Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

4 June 1989 by Mary Chapin Carpenter

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I told them no one saw me, there was no one who would know
I was an army soldier dressed in students' clothes
Between the smoking bonfires we held our rifles high
As the ashes of the banners soared into the sky. Read full Lyrics
Located in the centre of Beijing, China, and named after the Tiananmen Gate at the entrance to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square is the third largest city square in the world, encompassing about 109 acres of land. In the summer of 1989, following hunger strikes and Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in May, Chinese students took to the streets in a series of pro-democracy demonstrations. These demonstrations were met with military hostility as fractures in the Chinese government became more apparent. The political situation reached breaking point after Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China, declared martial law. On June 4th pro-democracy protesters tried to prevent the military from advancing into Tiananmen Square, but the unarmed students were helpless against assault rifles and tanks.

Nicknamed the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the body count is disputed with some sources citing as few as a couple of hundred deaths, while others estimate that more than seven thousand protesters were killed. Despite the discrepancies, the irrefutable truth is that Tiananmen Square turned bloody that day as the Chinese government crushed political dissidents. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century, and one which has come to represent the happenings of June 4th, is that of the lone student – since identified as 19-year-old Wang Weilin – who stood alone before an advancing column of tanks the morning after the massacre. This image of one man standing against an iron fisted regime captured the hearts and minds of the international community.

Tiananmen Square entrance to the Forbidden city
Photo: Atosan, Dreamstime

Decades later the events at Tiananmen Square still resonate, as evidenced by Mary Chapin Carpenter's 2010 song "4 June 1989." While the song centers on the event, Carpenter explained to Express Night Out that her song was inspired by an article in the New York Times, which profiled a 17-year-old artist. "He was a soldier in the army," Carpenter explained. "The first verse is his recollections of what it was like to be there - and to be sent in 'imposter's clothes' when the authorities were trying to infiltrate the protesters. He was haunted by his part in it. He's an artist now in China and he works all the time trying, in a way, to almost provoke the authorities. They have this game that they play where they allow him to put his work on the Internet, for example, and it'll stay up for a day or two, and then all of a sudden it's taken down. The lyric about 'vanishing into the ether' is my sense of it. His story was exceedingly moving to me and I just tried to write about it."

Released on Carpenter's 2010 album The Age of Miracles, "4 June 1989" is the fifth track of twelve varied and haunting original compositions. The album peaked at #28 on Billboard's 200 and at #6 on Billboard's Top Country Charts, while receiving praise from music critics. "4 June 1989" was never released as a single and remains one of Carpenter's lesser-known tracks with its poignant melody and bittersweet lyrics.

Today, Tiananmen Square is a must-see on most tourist lists, although still heavily guarded by police, the portrait of Mao hanging at the entrance to the Forbidden City serves as a constant reminder of China's bloody history and proof that the memory of "4 June 1989" isn't ever going to "vanish in the ether."

Suzanne van Rooyen
May 14, 2016

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me.
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