ALMOST A REVOLUTION
By Shen Tong with Marianne Yen
Houghton Mifflin. 342 pp. $19.95
THE BROKEN MIRROR
China After Tiananmen
Edited by George Hicks
St. James Press. 526 pp. $XX.XX
CHANGE THE names, dates and places and the first one-third of Shen Tong's Almost a Revolution could have been published as an edifying tale of staunch New England virtues in any St. Nicholas magazine issue of the 1890s.
Here is the same firm dedication of a family to good deeds, right thinking, belief in the primacy of education, duty to one another, patriotism and concern for the general welfare which we associate with the early settlers on this continent.
And while the last two-thirds of Almost a Revolution are concerned with the tragic Tiananmen events of June 1989 the moods, ideals, passions, actions and motivations mirror strikingly those evoked in the student protest, sit-in and eventual "bust" at Columbia University in 1968.
It is these uncanny similarities which underlie the overwhelming empathy which Tiananmen evoked -- and still evokes -- in such wide circles of Americans, a fact which seems improbable and incomprehensible to the geriatric generation of Deng Xiaoping and his elders.
The story of Tiananmen has been told many times and will, no doubt, be told many times more. Shen Tong was one of the Beijing University students caught up in the turmoil and who became one of its prominent figures. I hesitate to call him a "leader" because his account so clearly demonstrates that the events moved largely on a momentum of their own, developing more like a tornado than a planned campaign. Anarchy, not plots or conspiracy, was its outstanding characteristic.
The delight of Shen Tong's book is his personal narrative, the story of his childhood, growing up in a hutang, an alley just off Chang-an Avenue, the majestic boulevard that sweeps through the heart of Beijing, passing through Tiananmen and skirting the Forbidden City and the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai.
In this enclave off busy Xidan marketplace, Shen Tong was a lively, mischievous and attractive youngster. He poked into everything around him and grew up on the parades and festivals that moved by his doorstep on Chang-an Avenue. It must have been rather like watching the endless parades on Fifth Avenue.
Shen Tong was born eight years before the death of Mao Zedong at the height of the Cultural Revolution. His parents were hardworking, well educated people, dedicated to their children and their country, party members who worked in an army training school, ethical people in the best sense, raising Shen and his sister to respect and observe human virtues. They called their son Shen Tong because that is a homonym for the word meaning prodigy.
Shen Tong lived up to his name. He was always at the head of his class. His father was a specialist in the Korean language but it was years before he could get a job using his language. When he got it he had to go to Korea for four years. With his father absent Shen Tong got into trouble -- the same kind American youngsters get into -- minor shoplifting, telling lies, truancy. When his father finally returned Shen Tong straightened up. NO STORY is more instructive than Shen Tong's examinations to get into the university. The whole family pitched in to help. He spent every moment of his waking time for six months studying. The exam took three days. His family came to the examination site with him. At breaks they were there to give him sandwiches and cold drinks. When he passed and won entry into Beijing University they gave him a banquet. His father's boss and the party secretary came to congratulate the Shen family on putting two students into the Harvard of China (his sister had already gotten in).
Shen Tong's story of Tiananmen is exciting and sad. Well before June 4, 1989, he and many other leading students were searching for a way out. His detailed account of their meetings with Yan Mingfu, one of Deng's important underlings, in an effort to resolve the conflict is a revelation. Yan Mingfu lost his job because of his sympathy with the students.
Shen Tong was very lucky. He got an American visa on June 5, the day after the massacre and managed to slip out of the country. Otherwise he would still be in prison or dead. His narrative is appealing, instructive and important.
In contrast, the collection of essays in The Broken Mirror seems to be a random selection with no central focus. Many of them try to arrange some theoretical underpinning for Tiananmen with no great success.
Harrison E. Salisbury was an eyewitness of Tiananmen and wrote of it in "Tiananmen Diary: 13 Days in June." He is presently completing a book on the Deng Xiaoping era.