Tiananmen Square as a Realm of Memory


A review of Constructing Tiananmen Square as a Realm of Memory: National Salvation, Revolutionary Tradition, and Political Modernity in Twentieth-Century China, by Tsung-Yi Pan.

Tsung-Yi Pan’s dissertation is a history of Tiananmen Square from the late nineteenth century to the present, with special attention paid to the intersection of cultural memory and space. Building on the theoretical work of scholars such as Pierra Nora, Jan Assmann, and Alon Confino, this study considers Tiananmen Square as a site for the construction and contestation of collective memory. Collective memory has deep implications for nationalism and other forms of collective identity, and the author argues that the material and spatial aspects of the site are active elements in the definition and interpretation of Chinese modernity. Although the Chinese state has played the dominant role in shaping Tiananmen Square as a political space, this study asks us to remain attentive to “the fluidity and malleability of memorial spaces’ symbolism and utility” (p. 9), and to consider how both state and non-state actors have constructed Tiananmen Square as “a memorial site to store, recall, and manipulate the past in the present” (p. iv, 4). Drawing on a variety of primary sources – including Chinese and foreign archives, Chinese history textbooks, various forms of literature and film, underground and mainstream media, and memory-based texts such as autobiographies – the dissertation approaches this space through the material memorialization of “fateful events” or “fixed points” in modern Chinese history (see Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity.” New German Critique 65 (Spring – Summer, 1995): 125-133) (pp. 15-6). The dissertation is structured in four parts of two chapters each, plus an introduction and a conclusion.

Part One looks at the lasting discursive foundations that have made Tiananmen Square a legible and usable space. Chapter 1 details the history of “national salvation,” a discourse that developed in response to a century of international and domestic crises beginning with the Opium War. Through a survey of the secondary literature, the author interprets Chinese communism as the culmination of various modernizing projects to overcome “national humiliation” by “bringing the West home” (p. 45, following Theodore Huters, Bringing the World Home: Appropriating the West in Late Qing and Early Republican China, Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005). Chapter 2 outlines the canonization of Maoist revolutionary discourse as the “correct” approach to national salvation, including its interpretation of the May Fourth movement centered on Tiananmen as the “turning point” in the Chinese revolution (p. 112), and the repetition of this orthodoxy in communist era textbooks (pp. 130-3). Part Two looks at the establishment and ongoing construction of Beijing as the political capital of the People’s Republic of China and of Tiananmen Square as its symbolic center. Chapter 3 considers the selection of Beijing as the PRC capital and the planning of Tiananamen Square as the focal point along the city’s central axis. While this history is not unknown to the field, there are hitherto untold episodes: Mao did not, as is commonly believed, utter the phrase “The Chinese people have stood up” at Tiananmen on October 1, 1949. Chapter 4 examines the population of the square with architectural edifices, particularly the Monument to the People’s Heroes and the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall.

Part Three focuses on the April Fifth [1976] Movement. Chapter 5 discusses how popular memorialization of the late Premier Zhou Enlai temporarily transformed the Square into a space for public protest against the official line and the expression of “incipient disillusionment” with Mao (p. 241). Chapter 6 analyzes the political uses of the poetry produced during the April Fifth Movement, both in popular and state discourses, while the key part of the chapter shows how popular memory and official politics became conflated in support of Deng Xiaoping (pp. 296-9). Once April Fifth was no longer useful, however, it disappeared from the state discourse on Tiananmen. The doctrine of Four Cardinal Principles meant that spontaneous popular protest, even if deemed revolutionary in hindsight, was a potential danger to the business of modernization. This theme is explored in Part Four, which focus on June Fourth [1989]. Chapter 7 argues that the traumatic memories of the Cultural Revolution led elders in the leadership to oppose the students in the Square, while the students themselves creatively appropriated Maoist revolutionary discourse, including Cultural Revolution slogans, to give life to their movement. Chapter 8 demonstrates that both May Fourth and April Fifth provided templates for June Fourth. The conclusion also considers recent installations intended to make Tiananmen Square the temporal center of China.

This dissertation offers what Pan describes as “the first comprehensive study of the politics of memory at Tiananmen Square” (p. 401), incorporating interesting new primary sources into the large body of secondary literature on China’s most significant political space.

Alexander C. Cook
Assistant Professor of History
University of California, Berkeley

Primary Sources

Beijing Municipal Archives
Tong Huaizhou [pseudonym], various collections of April Fifth Tiananmen Poetry
PRC history textbooks
Beijing Municipal Urban Planning Bureau
Hou Renzhi, various works such as Beijing cheng de qiyuan yu bianqian [The Origins and Transformation of Beijing City]. Beijing: Chinese Bookshop, 2001.

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2011. 464 pp. Primary Advisor: Ann Waltner.


Image: Tiananmen Square 180 Degrees. Wikimedia Commons.

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