The 25th anniversary of the crackdown on the student movement at Tiananmen Square got me interested in knowing more about the event. I found myself compulsively reading the many news stories about the people, mainly the activists, involved that came out around the anniversary.

So it was kind of serendipitous when I came across these two books in the library. Both are excellent reads.

A Heart for Freedom

Chai Ling

Chai Ling was elected the commander-in-chief of the student movement at the Square. I’m always fascinated by the making of people who go on to risk it all for an ideal, and this is a pretty good book to read in this regard. One gets a picture of growing up in an rural area in post-cultural revolution China. Chai Ling’s parents were in the army and that ensured that they at least had food to eat, but her childhood strikes me as very hard, and her achievement at getting into one of the most prestigious institutions in the country more impressive. This achievement made her a star of her village, and her parents had high expectations of her, which she fulfilled in ways they could not have imagined.

Reading about student life in Beijing in the 80s when there was some degree of freedom of intellectual debate was also interesting. This freedom played a part in the events that followed, in which the students demanded greater accountability from their government.

Obviously, the most interesting part was Chai Ling’s recounting of the days of the actual student protest at the Square which ultimately culminated in a brutal government crackdown. She gives one an insider’s perspective on what goes into making a student movement, the kinds of debates and conflicts that take place in the backdrop, the naivete and the idealism, the need for quick decision-making and strong leaders, and the motivations of those who put their lives on the line.

Chai Ling is a controversial figure, who was sharply criticised after a video of her making some shocking statements emerged. Chai Ling deals with this video in the book; her version is that it was meant to be a final statement in case she was caught, was not meant for media release, was made when she was extremely stressed and her words were twisted in the translation. Not everyone is convinced by this explanation, but as a reader of the book viewing events through her lens, one can be more sympathetic.

The latter half of the book is about her escape and relocation in the West. I’ve always wondered what dissidents do once they are uprooted. How do they survive and meet their financial needs? In Chai Ling’s case, she went back to school and tried to live the life of an ordinary (Ivy League School) graduate. But her background followed her everywhere and made life difficult. Nevertheless, she persisted and even brought her entire family to the US. She was also lucky to meet and marry a man who was doing well, but I think she would have made her own way if that hadn’t happened.

The last section deals with her conversion to Christianity and her newfound enthusiasm for fighting the one-child policy in China. This is the part I found hardest to stomach. Chai Ling had had a terribly hard life, and I can understand the need for the kind of solace that Christianity provides, but it was kind of boring reading all about her journey of faith. While her chosen cause is a worthy one, and one close to her heart for personal reasons, she champions it from a Christian lens. So I kind of speed read through that section, which I’m sure was not the author’s intention.

I now want to read about other activists of the time. Recommendations?



It’s not that easy to get one’s hands on contemporary Chinese literature in translation because there are not that many translations. So I leapt on this one when I saw it.

I absolutely loved this book, which is strange because it follows the life of a mathematical genius in a kind of dystopic Chinese city. Mai Jia, the author, writes from within the state-sanctioned apparatus, but he still presents a not-very-favourable picture of life under the political regimes of the recent past in China.

The book is often described as a spy thriller which is erroneous because it doesn’t satisfy any of the Western conventions of that genre because there is no great mystery unravelled at the end. I think the book makes use of magical realism, a favourite coping mechanism of writers from places where life can often be absurd and unbearable. There is a pared down quality to the writing which could either be owing to the translation or a Chinese way with words. It works for me and I was pretty much riveted from the start.

I have the feeling that there are nuances I might have missed because of unfamiliarity with Chinese history or Chinese literature. But I still enjoyed it.