Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
Three years earlier, Paul Theroux traveled by train to and around China and recounted his experiences in his book Riding the Iron Rooster.
Passing through Poland, Theroux watched peasants with their livestock in the gray countryside. In Warsaw he tried to collect royalties owed to him from translations of his books. The payment was in Polish zloty, which he could not take out of Poland, leaving him with two hours to spend the equivalent of around $600 at shops where there was nothing worth buying. In Poland today — I should know, having spent many recent weeks in Krakow — every city has a gleaming “galeria” of a shopping mall. Zloty bills fly out of ATMs, straight from my U.S. bank account. The wi-fi is faster than in America. And when I rode trains across the country, I never saw any peasants.
In China, Theroux found a country in a moment of liberalism and hope that would in retrospect turn out only to be a moment. The Chinese he met freely criticized the Cultural Revolution that ended only a decade earlier and openly admitted to despising Mao. Members of the intelligentsia he met discussed with him George Orwell’s 1984.
But that brief period of liberalism in the end led to a bloodbath. And for the next 30 years, the Beijing government meticulously scrubbed away all references in China to those thrilling weeks and the violent denouement. Censors persistently delete all mentions of “6-4” on the Chinese Internet. If you try to send a message including “6-4” through the Chinese messaging app WeChat, there is a very good chance that it won’t go through.
Beijing has been so successful in controlling information, in inflicting amnesia upon its own people, that most young Chinese have never heard of the events on Tiananmen Square. Yangyang Cheng, a Chinese physicist born in 1989 now working in the U.S., wrote movingly the other day about how she was finally able to discover the truth about Tiananmen only after she left her homeland.
And the “Iron Rooster” in the title of Theroux’s book? It was the nickname of the railway line connecting Beijing to Xinjiang, the vast northwestern region historically populated by the Muslim Uyghur minority. Recently the Chinese government has been building what amounts to concentration camps in Xinjiang in a concerted effort to obliterate Uyghur identity.
Both China and Poland are unrecognizable today compared to the countries Theroux found, but in vastly different ways. Both grew much wealthier, but one took the path to freedom while the other persisted in tyranny.
The traveler learns when visiting the most exotic of locales that they are what they are: As alien as another country may seem to our eyes, its existence, the fact of it, the fact that it is an example of how human society can organize itself, can never be denied.
And the past is a foreign country. The student of history realizes how much things change with time, so that in a sense the traveler can never visit the same country twice, just as — as Heraclitus pointed out — one can never step into the same river twice. And yet, by the same token, the fact of the past can never be denied. What happened, happened, no matter how vehemently anyone might pretend otherwise.
“The world is what it is,” wrote V. S. Naipaul. “A man who is nothing, who allows himself to become nothing, has no place in it.”
And the past is what it is. A nation that remembers nothing, that allows its own memory to be wiped away to nothing, is nothing.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."