Ding Zilin: Documenting death: reflections after ten years
Mar 23, 1999Recounting her journey from bereaved mother to human rights activist, Ding
Zilin explains why she sees her search for the specifics of June Fourth
deaths as not only part of her own catharsis, but also an essential element
in the awakening of the people of her country.
People see life as joy and light; death as fear and darkness. But on the
scales of human worth, life and death balance each other. Without
understanding the heaviness of death, one¹s life is insubstantial.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the June Fourth Massacre. It is also
the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People¹s Republic of China.
Confronted with these two anniversaries, I think of death.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has held political power since 1949. Half
a century has passed. Naturally, on the "Big 50th Celebration" there are
many reasons to celebrate. But I believe that there will be some items
excluded from the official list.
In the first decade of the People¹s Republic, the CCP launched the
Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries campaign, followed by one for the
Elimination of Counterrevolutionaries, and then the Anti-Rightist Movement.
As the 1950s became the 1960s, China suffered the so-called "Three Years¹
Natural Disasters." In the second decade of the People¹s Republic, the CCP
initiated the unprecedented Cultural Revolution, which lasted well into the
1970s and ended with the Tiananmen Incident of April 4, 1976. The CCP opened
the 1980s with the crackdown on the Xidan Democracy Wall Movement. And
ultimately, the CCP deployed tens of thousands of rampaging troops violently
to suppress the 1989 Tiananmen movement. In the fifth decade of the People¹s
Republic, it seems that there have been no major incidents, but it is still
too soon to tell.
Certainly, the CCP will not "celebrate" the above-mentioned events. Today¹s
CCP leaders do not have the courage to face the bloody history that they and
their predecessors created. They fear the mere thought or mention of this
history by the Chinese people.
But as China¹s 1.2 billion people celebrate the founding of the PRC, should
they remember this bloody history? I believe they should. During the last 50
years of Chinese Communist rule, up to 80 million people died of unnatural
causes. This shocking figure sticks in my mind. These 80 million people were
not casualties of war; they died in what was supposed to be peace-time!
Perhaps if the 1989 massacre had not occurred, if my son had not been killed
in that tragedy, and if I had not been constantly interacting with families
of June Fourth victims, perhaps I would be like others‹discussing this
figure only as dinner conversation. But it has already been 50 years. For
those who have ties to any of those 80 million people, and for those who do
not, it has come time to weigh the significance of this figure. Amid all the
commemorations, it is the commemoration of death that may prove the most
important for the Chinese people.
A person can make many different choices. I made the choice of documenting
death. I cannot possible record all the 80 million deaths or the total
number of those killed ten years ago in the Beijing Massacre. But I have, at
least, been able to document 155 individuals who died in the 1989 crackdown.
They all have names. For a few, I do not yet know their complete
appellations, but information on their circumstances were provided by people
whose full identities are known. This figure of 155 may seem negligible
compared to 80 million, but I have come to realize that even if I had
documented only one of these names, I would still consider my life to have
some sort of significance. If our fellow countrymen had squarely faced the
successive onslaughts of death that occurred in China¹s past, perhaps we
could have prevented this most recent tragedy.
In the last ten years, I have scaled a mountain of corpses and I have
floated in the tears of the victims¹ families. At times, this experience
smothered me and sapped my will to live. But ultimately, it led me to
understand the meaning of death.
Therefore my reflections on the last ten years must begin with a memory of
On June 3, 1989, at 11:00pm my son Jiang Jielian was killed at Muxudi. At
that time he was only a high school student who had just turned 17 years
On June 4, 1989, at 3:30am, Wang Nan, another high school student, was
killed at the southern intersection of Nanchang Road, on the west side of
Tiananmen Square. He was just 19 years old.
A few days later, a middle-aged woman came to my home, accompanied by her
husband. She told me about the events surrounding her son¹s death. She
appeared calm, but I could see that she was suppressing immense pain deep in
her heart. She was Wang Nan¹s mother, Zhang Xianling. She told me that her
son¹s body had been dug out from a pit near Tiananmen Square; it had already
started to decompose and was infested with maggots.
She was the first June Fourth survivor that I befriended. We decided to
search for other June Fourth victims¹ families and from that time forward,
our idea began to grow.
In the year after the massacre, on the day after Qing Ming (Grave Sweeping
Day), Zhang Xianling sent me a note which she had found at Wang Nan¹s grave
at the Wan¹an Public Cemetery¹s Hall of Remains. The note said something to
this effect: "We share the same fate. On June 4, I lost my husband. Now my
son and I rely on each other for survival. There is so much I can¹t come to
grips with. If you wish, please contact me." In the note, the woman provided
her first and last names, her address and her phone number at work. She was
the second June Fourth survivor that I befriended.
For a period after this, we also came into contact with a few other
victims¹ families. As kindred spirits, we gathered together to tell of our
experiences, to weep and to release the pain and grief that we were keeping
buried in our hearts. When I calmly considered seeking an explanation for
what had happened, my shaken spirit could not be stilled again.
I decided to break the silence.
Therefore prior to Qing Ming in 1991, Zhang Xianling and I did an interview
with a Hong Kong newspaper, revealing to the world for the first time the
truth of our sons¹ deaths.
In May of the same year, I did an interview with ABC, the American
television station. I said that my son was just a child, but on the night of
June 3, less than an hour after he left home, his short life was ended. I
condemned the government authorities for launching the massacre in 1989 and
denounced the lies that Li Peng had fabricated about June Fourth. I demanded
that the government authorities make known the truth behind the "June Fourth
Incident," and I demanded that Jiang Zemin reveal the total number of dead
and a list of those killed. I called on all people of conscience in China
and abroad not to forget the tragedy that occurred in Beijing on June 4,
1989, and not to forget those who have forever been denied their right to
life, as they no longer have a voice to speak on their own behalf.
After this, I came under attack by the CCP and encountered ceaseless
persecution. In the beginning, I went to court to lodge a suit against those
who had shown their faces in persecuting me. But I soon came to understand
that I was not being persecuted by any specific person or any specific
office, but by the entire CCP. When I came to this conclusion, I felt a
complete sense of release. I decided to do what I wanted to do: to track
down and document death.
Zhang Xianling and I poured all our energies into finding June Fourth
victims¹ families. No matter the weather, we spent entire days traveling the
broad streets and narrow alleys of Beijing, following up on whatever tips
and clues we could find, in order to make contact with victims¹ families. We
meticulously recorded information on the victims, including first and last
name, sex, age, profession, place of death, the events surrounding death,
the victim¹s family situation and so on.
Eventually, we came out with our first list. Included in this list were not
only victims who were killed, but also those who were injured and disabled.
At that time I thought: since the government has failed to present the
number and names of those killed, and the truth of June Fourth, then it is
up to us to document the full reality.
In June 1993, I was invited to speak as a representative of a
non-governmental organization at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in
Geneva. Although the Chinese government prevented me from attending, I was
able to present the Commission with a written statement. In this statement,
I made public the list of June 4 victims, which at that time stood at 58 CK.
I said, "As a mother of a June Fourth victim, I can never forget the bodies
of men and women that were lying in pools of blood. I want everyone to know
that these men and women once lived in this world. This world was theirs,
but now they are forever lost to it. I also want everyone to know why and
how they perished."
In 1994, the fifth anniversary of June Fourth, with the help of friends I
published a book. The book is called The Factual Account of a Search For the
June Fourth Victims by Ding Zilin. In this book, I made public a list of 96
individuals who were killed and 49 who had been injured. This was the second
name list that I issued.
In the preface to the book, I wrote, "I don¹t wish to add any burden to a
life that is already overburdened with heaviness, nor do I wish to cast any
gloom onto what little happiness I might have, but I cannot turn a blind eye
to the pain of those who suffer my same fate. In this cold and uncaring
world, they have lost their loved ones but have no where to turn for
consolation. As a group, they have been forgotten and forsaken by society.
Under these circumstances, others may be able to close their eyes and shut
their mouths, but I cannot!"
I made the firm decision to continue in my mission of locating and helping
June Fourth victims and their families, until the government itself actively
takes up this project and there is no longer need for our efforts.
Now, another five years have passed. My list currently has documentation
about 155 victims who were killed and 65 victims who were wounded. Of
course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but at least this tip has now
been exposed. More importantly, standing behind this list is a group of
dauntless survivors, who are surrounded by a growing number of supporters.
In the first five years following June Fourth, the search for victims¹
families was the work of a few fellow survivors. Now, in the second five
years following June Fourth, this project has gradually widened to include
the broader society.
There is a retired soldier who is now over 70 years old who lost his
beloved wife to our "brothers" in the "People¹s Army." He joined our group
of survivors a few years ago, and introduced us to the new companion whom he
has married in his old age. In our group, these two elders found a sense of
comfort and warmth that they had not been able to find anywhere else. And
they are always looking for ways to help us. When they found out that there
are many others who share our fate, with nowhere to turn, they actively
became involved in our search activities.
One sweltering summer day, this old couple came to see me while I was being
watched by plainclothes officers of the State Security Bureau. In the course
of our conversation, I mentioned that someone had given me a tip for finding
another victim¹s family but I didn¹t have a precise name or address. At
once, the old couple promised that they would go to investigate. Later they
told me that in scorching weather, they had spent many hours on a public
bus, walked a long, muddy path and wandered about a building complex until
they finally found a residential apartment. But after many inquiries, they
could not find the family in question. When they were about to give up, they
saw a group of old women talking on the side of the street. They approached
the women and asked, "Is there a family around here that lost a son in an
accident?" The old couple didn¹t dare explain their reason for coming; they
only said that they had come from that family¹s hometown. Perhaps it was
this modesty that disarmed these old women. One pointed to another woman and
said, "It¹s her. She has lost her son, and she herself has just come out of
the hospital." The woman who was pointed out was the very person who the
couple was looking for. Her son went missing on June Fourth, and disappeared
without trace. He was never again seen alive, but no body was ever found.
Subsequently, her husband became very despondent and died of sickness in
1994. She then suffered from mental illness. She is a retired worker who was
ailing and aging. One of them was a retired soldier and the other a retired
worker, they had different life experiences, different professions,
different positions in society, but the same fate has linked their hearts
together. In this same way, our entire group of survivors is interconnected.
Also a few years ago, a Chinese student who was studying in Spain wrote to
me after learning about me in the media. He said that in his hometown, there
was a famous "child prodigy" who was just 15 when he tested into the youth
class at Qinghua University. He heard that his boy had died in the June
Fourth Massacre. First I investigated at Qinghua, but found nothing. I then
asked the student to contact his friend and family in his hometown to better
understand the details of the situation. After a time I eventually got the
victim¹s name and the name of his older brother, who was abroad, as well as
the name of his parents. Although I knew the parents¹ work unit, I did not
know their precise address. Nevertheless, I tried to write to the parents.
But because I could not risk writing the name of the victim on the envelope,
I simply used the brother¹s name and wrote, "To the Parents of XXX.". I sent
several letters, but did not receive a response. At that time, I happened to
receive a letter from a young person in the outer provinces. Because he
lived just 300 meters from the victim¹s family, I asked him to hand-deliver
my letter to the family¹s address. Shortly thereafter, I got a reply. They
sent me a description of the events around their son¹s death, his photograph
and other materials. Thus I found out that the victim had graduated from
Qinghua University long before his death. When he was killed, he had already
completed a Ph.D. at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was 23 years old.
Last year, his parents visited me in Beijing, and from then on, we¹ve kept
One evening about five years ago, a man and a woman came to my house
uninvited. The man said that he had studied in the United States, but the
woman preferred not to disclose her background. Towards the end of my
conversation with the man, the woman let it slip out that she had once heard
of a woman who had lost her husband on June Fourth and that the woman had a
daughter. Naturally, I asked her to make further inquiries, and she agreed.
But two years passed without a word from her, and there was no way for me to
get in touch. I could only be patient and wait. One day, I finally received
a letter from the woman. It was unsigned, but it did have the name of the
widow and her work unit. I immediately wrote to the enclosed address. I sent
one, two, three lettersŠ Another two years passed, still with no response.
Then an opportunity presented itself: I had a friend who was traveling out
of Beijing, so I asked him to go to the actual address to look. This friend
then asked for the assistance of a native of the town, and with some
difficulty, he finally found the widow. The woman¹s workplace was a
so-called "confidential work unit." Because of her special standing, she was
watched very closely by her work unit, and my many letters to her had been
confiscated. In 1989, her husband had gone to Beijing on business just at
the time of the massacre and was mercilessly killed. Her daughter is now in
middle school. As mother and daughter, they rely on each other to survive.
On my list there has long been a name that is missing the contact
information for the family. Despite eight years of effort, I could not
locate the whereabouts of the victim¹s kin. I was constantly worrying over
this because I, myself, have experienced the pain and loneliness of losing a
loved one. But the more I waited, the less progress was made. There was
nothing more I could do. I had tried contacting the officials, teachers and
students at the victim¹s school¹s to find out about the family, but all
attempts failed. I also asked friends to make inquires with the victim¹s
province and district, but this also was fruitless. From then on, I
basically gave up the idea of furthering the search.
In the autumn of 1997, my husband¹s high school classmates came to visit us
in our home in the south. While we were chatting, one friend mentioned that
his daughter-in-law had a middle school classmate who was killed during June
Fourth. At that time, the person was a college student in Beijing. I thought
that this person was a newly-discovered victim. We instructed our friend to
ask his daughter-in-law to provide us with more details, especially the name
and address of the victim¹s family. Later the friend told me that his
daughter-in-law had saved the name and address of the victim, but had lost
it over time. However, she contacted her classmates in other provinces and
cities and had obtained an address which was very imprecise. Hoping that
luck would be on my side, I used this address to send a letter to the
victim¹s family. Exceeding all my expectations, my letter was received in a
matter of days, despite mistakes in the name, address and postal code. After
receiving a response, I then came to discover that it was the very family
that I had been struggling to find over the last eight years. I could not
help but think, perhaps the persecuted spirit of the victim was helping me
from the netherworld!
I¹ll stop writing now, because this is not a story. It is not meant to just
provoke the easy tears of its readers.
I often consider the fact that people have only one life, only one. Life is
sacred. But death is also sacred. If everyone could see life and death in
this way, maybe we could decrease the number of calamities and massacres.
As Chinese people, we may have many goals and dreams, but I think we must
put a priority on establishing a moral system in which the reckless
disregard for human life is put behind us.
If someone were to ask me, why did you choose to document death? I think
this would be my answer.
March 25, 1999
Translated by Judy M. Chen