Tiananmen Square Scars Soldier Turned Artist

By ANDREW JACOBS
 

BEIJING — Soaked in sweat, his heart racing, Chen Guang descended the steps of China’s Great Hall of the People and aimed his automatic rifle at the sea of student protesters occupying Tiananmen Square. A 17-year-old soldier from the countryside, Mr. Chen and his comrades had just been given chilling orders: to clear the symbolic heart of the nation, even if it meant spilling blood.

“We were assured there would be no legal consequences if we opened fire,” Mr. Chen recalled in an interview on Tuesday. “My only hope was that the students would not put up a fight.”

Twenty years after Chinese troops shot their way into the center of Beijing, killing hundreds of people and wounding many more, Mr. Chen provided a rare window into the military crackdown that re-established the Communist Party’s supremacy after six weeks of mass unrest and then, for most Chinese, disappeared in an official whitewash.

Speaking publicly for the first time — and defying security officials who have told him to keep silent — he explained how soldiers from the 65th Group Army dressed in civilian clothes on June 3 and stealthily made their way to the Great Hall on Tiananmen Square’s western edge. At midnight, with clips of ammunition slung across their chests, they faced off against demonstrators, the air filled with the singing of students and the sound of gunfire.

“I can assure you I didn’t shoot anyone,” he said.

Now an artist and a bit of a provocateur living on the outskirts of Beijing, Mr. Chen said he spent the next 20 years suppressing memories of that day. But last year he began working on a series of paintings based on hundreds of photographs, taken at his unit’s request while he was on the square. They include gauzy images of protesters commandeering a public bus, exuberant students parading with pro-democracy banners and soldiers feeding their abandoned encampments into bonfires.

“For 20 years I tried to bury this episode, but the older you get the more these things float to the surface,” he said, chain-smoking in his apartment. “I think it’s time for my experiences, my truth, to be shared with the rest of the world.”

But by publicizing his experiences through his art, Mr. Chen risks provoking the authorities, who are eager to suppress discussion of the episode and excise June 4 from public memory. In recent weeks, as the anniversary of the crackdown approached, the police have harassed or detained dissidents who they feared might draw attention to June 4. Last spring, Zhang Shijun, a former soldier from north China, was arrested after telling The Associated Press that he regretted his role in crushing the pro-democracy protests.

Last summer, after local galleries refused to show his paintings, Mr. Chen posted them on the Internet. Within hours, however, they had been taken down.

A slightly built man who talks softly and without emotion, Mr. Chen says he is not worried about the consequences of speaking out, even if he has received warnings to keep his paintings to himself.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said. “I’m just talking about my experiences.”

Raised in rural Henan Province, the son of a factory worker, he dropped out of high school at 15 because, he said, he was a poor student. He wanted to be an artist, but everyone told him that was no way to make a living. “The pressure from my family was intense so I decided to join the army,” he said. Because enlistees had to be at least 18, he lied about his age.

Less than a year later, in mid-April, Beijing was convulsed by protests touched off by the death of Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party chief who had been forced to resign to take responsibility for what some rival leaders viewed as reckless economic and political reforms.

Isolated in their barracks three hours north of the city, Mr. Chen said he and his fellow soldiers understood little about protests. They knew only what military officers told them: “that bad people were trying to destroy the nation that was established with the death of martyrs,” he recalled.

On May 19, they were given orders to enter the city. But their path was blocked by throngs of students and average Beijing residents supporting the demonstrators. For two days the troops were lectured to and fed by strangers while the nation’s military leaders debated what to do.

On the third day, his unit withdrew, but Mr. Chen said the episode left him confused. “We were told they were bad people but the students seemed so honest and earnest,” he said.

After nearly two weeks isolated in their barracks, the soldiers were given civilian clothes and told to make their way to the Great Hall in groups of two or three. Mr. Chen said his assignment was far more unnerving. He said he was the only passenger in a double-length bus with its seats removed and its interior filled to the windowsills with guns and ammunition.

Unfed and terrified, the soldiers, most of them teenagers, waited inside the Great Hall while military commanders, perched at a second-floor window, strategized the assault. Around midnight, power to the square was cut and the soldiers eased their way down the broad steps to the street. To frighten the students into leaving, he said, the men were told to fire into the air. The tactic had the desired effect.

By 2 a.m., tens of thousands of students were weeping and singing the Internationale as they filed out of the square. Not long afterward, armored vehicles rolled in. One went to work on the Goddess of Democracy, a papier-mâché statue that art students had built just days earlier. “It took them three rams before it fell to the ground,” Mr. Chen said.

Most of the deaths in the crackdown, according to multiple accounts of the incident, occurred in the streets leading toward the square, not in the square itself.

Less than a year after the suppression, Mr. Chen enrolled in the military’s art school, then transferred to the Chinese Academy of Fine Art. In 1995, he left the army.

In those early years, Mr. Chen was drawn to photography and performance art, creating work that was lurid and provocative. He spent months filming prostitutes and took photographs of himself copulating on the Great Wall. He also produced a series of sexually explicit photos of himself posing with an elderly intellectual man who had been persecuted by the Communist Party. “I wanted to portray myself having a visceral connection to someone who had experienced China’s tumultuous history,” he said.

Although none of his early work refers directly to Tiananmen Square, he said most of it had been influenced by the trauma there. “Even if a connection is hard to see, everything I do is touched by that experience,” he said. Mr. Chen said he saw soldiers bloodied by rocks and a protestor having his head rifle butted by soldiers. But the image that haunts him most is rather mundane. As he was cleaning up the square that morning, he spotted a luxuriant ponytail amid the detritus of crushed bicycles and tangled blankets.

The clump of hair, held by a purple band, had been crudely shorn, perhaps as an act of protest but possibly the result of something more sinister. “It was a startling image,” he said. “I can’t stop thinking about that hair and why it had been cut off.”

In recent months, he has produced a score of self-portraits. In each, his neck, shoulder and chest are littered with scraps of hair. He cuts his own hair only every year or two and then stores the clippings in his apartment. So far he has filled the equivalent of two dozen coffee cans, raw material for a future project.

He said he did his most intense work every June, around the same time that he was hit with wrenching stomach pain. It is the same twisting of the gut that he first experienced on the square, he said.

It was around this time last year that Mr. Chen decided to revisit the cache of photographs he had taken in 1989. Just before the assault on the square began, Mr. Chen’s commander handed him a camera and 20 rolls of film and told him to wander freely. When it came time to hand back the film, he hid three rolls in his army-issued satchel.

He said the photographs inspired him to take on a subject that few in China care, or dare, to touch. His paintings are artistic depictions of history, he insisted, not expressions of right or wrong. The images are largely dispassionate, although Mr. Chen has rendered them in a washed-out, melancholy blue.

“I have no regrets about what I did,” he said. “But I feel that this tragedy could have been avoided. Maybe if we start talking about this event, we can prevent it from happening again.”

Xiyun Yang contributed research.