THE TIANANMEN POEMS
Richard Curt Kraus
Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) pp. 132-135
Premier Zhou Enlai had died in January . On April 5, China's
traditional festival for cleaning graves, two hundred thousand
people demonstrated in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Ostensibly
mourning Zhou Enlai, the demonstrators were in fact protesting the
power of Jiang Qing and her associates. (18) When the crowd refused
to disperse at the end of the day, the scene grew ugly - a mob
smashed several vehicles and burned a police command post. At night,
militia and public security forces, under the control of Hua
Guofeng, cleared the square. Many demonstrators were beaten - others
were arrested. The following morning, the Party Political Bureau
declared the incident to be "counterrevolutionary" and removed Deng
Xiaoping from all offices as its ultimate instigator. At the same
time Hua Guofeng was appointed premier and vice-chairman of the
But after Mao died in September and the "Gang of Four" was arrested
in October, China's politics moved slowly but steadily to the right.
As figures disgraced during the Cultural Revolution regained
respectability and influence, support for Deng Xiaoping mounted.
Deng was reinstated in 1977 and expanded his influence by promising
to end mass campaigns and to pay more attention to intellectuals
than to activists and workers. This protracted political battle was
fought in the Party's Political Bureau, where the left saw its power
shrink during 1977 and 1978. As Hua Guofeng was dependent upon the
surviving, non-Gang left, his own position became precarious,
especially when his fellow triumvir and head of the Zhongnanhai
security force, Wang Dongxing, came under fire for corruption.
Deng Xiaoping's victory in this struggle was tied to the Party's
judgment of the 1976 Tiananmen incident. Deng pressed relentlessly
for a reversal of the Party's verdict, arguing that the
demonstration in fact had been "revolutionary." By implication,
anyone involved in its suppression had committed a grave error. A
reversal would be a fatal blow to the authority of Hua Guofeng,
former minister of public security.
Many of the 1976 demonstrators had written poems that they posted in
Tiananmen Square. Students from Beijing's Number Two Foreign
Language Institute, a school with close ties to Deng Xiaoping,
edited over one thousand of these poems and published them in four
unofficial mimeographed editions. These began to circulate shortly
after the fall of the "Gang of Four," constituting an open
provocation to Hua Guofeng. Police from the public security forces
searched for some of the pseudonymous or anonymous authors, but not
very effectively. In some cases the police revealed the poets'
identities not to Hua Guofeng but to the student editors. (19) The
most famous poem was by a high school student, Wang Juntao:
In my grief I hear demons shriek;
I weep while wolves and jackals laugh.
Though tears I shed to mourn a hero,
With head raised high, I draw my sword . (20)
As pressure mounted to reverse the verdict on the Tiananmen
incident, so did demands for the open publication of these poems, no
matter how embarrassing they might be to Hua Guofeng. Hua's enemies
struck in the second half of August 1979, while he was visiting
Yugoslavia and Iran. Their opportunity came with the revival of the
monthly magazine Chinese Youth , which had not appeared since
the Cultural Revolution. Chinese Youth was under the control
of a faction loyal to Hu Yaobang, former head of the Youth League
and Deng Xiaoping's lieutenant. He was later rewarded with the Party
leadership. When the magazine reappeared on September 11, the cover
pictured Hua Guofeng with a group of young people, but inside was a
selection of the Tiananmen poems.
Zhang Pinghua, Hua's image manager and head of the Party Propaganda
Department, was caught by surprise. Zhang quickly ordered the recall
of all copies of Chinese Youth , reissuing it a few days
later with new pages loosely inserted into each copy. These included
an inscription for the magazine by Hua Guofeng and a 1957 photo of
Mao Zedong surrounded by young people. (21) Hua Guofeng's insert was
written with a fountain pen (unusual for Hua) and rather poorly, as
if in haste. It contrasted sharply with the formal, traditional
inscriptions by Mao Zedong, Ye Jianying, and Nie Rongzhen that had
been bound conventionally into the rest of the magazine and listed
in the table of contents. (22) The Mao photo was apparently an
effort to distract readers' attention from the embarrassingly
With this inscription, Hua Guofeng attempted to co-opt the
inevitable publication of the Tiananmen poems, making it appear as
if they had appeared under his patronage instead of against his
will. The Party announced its new verdict on the Tiananmen
demonstration on November 21, 1978. (23) Ten days before, Hua had
sought to lessen the damage by writing the title for an official
book of the Tiananmen poems, but he pointedly omitted the second
word of its original title, Tiananmen Revolutionary Poems .
(24) Wall posters soon appeared in Beijing demanding that the title
for this volume be written by Deng Xiaoping instead. (25)
Hua Guofeng's cynical calligraphy was as ineffectual as his other
political maneuvering. Throughout the fall of 1979 his major allies
were driven from power. Wu De, head of the Beijing Party, lost his
post in October; big- character posters criticized Wang Dongxing,
head of the Zhongnanhai guard, PLA Unit 8341. Ye Jianying deserted
Wang Dongxing and Hua Guofeng, his former coconspirators, throwing
his support to Deng Xiaoping. In December 1978, the Third Plenum of
the Party's Eleventh Central Committee dismissed Wu De, Wang
Dongxing, and two other key leftist leaders from the Political
Bureau, isolating a weakened Chairman Hua Guofeng.
18. Zhou Enlai's ashes were scattered, so he has no tomb. A poem
posted by one of the demonstrators at the Monument to the People's
Heroes in the center of the square concludes: "When we look at the
southern side of' this monument, we can only shed tears in silence."
Because Zhou's calligraphy is inscribed on that side of the monument
(Mao's is on the other side), it is a natural place to honor him.
Hong Kong Agence France Presse in English (January 9, 1978), in
Foreign Broadcast Information Service (January 10,
1978), E1. A summary of the 1976 Tiananmen incident and its
aftermath is in "Wenge" Shiqi Guaishi Guaiyu (Peculiar events
and language of the "Cultural Revolution" era), ed. Jin Chunming,
Huang Yuchong, and Chang Huimin (Beijing: Qiushi Chubanshe, 1989),
19. Chinese Literature, no. 3 (1979): 24; Georges Biannic,
"'Clandestine' Literary Work Appears in Peking," Hong Kong Agence
France Presse in English (January 11, 1978), in
Foreign Broadcast Information Service (January 11, 1978), E6.
20. Xiao Lan, ed. and trans., The Tiananmen Poems (Beijing:
Foreign Languages Press, 1979), 24. The author of these lines was
recently sentenced to thirteen years in prison for his role in the
1989 Tiananmen protests.
21. Wei Ran, " Zhongguo Qingnian koufa shijian " (The
Chinese Youth suspension incident), Dongxiang, no. 1 (October
20, 1978): 17-18; Luo Bing, "The Fall of the 'Whatever Faction,'"
Zhengming , no. 16 (February 1979), in
Foreign Broadcast Information Service (January 30,
22. Zhongguo Qingnian, no. 1 (September 11, 1978).
23. "Tiananmen shijian zhenxiang" (The truth of the Tiananmen
incident), Renmin Ribao (November 21, 1978).
24. Xu Xing, "Beijing zhi chun, zhanuan huanhan" (Beijing's spring,
first warmer, then cold again), Guanchajia, no. 14 (December
25. Beijing Agence France Presse, November 21, 1978.
Richard Curt Kraus,
Brushes with Power: Modern Politics and the Chinese Art of
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)
© 1991 The Regents of the University of California. All
Brushes with Power is available at