The Chinese Amnesia

Fang Lizhi, translated by Perry Link

The following was written while Fang Lizhi was staying in the American Embassy in Beijing, before his release last June.

In November 1989, during the fifth month of my refuge inside the American Embassy in Beijing, I received two letters from New York, one from the president of a group called Human Rights in China, and one from a friend. Both letters asked me to contribute my calligraphy to the title page of a book called Children of the Dragon1 that the two were currently editing. At first I was inclined not to do it. For one, I couldn’t find a writing brush or Chinese ink slab in the embassy. All I had was a Chinese typewriter, hardly appropriate for the kind of calligraphy that was needed. But second, I wasn’t very fond of the four words “Children of the Dragon.” To symbolize the Chinese people by a dragon, a creature that does not exist, may seem to imply that the Chinese people are unique in kind. This runs counter to my fundamental belief that human nature is universal and admits no distinctions of race.

Still, because I was entirely in agreement with the spirit and content of the book that the editors were planning, I eventually found a way to do the calligraphy. Sometimes book titles are only convenient tags, I thought; there was no need to get overly scrupulous about it. Now that the book is published, I am delighted that it carries my four-word contribution.

As a four-word contributor I am technically one of the authors of Children of the Dragon. Authors of course wish that their books will circulate widely. But I wish to show, in the remainder of this essay, why I will be even happier if the circulation is only modest.

There seems to be no accurate count of all the books that have appeared about the Tiananmen events of the spring of 1989. But certainly they have been many. A friend at Columbia University recently wrote me that she and one of her Chinese colleagues, both of whom were eyewitnesses at Tiananmen, had originally planned to write a book about it. But publishers told them that so many Tiananmen books were already available that the market had become “saturated.” The two reluctantly dropped their plan. It seems that a new Tiananmen book, for now, can have only a modest circulation.

In my view, a large but “saturated” market is itself one of the most important consequences to emerge from the events at Tiananmen. It signals the failure of the “Technique of Forgetting History,” which has been an important device of rule by the Chinese Communists. I have lived under the Chinese Communist regime for four decades, and have had many opportunities to observe this technique at work. Its aim is to force the whole of society to forget its history, and especially the true history of the Chinese Communist party itself.

In 1957 Mao Zedong launched an “Anti-Rightist Movement” to…

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