trip I came to believe that the single most subversive thing the United States can do in China is to promote the study of American culture. (p. 21)

The ACLS American Studies Program, which ran from 1961 to 1992, aided foreign scholars studying the United States. In visiting China to ascertain the state of American studies there, President Katz made note of the bigger picture as well, offering a look at the context surrounding an important event in Chinese (and world) history. This is the type of material that keeps scholarship pushing forward, offering a better understanding of how events and people and places fit together and influence each other. These documents can’t answer all (or any, in full) of the questions I asked above, but they do give us a starting point from which we can ask more questions and start building a map of history.

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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.