Liao Yiwu, June 1, 2017
On the afternoon of May 23, 1989, sitting at home in a small town in Sichuan, poet Liao Yiwu watched in awe scenes from Beijing just after “three hooligans from Hunan” threw paint-filled eggs at the portrait of Mao Zedong, sized 6 by 4.6 meters, hanging on Tiananmen (the Gate of Celestial Peace). Increasingly astonished and impressed, once the full significance of the act sunk in Liao Yiwu came to regard it as the most singular event during the 1989 movement — second perhaps only to the Tank Man. Liao himself, a rebellious poet publishing in underground magazines during the 1980s, would be imprisoned too for writing and performing a long poem titled “The Massacre.”
On a sultry and airless day in Changsha, June 2005, Liao Yiwu interviewed Yu Zhijian (余志坚), one of the “three hooligans from Hunan.” The other two were Yu Dongyue (喻东岳) and Lu Decheng (鲁德成). In 1989, Yu Zhijian was sentenced to life in prison and eventually served 11 years and 6 months; Yu Dongyue was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 16 years and 9 months; Lu Decheng was sentenced 16 years in prison and served 8 years and 8 months. Yu Zhijian and Yu Dongyue fled China in 2008, and eventually settled in Indianapolis as political refugees. Before them, Lu Decheng settled in Canada.
When the student movement began in Beijing, 1989, Yu Zhijian was in his hometown of Liuyang, Hunan Province. The year earlier he had resigned from his teaching job in the countryside, and since then had been loafing with his childhood friend and neighbor Lu and college classmate Yu Dongyue. Our excerpt of the interview begins from this point.
In memory of Yu Zhijian, who died on March 29, 2017, in Indianapolis.
— The Editors
LIAO: They both had jobs, didn’t they?
YU ZHIJIAN: Lu was a bus driver and Yu was a reporter at Liuyang Daily. We were cut from the same cloth, blabbed day and night about literature. Yu was ahead of me in putting a lot of stock in modernism and avant-garde ambiguity, which was all the rage. For two months or so, they didn’t bother going home and crashed at our place every night, crowded as it was. Looking back, it was a wonderful time. When Hu Yaobang died on April 22, our literary zeal was sublimated overnight and we answered the call: “Chinese people are now in the direst crisis.” A lot of friends came together and agreed that we absolutely had to organize a memorial for Hu, the great man from our hometown.
I was the one who wrote all the slogans in traditional calligraphy, using an ink stone and ink brush: In memoriam for Hu, constitutional amendment, democracy, freedom, anti-corruption – it just about summed up my lifelong political aspirations. In the middle of the night, like the hero-bandits from the novel Water Margin, we plastered several blocks with our revolutionary – or counterrevolutionary as the government saw it – slogans. At daybreak, would you believe it, the residents of Liuyang City were reading the stuff in droves and talking about it in whispers. It’s a bit like Lu Xun’s story where the unconfirmed but true rumors about the impending fall of China’s last dynasty bring a claustrophobic village to a boil. We hotheads stayed back and watched it all happen, with an ineffable sense of excitement and impending doom.
We were all fired up in our role as activists. Talked about what was happening in Beijing that day, every day. Didn’t eat much but were more alert than ever. We tried to get the students at Liuyang Normal College to start a street protest, but our town was too small and the people too conservative. We may all have been hopping around like the rebellious Monkey King from the classic tale, but nothing came of our agitating.
LIAO: That’s why you decided to go to Beijing.
YU ZHIJIAN: The hunger strikes began in Tiananmen. And a few students got down on their knees on the steps outside the People’s Congress when they handed in their petition. Complex political games are beyond people like us, but intuitively we weren’t happy with that sort of thing. If they didn’t want to be the docile subjects of a feudal monarch, why did they kneel? An autocratic regime wouldn’t even bother brushing off that sort of concession.
On May 16, after an all-nighter debate on the state of the nation, we three decided to go to Beijing. We were all broke and none of us had ever gone north before to “make revolution.” We took out our wages and it didn’t look enough. The night before we left, I knocked on the door of a classmate who was a private entrepreneur in the electric appliance business. He was generous for the sake of the revolution and forked over a grand — which would be twenty-something times that amount in today’s money, right? The train ticket from Changsha to Beijing cost less than fifty.
LIAO: Very generous indeed.
YU ZHIJIAN: It was part and parcel of our collective fantasy over democracy. Bus drivers along the way to Changsha wouldn’t take our fare when they heard we were on the way to Beijing to show support. When we pulled into Changsha early morning, we headed toward the May First Boulevard and the provincial government buildings to get a read on what was happening. Woa! The student movement in the capital of Hunan was in full swing. The maze of streets was overrun by students and residents. That set our blood boiling, there was no holding back! Given my long legs, I was tasked to go out and buy stationery, and Yu made a giant banner. We occupied the train station plaza, set up our banner, and took turns giving speeches on the most popular themes of the movement: Anti-corruption, change to the political system, amending the Constitution, and opposition to one-party rule. Yu was in charge of taking photos because his camera was made in Japan. He was supposed to use it to cover his beat at Liuyang Daily – in those days you don’t come across a camera like that one every day. I was with him when he bought more rolls of Kodak film than any of us could keep track of. These masterpieces of photography all ended up in court as incontrovertible evidence of his counterrevolutionary incitement to subvert the state.
LIAO: Not that different from my own situation. I manufactured a lot of irrefutable literary evidence against myself.
YU ZHIJIAN: The crowd was milling around us. I, an incompetent teacher whose previous encounters had all been with children under the age of ten in a village classroom, was taking a first crack at “incitement” in public. Fluent and fervent, it was pretty effective, and the worked-up crowd threw money into our makeshift donation box. In pennies and yuan bills, even tens. It was so moving. There were no hundred-yuan bills yet at that time. I remember to this day this one man, stuffing bills into the box with both hands. After only a few hours of incitement the box overflowed.
LIAO: There was so much passionate conviction in those days.
YU ZHIJIAN: We collected more than three thousand yuan. Some students joined our petition group to go to Beijing to support the student movement.
LIAO: How many?
YU ZHIJIAN: Forty, fifty? A big crowd. We got on the express train that had just started operating. It leaves at 9:00 p.m.
LIAO: The train tickets alone would cost a fortune.
YU ZHIJIAN: What could you do? We bought platform passes and rolled in. The train was overflowing with patriotic crowds. We were stuffed into the corridor skin-on-skin. The train conductor checking tickets got the head of the crew to come see us. He was all courtesy: Who is responsible for this group? I said I was. He told me he understood and supported our cause unconditionally, and had us taken to the crew lounge where we could take turns sitting down. We got to the train station the next day and the first thing we did was to unfold our banner – the thing was half as long as a train passenger car. It sure drew attention. Only a few moments after we took off in the direction of Tiananmen, I looked over my shoulder and saw a line of several hundred people materializing behind us. These were mostly students visiting Beijing and looking for a group to belong to. We were more on than ever. “Down with Deng Xiaoping! We want Zhao Ziyang! Freedom, democracy and human rights – Chinese people will stand tall once more!” We were shouting slogans louder and faster than the gongs and drums of folk plays. After just under an hour, we sighted the ramparts of the Forbidden City looming over Tiananmen; until then, we’d only seen it in newspapers. Before we had the chance to “lose ourselves in the sea of the masses,” someone who carried himself like a student leader marched up and told us he was from the Guards of the University Autonomous Association. He commended our group for supporting the cause. “But your slogans are a bit inappropriate; that is to say, extreme. Even the people in the Square are not going this far this thoughtlessly.” Initially that did not go down well with us, but then we thought it through and wanted to make the movement’s needs our priority, so we did as we were told and put away the counterrevolutionary extra-long banner for the time being.
Over the next couple of days, the college students who came with us all found their own student body organizations or other clusters like birds returning to their nests. Our petition group fell apart, leaving only the three of us core members with no pigeonhole to fit into. Our “class categorization as lone vagabonds” was exposed, as they say in Communist social theory.
LIAO: Didn’t take much for that group to fall apart, it looks like.
YU ZHIJIAN: We got into trouble on May 23, so we were only in the middle of everything for five, six days in total. We went to some rallies and called for the abolition of one-party dictatorship and full-blown Westernization in some speeches. Didn’t sleep a whole lot during those few days. At night, when we couldn’t keep going any more, we would roll out a piece of tarp in some underpass or on the sidewalk, snuggle into a military coat, and doze a little. This one morning, I opened my eyes to find a girl, a student, lying asleep on top of me. (Laughs). It was so romantic.
Three quite memorable things happened around this time. A sign saying “Extraordinary Session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” was put up over the Great Hall of the People. We went into wanton fantasies over it, as if the utopia of democracy was looming right there in front of our eyes. At the same time, a lot of military helicopters were circling over the square, sometimes flying so low they practically grazed the ramparts of the Forbidden City. They scattered flyers “To the Deluded Masses” calling on everyone to surrender and desist. The exact same way the First Emperor of the Han Dynasty brought his formidable foe to his knees – inundating him and his troops with the songs of their homeland, softening their morale so much they disbanded on their own.
The last thing that sank in the most was how inconsistent the student leaders were in their talks. Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi were running on and on: “Do your best to maintain the order at the Square” – duh. Or, “Residents and workers, return to your posts and normal working routines,” duh. Chai Ling was even acting like some variety-show host on TV, “Thank you, thank you! Thanks for everyone’s support.” All of them carried on as if the students were a privileged group who alone enjoyed the mainline privilege to love our country, and every other social element was only there meddling in what was none of their business and making things worse. What the hell? If it weren’t for everyone else’s support, could the students have lasted? The Communists would have taken them out long ago. The troops were already kicking up their heels in the suburbs, and the students were still busy infighting, holding dialogues, freaking out, stalemating – what was the goddamn use of their play acted composure? Did they think the soldiers, armed to the teeth, were weenies just in town for a visit? What if the army did open fire? The democracy movement was so vast, with tens of millions caught up in it. What made them believe, the handful of lousy babies that they were, that they could stay on top of it and make sure everything wind down smoothly? Bloodshed was breathing down on everyone, and there they were, thwarting their country’s fate with their empty talk. Completely immature.
LIAO: Your intuition was pretty sound.
YU ZHIJIAN: But grassroots folks like us from the provinces had no chance to speak up. We tried getting through the guards to talk to the student leaders, but when the guards saw me acting all aggressive and pent-up, there was no way in hell we could gain access to the Command Headquarters of the square, let alone see the chief. What to do? We turned in a Proposal of Recommendations, and begged and pleaded and stormed until the guards promised to hand it to the leaders. If only “for reference as needed.”
LIAO: Do you remember what the recommendations were?
YU ZHIJIAN: First, University Autonomous Association should declare the Chinese Communist regime illegal in the name of every citizen in the country. Second, the Association ought to call on Beijing and the entire nation to strike. Third: Students and worker guards…oh, wait, I can’t recall off the bat.
LIAO: Didn’t hold back, did you? Was there a response?
YU ZHIJIAN: Nothing. Everything was so chaotic. Maybe they never even gave them the thing to read.
LIAO: That must have sucked for you. But maybe you were too far out.
YU ZHIJIAN: I know. We couldn’t get anywhere.
LIAO: As Confucius says, “Mingle not in projects with a man whose way is not yours.” You could have dusted off the seat of your pants and walked away.
YU ZHIJIAN: No. We’d come all this way to Beijing, and we had to live up to our duty. Yu Dongyue was so upset and saddened that he proposed we self-immolate as a group. We came up with several plans. For example, we could stand on Gold Water Bridge, pour gasoline over ourselves and light it up. The effect was sure to be dramatic. But what goal were we trying to achieve? Should we put out a statement beforehand, or get somebody to notify the country afterwards that our sacrifice was for democracy and freedom, an act of protest against state violence and a wakeup call to the people? But things were stacked against us. If something goes wrong, people would not have understood why we self-immolated. There was even some chance the government would turn our deaths into a smear campaign against the democracy movement.
That would have been pretty senseless. So I proposed that we take action against Mao Zedong’s portrait — the original prototype one — hung on the ramparts of the Forbidden City. Put a symbolic end to the repressive Communist regime. My two friends agreed right away. From midnight to sunrise of the 22nd, we talked over our options. From a distance, it did not look like climbing up to take the portrait would be all that hard. But the square was guarded so closely we would have had better luck getting up to heaven than the walls of the palace. Our eyes ruddy from sleeplessness, the next morning we got hold of a ladder after a lot of to-do, and carried it to the archway beneath the portrait like patients burning up in a high fever. We looked up and you could have knocked us down with a feather. The bastard despot who sat on our heads and had his way with us, who had died years ago – he was out of our reach even when we stand on top of a ladder as tall as several grown men!
We took turns carefully examining the setup. After a lot of hard staring, we finally made it out – the nail on which the portrait hung was as thick as a man’s arm. Which means even if we could set up a high enough ladder and be ready for death and torture worse than death, we still might not be able to take the emperor down with us.
LIAO: Did no one notice you?
YU ZHIJIAN: No one had the time for anyone else. In the tumult of a movement like that, oftentimes each person is marginal and alone, with very little to connect him to it. Of course, it’s something else entirely if you were chosen as the focus of the world’s attention.
LIAO: That’s why it occurred to you to treat the despot to rotten eggs? I was at home in Puling, and saw you guys doing it. I was stunned. I remember the news broadcaster was China Central Television’s Chen Duo, with graying hair, whose voice was shaking — he was that angry.
YU ZHIJIAN: We really had no other way to get to Old Man Mao and that’s how we came up with our lousy scheme. We shopped at the Wangfujing Department Store and bought twenty eggs. At first we thought we could eyeball the distance and pitch the eggs as is, but it didn’t take long for us to realize eggs are too light-colored and the splash would be hard to see. Lucky for us, Dongyue dabbled as a painter. He said let’s make a dark gray from oils and fill the eggs with it.
We took a long time with the preparation and treated it all quite seriously. After buying stationery supplies and paint, we went to the post office to send our last letter to our families. It’s incredible, but I’ve actually forgotten what I wrote to mine; I think I cited a lot of Byron. Lu mulled over what he wrote for a long time. It was tough, pretty emotional — he is an only child. I heard later that when his parents saw the TV broadcast about us they fainted on the spot. I remember bits and pieces from what Dongyue wrote. He had five boys back home — he bound himself to them in brotherhood unto death — and he lied on his belly writing them letters one after the other. He was going to imitate Don Quixote and battle the windmills, and they should see him off like the legendary assassin Jing Ke, whose friends said farewell to him in the chill wind on the banks of the Yi River, never to return, et cetera. Lyrical compositions.
LIAO: People tell me he’s quite gifted in poetry.
YU ZHIJIAN: He wrote doggerel I can still remember: There may be a thousand reasons for you to walk on one side of the street. But there are a thousand and one reasons for you to cross the street and join me!
LIAO: The impulse to cross the line. Lo and behold, you did cross over to the other side.
YU ZHIJIAN: We were so hungry after we finished writing our last words, we took the twenty eggs to a food stall next to the Gold Water Bridge. You spread a flour paste on the pan, add the eggs and sprinkle scallion on top. We stuffed ourselves with too much of this northern-style pancake. The first few batches, fried to a bright gold and smelling delicious, went down real easy — we don’t have them in Hunan. But it got to be too much after a while and we almost threw up.
We then went to the park named after Sun Yat-sen, the man who overthrew the last dynasty, and sat down to put the eggs together, filling the shells with paint and sealing them one by one. Then we spread out calligraphy paper, 1.2 meters long and 80 cm wide, on the ground. This had got to be the gutsiest couplet written in China since 1949. I came up with the words and Dongyue, deep in thought, dashed it off with an ink brush: “An end to five thousand years of despotism / Cult of personality is no more.” The matching slogan was: “Hail Liberty!”
The gun was cocked, so to speak. Dongyue took shots of the banner, and Decheng and I had our photo taken at the gate of the park “for keepsake.” All of it, unfortunately, is now part of the criminal record archives at the Public Security Bureau.
LIAO: You didn’t bequeath the “revolutionary keepsakes” to someone you could trust?
YU ZHIJIAN: We couldn’t think of anyone reliable despite knowing so many people. We divided up the job. I am the tallest so I was in charge of blocking the crowd and making the announcement. Dongyue and Decheng would put up the banner and pitch the eggs. We took our respective positions. I made the first appearance, running to the archway and blocking pedestrians: “Excuse me! Excuse me! Please stop for a moment!” More people came toward us and I could not keep them back, until a few students rushed over to help.
LIAO: Why did they help you?
YU ZHIJIAN: Decheng and I were only 25 or 26, and Dongyue was 22 (he’s a prodigy, and graduated from college at 18.) Based on the way we looked, the students thought we were their peers. I was just getting a grip on things when my buddies unfurled the banner with a swoosh and put it up. They were a bit rushed and the thing was a little skewed. Those two then immediately ran backwards, aimed for the best angle of elevation and began pitching. We had thought twenty eggs would be plenty to deface the entire giant portrait, but the two dummies were so lame: the eggs went flying and missed their mark every which way. They didn’t have enough strength in their arms, and the egg would fall halfway through. I couldn’t do anything except watch it happen. I started cussing: What the hell do you think you’re doing? They didn’t end up losing face entirely though. Three out of twenty made it, and graced the despot’s double-chin with a smattering of pockmarks.
LIAO: How long did that take?
YU ZHIJIAN: The whole act took five or six minutes but the eggs took only two or three. It was like a dream, and no one there realized what was happening. They were out of it, surprised, and some people clapped their hands and cheered without thinking it through. When they came to, the deed was done. Walls of people closed in on the “criminals,” and someone reprimanded: “What did you do? Where are you from? Who is behind this?” The UAA guards also rushed over. I was standing to the side and could only see the top of their heads. I overheard lots of jabbering, accusatory voices: “Your motivation is malicious. You intend to destroy everyone, destroy this patriotic movement of ours.” Decheng, sporting the color of the palette from all the broken eggs, was fighting to be heard: “Outlawing Mao’s portrait is both just and legal. We didn’t do anything wrong!” I applauded from far away and spoke up: “That’s right!”
The student standing next to me was having none of it, pointed his finger at me and said, “You’d better not interrupt if it’s none of your business.” I said: “Of course it’s my business. We’re in this together.” That clinched the matter and I was snapped up for good, too. We all got taken to the Command Center.
LIAO: Did you get beaten up?
YU ZHIJIAN: Just pushed around and jostled. Both the people for and against us were in just for the heck of it anyway. The student guards were, when you come right down to it, protecting us. We finally reached the Center set up at the foot of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — the movement’s nucleus we had racked our brains for a way to get into before all of this happened. There we finally were, even if the way we burst on the scene was a bit less dignified than we would have preferred.
We sat under the memorial with hanging heads, forlorn, waiting to see what would be done with us. The student leaders took forever discussing what to do. Finally, plainclothes agents showed up, circled the place, then walked in to demand that they turn us over. The students, quite diplomatically, refused. Right then a lady inched up to me when no one was looking and whispered: “Things are turning out really badly for you all; you’d better look sharp and get away as soon as you can.” I shook my head, “We will live and die together. I won’t walk by myself.” She paused for a moment before saying, “Then why don’t I give you a telephone number. If you need any help, call this number and look for me.” I agreed. I was young and had a good memory, so she only had to say it once for me to remember it.
LIAO: You didn’t ask her who she was?
YU ZHIJIAN: I did not, and I doubt she would have told me anyway. But the way she looked at me, I think she really wanted to help me, so I would like to make sure to mention it now.
LIAO: What happened with all that?
YU ZHIJIAN: Too many things happened and I forgot both about her and the number. Even if I am to stand face to face with her now I doubt I’d be able to recognize her.
LIAO: And then what happened?
YU ZHIJIAN: After some deliberation, the student leaders took us to the Museum of History to the right of the Square for what may count as an informal press conference for Chinese and foreign reporters. There were a lot of reporters and people waiting around already. We did not expect it to be so short; the whole thing lasted under five minutes. The questions were primarily for Lu Decheng. Some head honcho from the UAA also “made clarifications” on behalf of all the university students, stating that they had nothing to do with what happened. Their goal was to promote democratic reform and was absolutely free from this sort of hostility. It is not within the realm of possibility for the UAA to attack the Communist Party or to damage Chairman Mao’s image, et cetera, et cetera. My mind just about exploded.
Then we ended up in a bus, and Decheng was interviewed again, this time by the China Central Television. It began to rain. Outside the window, tents and tarps everywhere on the Square were one big mess, like a disaster area roughly patched together. Who would have thought the official media, usually so sluggish, would have moved so fast and done such a long interview? Questions included where we came from, our profession, how long our planning took, our initial motivation, and whether we had contemplated the consequences. Decheng also answered him at a measured pace, making sure to state that the students were not involved in any way with what we did. People tell me on that same day “XWLB News Broadcast” aired our story as a warning to others and the segment ran for five or six minutes. The program included eyewitnesses, some students and people from Beijing, where they narrated what happened and expressed their views. One student said, “I really admire them for having the courage to do this.” (Chuckles).
LIAO: That’s where I first found out about you, that program. The tone was mostly, I’d say, “angry condemnation,” but the reporters’ anxiety and good will lurked right beneath the surface. They were worried that the incident would bring unthinkably negative consequences to the movement.
YU ZHIJIAN: Negative consequences were on the cards from the very beginning. As long as Mao’s specter roams China and Deng’s iron fist stays on our necks — as long as the Communists are in power, the only outcome to resistance will be bloodshed. We were just one of the episodes.
( To be continued.)
Translated from Chinese by Louisa Chiang. This interview is part of Liao Yiwu’s book Bullets and Opium (《子弹鸦片》), which has yet to be published in English.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part One of Two), June 3, 2016.
The Historian of the Tiananmen Movement and the June Fourth Massacre – An Interview With Wu Renhua (Part Two of Two), June 4, 2016.
How the Tiananmen Massacre Changed China, and the World, Hu Ping, June 2, 2015.