Forbidden

In the middle of the shoving crowd between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, my two Chinese students stopped in hushed awe. In those first moments, I studied their faces. I looked at them more than I looked at the walls that stretched before us to our left, more than the expanse to our right of one of the largest public squares in the world. I looked at their faces, looked for that cold, quiet recognition, but I couldn’t tell what they were thinking.

We were on a school-sponsored trip to a journalism competition in Beijing, 1,300 miles north of Sun Yat-sen University, where they were students and where I taught writing. This was the first thing they wanted to see: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It seemed to signify something great about their country, this center of political rule since the fifteenth-century Ming Dynasty, but I couldn’t imagine what. To me, this area was nothing more than the Tiananmen Square Massacre; an event whose history I knew to be heavily censored in China. I wanted to know what my students thought, what they knew, if they knew.

Tian looked around manically, forgetting for the first time about the cool air against his sub-tropic skin. Zhi stood with her mouth agape. “Wow,” she said. “We’re really here,” and Tian rummaged in his pockets for his phone.

“We should go there,” he said, tugging excitedly at Zhi’s arm. “To the square.”

We pushed our way out of the crowd and across the street to stand in the square itself. In one direction, behind men in green military uniforms who stood stiffly and never smiled, Chairman Mao’s face looked down benignly from the gates of the Forbidden City. In another direction, massive flat screens projected photos from around contemporary China: streets lined with trees painted pesticide white, the winding Great Wall. Off to the side, a child shat on a newspaper his father put down for him. In the center of the square, I moved in a shocked quiet.

They say that when there are ghosts present, the temperature drops. The world feels only to be a projection, and then an overlay, a double exposure, another set of images lies atop. All I could see were my memories from the media: throngs of Chinese people in layman’s clothes; the stain of green helmets that snaked through them; bodies shot through, bleeding, writhing, tossed on anything that could be a stretcher or an ambulance, a bench, a rickshaw. With each body that went through the crowd, ten or so uninjured people followed. The rest of the unharmed bodies didn’t run. They stayed. They didn’t look particularly brave—their shoulders shocked at each new explosion—but they didn’t run.

“Take a picture,” said Tian, handing me his phone. My students pretended to be choked by their scarves; they pretended to push each other around. They slung their arms around each other and held up their fingers in a peace-sign shape: V for Victory.

I knew of Tiananmen Square not only for the massacre, but also for the ensuing cover-up and the shame it brought to Chinese leadership. The whole catastrophe began in mid-April of 1989, when students gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal leader and former Communist Party General Secretary. Over the weeks, as the group came into conflict with governing officials, the gathering transformed into something more than a memorial, attracting tens of thousands of students and taking on the spirit of revolution.

Students released demands, asking for what the western media has largely summarized as “democracy.” They wanted an end to government corruption and inflation; they wanted freedom of the press, freedom of career choice, greater funding for education, and for the protests to be covered—objectively—by the government-controlled Chinese media.

On May 20th, the government declared martial law. On June 3rd and 4th, armored vehicles and military troops descended on the crowds, inciting violence and rioting. They fired into the student mob. Some members of the military, afraid or uncertain, shot into the sky instead. Still, many civilians were injured; many were killed. Officials never released a count of the civilians who were killed by their own militia, though outside estimates range between two hundred and two thousand. (In 1995, activist/dissident Li Hai, a former Tiananmen protester, tried to gather the names of those arrested during the protests. For this act, he was imprisoned for nine years.)

The protests were not then, and are still not today, covered objectively by the Chinese media. Censorship of the events—and any words potentially related to it—began immediately and has never ceased. The list of forbidden words has only grown with the decades of efforts to circumvent the censors: Tiananmen massacre, Tiananmen incident, Tiananmen Square, 64, for June 4, and 63+1, 65-1, 6/4, the words today, tomorrow, special day, and that year. Any term referring, however remotely, to the massacre will be tracked and censored. Today, the government refers to it officially as a “political disturbance.”

No one knows how many bodies fell, but videos and photographs show that they were carried through the crowd, the gap they left filled immediately with more citizens, and then that more citizens were shot, their bodies slung on bicycles, on other people’s backs, and more people filled in the gap they left behind. People ducked for the duration of the shooting and then stood again, hands on their hips, surveying.

If there’s one thing you learn as a westerner in China, it’s that you’ll never understand China. I didn’t understand China as I watched the coverage of the massacre on YouTube from the internet comforts of America, and I didn’t understand it any better as I stood in Tiananmen Square with my students, feeling the history wash over me. The only thing I knew was that I wasn’t to talk about it. I was to keep my first-amendment mouth shut.

*

When I moved to Guangzhou, China, in the fall of 2011, I didn’t know much about censorship. I understood that being a dissident was a crime, though what made for a dissident remained elusive, slippery. I had the vaguest sense of what not to do, and a vaguer sense of what might happen if you did it anyway. There were things I understood I wasn’t supposed to talk about.

I was there to teach academic and creative writing, and choosing essays was an ever-confounding process. In the beginning, I wrote to a colleague, also from America: “Is profanity okay?” “What about sex?” She started to write me back, but it was deleted from her mailbox when she left Tibet, before she could send it. She chalked it up to “weirdness,” but there was something foreboding about what I could tell she couldn’t say. In that, and all future correspondence, she misspelled Tibet. Tbt, Tebet, Tbet.

Once I started teaching I found that it was easy enough, most of the time, not to talk about censored things. For example, it was rare that Tibet would come up in conversation, even though at the time Tibetan monks were setting themselves on fire in protest of government policies towards the so-called Autonomous Region. The most I would ever venture to say was that I’d like to visit Tibet, but even that returned puzzling responses.

“Oh no,” my students would say, widening their eyes and shaking their heads. “It’s very dangerous there. The people are very dangerous, very unhappy.”

Other things that I expected to be hushed were more than open for student discussion. One student told me that our university had a nickname: Rainbow University, for the strength of the Gay Activist student group. By the time I’d arrived, university officials had squashed the nickname and club, and the members had gone guerilla in retaliation, sneaking bookmark messages into library books and slipping fliers under dorm room doors.

In some ways, this is how I imagined my own teaching would unfold: With small, sly gestures, I would liberate through knowledge. To some extent this may have manifested, but it’s also true that I became not braver, but more confused, as my year progressed.

I thought that if I didn’t follow the rules, I might be fired and sent back to the States with no job and no money, but I really had no idea what the rules were, nor the limits to what could happen if I broke them. I received cryptic teaching tips via students and other faculty from administrators I’d never met and never heard of. These weren’t related directly to censorship—not in the way I understood them—but revealed a sort of hierarchical surveillance I didn’t understand.

When I was feeling especially paranoid, I imagined the scenarios that would lead to my termination. There were cameras situated in the corners of my classroom ceilings; I imagined that, if the administration hadn’t been watching all along, they would begin scouring the tapes for evidence of my subversion. I thought I was probably on the verge of gaining an administrative observer to all my classrooms. They would put someone on the job who had impeccable English, who would understand my words even when I dropped my voice to teach my students about things I had been told I shouldn’t: Ramadan, racism, Passover, and why they might not want to trust government websites.

My naivety was vast, but I understood that that was no excuse. I often thought of the young employee for the newspaper Chengdu Evening News, who claimed ignorance when she failed to censor an advertisement that read, “Saluting the strong mothers of victims of 64.” It ran on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, on June 4, 2007. She didn’t know the significance of June 4; she didn’t know what the ad meant, she explained, and when she called the advertiser to ask, they told her it was the date of a mining disaster. Days after the ad ran, she and two other employees were fired.

*

There was a constant problem of choosing readings for my classes. To China, I had brought about ten books to teach from and another ten for myself, the books I loved most. Of the ten for teaching, most had proven useless: too difficult, too obscure, appropriate only for my most advanced students. It became my habit to stay up late, frantically searching online for something for them to read that might teach them something. Finding it meant a certain peace, an end to the frustrated search.

It went like this:

To search on the Internet, enable the Virtual Private Network (VPN) to permeate the Great Firewall, rerouting the Chinese IP address through another country, allowing access to censored sites in exchange for painfully slow internet speeds and 20 USD per month. Enough money, in China, for a month’s worth of vegetables or maybe one-half of an English-language novel. Maybe one-third.

Click on sites and wait for them to load as guests sitting at outdoor tables at the restaurant across the way yell at each other in rambunctious Chinese—a sign of a good restaurant. Red lanterns hang from the trees, but, unlit, they shadow into the leaves as the sun sets.

Spend stretches of time reading, stretches opening up new tabs and waiting. Download podcasts one at a time—it could easily take hours to download a 20-minute podcast. When the waiting becomes too much, or all the sites die in exhausted unison, close everything and go into the specifics of the VPN proxy, changing the country of connection: England, Australia, Turkey.

The essays should be engaging, and the written style should be fairly direct. Too many cultural references will render a story unreadable. If the language is too sophisticated, my students will simply give up. Too long, no good, unless it is exceptionally interesting. They are enrolled in six, seven, ten other classes.

While digital wheels spin in bored circles on Internet tabs, the restaurant employees, dressed in fuchsia and red, drag metal-footed tables screeching across the concrete and pile them atop each other, two by two. They sweep the ground with straw brooms and mop it clean. One by one, tabs stop loading, and error messages pop up. The restaurant, too, shuts down, employees leaving food scraps on the walkway as they leave. Later, mangy cats with infected ears purr and hiss as they eat them.

Consider, while waiting on the Internet, the entirety of two Joan Didion collections, three essay anthologies, slide David Foster Wallace into the “no” pile due to difficulty, shove illegible Chinese receipts into possibilities—though they still all seem too difficult: vocabulary too hard, the forms too advanced, the cultural gulf too great.

If the Internet is exceptionally slow, wonder what is happening out there in the world. Wonder what it is that you are not supposed to find.

*

When I finally found a perfect essay—or a workable essay, anyway—it was hard to let go. I was ready to assign it when I caught the one line, one passing reference to students in Tiananmen Square staring down tanks. It was the first sentence on a page mid-way through. It recalled the iconic image of Tank Man, as I’d seen in a video back in the States. The tanks, four pictured and thirteen more outside of the frame, were stalled in their military advance by one man. He stood in ordinary clothes, looking unexceptional aside from this one act of humbling bravery.

As the tank tried to pass him to the right, he shuffled in front of it. To the left, and his small feet darted him there. Clunky and cumbersome, the tank plodded back and forth. Eventually, the man climbed on top of it, poking his head here and there, as though looking for an entrance to the impenetrable machine. He was eventually dragged off by other civilians, his identity a mystery to this day.

It was one of the most iconic images to emerge from the massacre, and it was burned into my mind before I ever understood its context, but in China, it would mean that I couldn’t teach the essay.

I put the edge of my hand over the sentence. I put a piece of paper across the top of the page. It had no effect on the rest of the essay. It hardly even mattered, except that it was there. If I copied it wrong, if I slanted it just so, if I folded the page down, I reasoned that the essay would stand unharmed. It would look like a mistake.

One night an American friend and I were sharing a bottle of wine in my apartment. We were talking about Tibet, something about the Dalai Lama, and she lifted her head to my ceiling and yelled, “Dalai Lama! That’s right! I like the Dalai Lama. I think he’s a good guy.” And then, without missing a beat, she took another sip of her wine and met my eyes. “For the cameras,” she said, gesturing around the room. “For the microphones.” For the bugs, the listeners and the watchers.

There must have been a part of me that wanted to throw the book to the ceiling, to open my door and throw it at the red lights that circled the camera lens trained on my apartment. I wish I had screamed the words “Tiananmen Square” to the sky in some strange rage; I wish I could say that at that moment, I rebelled. But China gets inside you, the censorship does, or the confusion, the exhaustion. In China, they say that the loudest duck gets shot.

I didn’t yell. I studied my options. I calculated risk against the unknown. I could remove the sentence, or I could not teach the essay. These, I believed, were my options. I couldn’t figure out which form of censorship was worse, but in the end, I couldn’t fold over the page. If nothing else, that seemed too blatant. But I didn’t assign the text, either.

*

Living with the censorship was a matter of removal of complications, a matter of easy compliance. I’d heard that a friend’s blog had been rendered inaccessible after she mentioned Tiananmen Square in a post—as nothing more than a geographical landmark. I’d heard that typing the wrong words into Google would knock out your Internet for days. Not just words like “Tiananmen Massacre” or “Free Tibet,” but words like “freedom.” I didn’t take chances.

I pressed my students on this issue for the critical thinking element, and because they knew more than I. They referred covertly to the fact that things were forbidden, though they wouldn’t say what.

“But you can misspell things, right?” I was thinking of my colleague who misspelled Tibet. “I mean, if you really want to talk about something you can misspell it, right?”

My students squinted their eyes as though trying to determine just how profoundly stupid I was. After a sort of collective deep breath, they explained that this not-so-sly maneuver had been done before, and was hardly worth trying anymore. If you did try to subvert the censors on your social networking sites and were caught, the offending post would be deleted—that was certain—but your entire account might also disappear: all your posts, photos, correspondence, gone.

“Everything?”

They nodded.

A successful censor con would have to be so many steps removed from the actual censored thing that it would be almost absurd. Even then, the censors would most certainly catch on eventually. The phrase “big yellow duck,” which refers to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, is censored.

This was the type of thing I thought of whenever the Internet told me that a website was simply “not found,” which happened several times a day if I wasn’t using my VPN. One day, concerned about the smog’s effect on my already-oily skin, I searched Google for “Mary Kay Cosmetics Guangzhou.” It brought me to this message, in bold black and red print, followed by the details of my computer and connection:

403 FORBIDDEN!

Either the address you are accessing this site from has been banned for previous malicious behavior or the action you attempted is considered to be hostile to the proper functioning of this system.

The detected reason(s) you were blocked are:
No access allowed from China (ci).

Your IP, and Domain Name (if resolvable) has been logged to a local honeypot, along with the referring page (if any), QUERY, POST, User Agent, time of access, and date. Please either 1. Stop the bad behavior, or 2. Cease accessing this system.

I made jokes about it—Welcome to China! and Whatever will happen to my youthful glow!?—but the truth was that those warnings reverberated: the action you attempted is considered to be hostile to the proper functioning of this system. I went back to hiding behind my VPN all the time. It was clunky, slow, and crashed at crucial moments. I began to believe it was part of the problem. Stop the bad behavior. I began, also, to wonder if that suspicion itself wasn’t pure paranoia, but that didn’t stop me from canceling my VPN service altogether.

I stopped using Google and used Bing exclusively. Bing only reported back the search results one could access in China. Google, on the other hand, does not censor their results, frustratingly sending their users to a multitude of sites that are blocked, every search a reminder of what you cannot see. Life was more peaceful without it. In a world where buying coffee beans was a full-day project, a little peace went a long way.

That said, there were boundaries I could push, and did. If students expressed curiosity, if they asked questions, I always answered. This was my policy: if no one asked, I assumed I couldn’t talk about it, for reasons that either had to do with differing cultural notions of respect, simple censorship, or both. I could tell immediately if I was talking about something forbidden; my students would fall into a protesting silence, listening only because they had to. But we talked openly about their government, the college entrance exams that more or less decide their futures, the perceived irrelevancy of voting, and the one-child policy. It was comforting to challenge my Chinese students in the same way I might challenge my American students.

I still staged small insurgencies, telling them where to find things, what they might want to look at and read. I pushed gently at their suspicions. “Do you think you’re not getting the whole story?” They’d nod their heads thoughtfully.

*

Before I left China, I sold almost everything I owned to other expats and incoming teachers, but my books I reserved to sell to my students, the ones I trusted to keep a secret.

Most of the books were harmless collections of essays or fiction. They taught about sentences and they told stories. But there were a few that aren’t sold in China, some of them by Chinese authors, some critical of the government. Some of them refer to things that are forbidden. And there was the book with the passing reference, the one sentence on top of the one page. In my mind it was a little fuck you. After all, books in China are still powerful, the written word filled with possible infractions. A book, I hoped, could do what I didn’t have the courage to.

As I divvied up the books on the desks in front of me, one of my students said, “Today is an important day in Chinese history,” and the rest of them fell into a reverential quiet.

This was not the first important Chinese anniversary that I had missed. The good days have much festivity and celebration, but the other days, like the anniversary of the rape of Nanking, could come and go with me just wondering why my students were acting so strange. I’d ask, like an idiot, “Busy time of the semester?” and then go on following American news.

“Today is 6-4,” another student said, though the numbers landed numbly on my ears.

“June fourth?”

They looked at me with pity and spoke quietly. They were always having to catch me up on things.

“June fourth,” she repeated; “It was the day that a terrible thing happened in Beijing, in Tiananmen Square—”

I shouldn’t have interrupted her, but I must have, because I know that she never explained to me what happened. In confusion and shock I demanded to know how they knew about that. They all knew about it. They shook their heads and tried with gentle earnestness to explain it to me.

“I know about it,” I said, “I already know about it. But you?”

I was always a fool about China. Over there, I was adorable, but a fool. Of course my students knew, their eyes seemed to say. They were surprised that I knew. I told them that, in America, everyone knows. It’s very famous, I said. “But how do you know?” I couldn’t read their amazement. I couldn’t tell if they were surprised that I knew, or that I didn’t think they knew.

The bell rang, an old fashioned buzzer loud enough to make me jump every time. They gathered their things and began to talk among themselves.

“How do you know?” I said again, standing as they huddled out the doorway. One looked coyly back over her shoulder. In perfect English she said, “We have our ways.” And with a smile and a shrug, she disappeared down the hallway with her classmates.

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About Katie Booth

Katie has taught at Sun Yat-sen University, where she remains affiliated faculty with their Center for Creative Writing—the first center of its kind in China. She has earned fellowships from the Edward Albee Foundation and The Massachusetts Historical Society, and currently writes for Pittsburgh Magazine and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

Comments

  1. I taught English in China as well (at a high school in Changsha, Hunan), and had a very similar experience. I read a book before I went (River Town by Peter Hessler) about a guy who spent 2 years teaching English in China for the Peace Corps, and he developed all these close relationships with people who eventually told him all about what happened to their families during the Cultural Revolution, etc. I went there thinking I could develop those same relationships and collect those stories but, although I was welcomed by the school and students, I was also kept at arm’s length and in the shadows. I could never get an accurate roster or a school calendar for the semester, even. It was hard to determine what my students did and did not know; what I could or could not teach. The school gave me zero guidance on what I should teach, until I overstepped the bounds and was politely informed by my students that they didn’t do the work I had assigned them because it was forbidden. At the time I hoped at least that the fact that they were forbidden to do an assignment would spur some internal questioning, but like you discovered, students have their own way of knowing things that they don’t need us for, and I think my students knew more than I gave them credit for.

  2. katielbooth says:

    Hi Allee, It’s good to know I wasn’t alone in that experience! I loved being there–and teaching there–but there were so many unknowns that there were times it felt impossible to navigate. Glad the essay resonated with you, and thanks for reading!

Thoughts?