Monday, June 20, 2005

The Great Wall

In our early days in China, back in 1979, when the fall weather was delightfully crisp and the sky a clear, brilliant blue, three of Paul's parents students took us on a sort of "greatest hits" tour of what passed for underground Beijing. One of the stops was Democracy Wall. It was not a particularly impressive structure, as I recall: just a brick and plaster wall, ten or twelve feet high. At the time, there was a sort of illegal art show posted there, realistic drawings of peasants, with accompanying text about the difficulties of their lives, the things that had happened to them, their suffering. The students read us aloud their stories. I'm afraid I don't remember the details now. But I still remember one of the drawings, of a young peasant woman, her wide, stunned eyes. Clumps of people stood around in their green or blue suits (those were the fashion choices at that time), reading the posters in an oddly hushed, I will even say, reverent silence.

At least, I think I remember it. Memories become distorted over time, conflated with other tangentially related incidents. Paul's parents, for example, had drawings sketched of themselves and Paul. I may have had one done as well, I really don't remember. And they had a drawing, a portrait, of a peasant girl, a poignant piece done in charcoal. Maybe that's the drawing I remember, not anything I saw at Democracy Wall. Somewhere I have some notes I took back then, when I was trying to write about it. Maybe those have better details. It was a long time ago.

But just now, when I was looking for a link to put up about the Wall, I came across this excellent article at the Harvard Asia Quarterly that outlines the history of Democracy Wall and the movement that surrounded it. I was looking for confirmation that the Wall had been closed down during my stay in Beijing. That's how I remembered it, but then, I don't entirely trust my memory. And I read this:
Democracy Wall also provided a space for non-socialist realist art and for abstract artists who showed their works in front of the Wall. When a group of these artists tried to present their work in what was called the Star Star exhibit in the fall of 1979, the police banned the exhibit. A few of the sculptures ridiculed Mao. As with suppression of other colleagues, Democracy Wall activists organized demonstrations to protest the closure. Despite the ban on the Star Star exhibit and later criticism of "misty" poetry as incomprehensible, these artistic innovations, associated with the Democracy Wall movement, brought new vitality and originality to Chinese literature and art and have had a lasting impact.
I can't tell you what an odd sensation it gave me, to read this. That's right. I remember that. I remember the abstract art and the statues and the controversy. I was there, and I saw it. I remember hearing about the exhibit getting shut down, shortly after we'd seen it.

And I remember later, when they closed Democracy Wall. This article confirms it, December of 1979. We received the news as a sort of gossip, living in isolation in our Designated Foreigners' Compound. "Did you hear? They closed Democracy Wall. Isn't that a shame?" We knew in the China of that time that it couldn't last...

I didn't really understand it, at the time. Didn't really know about the activists who got arrested, about "the 5th Modernization," meaning democracy, about how wide-spread and influential this movement was. As the Harvard Asia Quarterly article puts it:
China's leaders may choose to ignore the Democracy Wall movement for political reasons, but that does not explain why others should follow their lead. Perhaps the violent events of June 4, 1989 have superceded and focused attention on the later movement, but from the perspective of the end of the 20th century, the Democracy Wall movement, much more than the spring 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, was a transformative political event in the People's Republic. It precipitated unprecedented political debates, fresh political issues, unofficial magazines, and independent political organizations. As Wang Juntao, one of the participants in both events, has pointed out, the political activists who came to the fore in the Democracy Wall movement played a key role in China's "struggle for democratic change"1 in the post-Mao era. This movement not only began the public critique of the Cultural Revolution and Mao's policies and demanded a reversal of the unjust verdicts of the Mao period (1949-76), it also ­ for the first time in the People's Republic ­ called publicly for political reform and human rights. Unlike the participants in the spring 1989 demonstrations, who begged the party to reform, the participants in Democracy Wall movement attempted to achieve their own political rights.
You can read Wei Jingsheng's account here.

If you have any trouble accessing these articles, drop me a line at, and I'll be happy to send them to you.

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