Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Curriculum in Exile: Teaching Tiananmen at Harvard

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Curriculum in Exile: Teaching Tiananmen at Harvard

Article excerpt

Walking out of the library toward Harvard Yard, I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness and failure. Earlier that afternoon I had taken my Tiananmen seminar students to the library to look at materials in the Tiananmen Archive. Facing boxes of evidence, of human faces and human blood, one Chinese student kept making an assertion he had made many times before: there is no historical truth in this. "The Chinese government is not evil," he began. "They did it out of good intentions. If they had had more appropriate equipment, they would have done a better job in 1989.... The Chinese government didn't tell the truth, but the West didn't tell the truth either because they didn't like China's rising."

As someone who had studied Tiananmen and its aftermath for 10 years, none of that student's argument was new to me; it was in line with the official version of the event created and enforced by the Beijing government through campaigns on all fronts since 1989. Still, I felt intellectually and emotionally challenged. After all, our seminar was taught outside China. Students had free access to evidence and enjoyed the freedom to research and inquire critically. And yet, here was a student dismissing all of that and rejecting all the personal accounts and oral histories by student participants, observers, and the Tiananmen Mothers, as well as rejecting the interpretations and analyses by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and educators, as simply "views of the West."

But I could not stop thinking about the implications of the incident. It reminded me of other rumors I had heard: one of my students was told by a Chinese man to drop my course because it was "biased history"; another student was told a similar thing by a Chinese student who claimed to have dropped my class the year before--the fact was my seminar was packed, every student who came to the first class stayed till the end, and the class rewarded me with a perfect score of 5/5 on the teaching evaluation. It was intimidating to think that there were people out there who spread lies to make sure students avoid a seminar that "teaches biased Chinese history." I felt that the challenges I faced were beyond personal. It involved a challenge to humanity by a regime that thought it could manipulate memory and truth and enforce false values on the world with its wealth and rising power. It is the essence of intellectual freedom, I reminded myself, that Tiananmen was being taught at Harvard.


My friend Liane's testimony about her experience during the 1989 military crackdown begins with a description of a young boy lying next to her, covered with blood:

His blood and flesh were mixed up. He wasn't moving. The first ambulance came; I insisted on not getting in. The second came; I still struggled not to get on. A woman doctor in tears held my hand and spoke to me in English: "Child, we need you to get back to Hong Kong safely. We need you to tell the world what our government did to us."

Liane was a college student in Hong Kong who had gone to Beijing to support the democracy movement in 1989. On the night of June 3, when people in the streets of Beijing found out that Liane was from Hong Kong, they risked their lives to protect her so she could "leave alive to tell the world."

In Spring 1989, millions of people filled the streets all over China calling for political reform. The peaceful demonstrations and the college students' hunger strike on Tiananmen Square ended tragically on June 4th with the People's Liberation Army firing on unarmed civilians, killing and injuring untold numbers. Afterwards, intellectuals and student leaders were purged, imprisoned, and exiled. Scenes of the upsurge of protests and the brutal massacre captured the attention of millions around the world. However, while the movement was well known outside of China, at least at the time, memory is elusive and unstable, always subject to ferocious editing and even erasure. …

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