Professor Rowena He on opening night of the play "May 35th," directed by Kim Pearce and produced by Lit Ming-wai. London, 2024.

Tiananmen @ 35: Rowena He shares her recollections of Spring 1989

On the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, we invited Rowena He (何曉清), a Non-Resident Associate in Research of the Fairbank Center, to share her reflections on the era. Professor He currently serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and was previously a faculty member at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. From 2008 to 2010, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Fairbank Center. In 2010, she was appointed a lecturer in the East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Government Departments at Harvard. Her popular seminar, “Rebels with a Cause: Tiananmen in History and Memory,” received the Certificate of Teaching Excellence on multiple occasions.

While she was at Harvard, Professor He finished her first book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggles for Democracy in Chinaan oral history and dialogue among three student leaders in the movement. This book launched her research focusing on historical memory. For those interested in learning more about Professor He’s research and her personal journey, she was recently profiled by both the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press.

A look back: Rowena He taught a popular seminar at Harvard, “Rebels with a Cause: Tiananmen in History and Memory.” Here she is reviewing archival materials inside the Harvard-Yenching Library with her students. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Talking about the China Spring of 1989, it is impossible not to describe the atmosphere of idealism of the 1980s. We were materially deprived, but we felt hopeful. The sense of historical responsibility for a better China was shared even by my teenager peers. I joined a group discussing the documentary series, River Elegy (河殤), organized by some boys in my school. We took to the streets not because of hatred and despair, but because of love and hope. 

Like those of the Tiananmen Generation, I was born towards the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and grew up at the beginning of Deng’s Reform era. It was a time of opening and searching. We grew up under the influence of both the revolutionary stories full of ideals and sacrifice. At the same time, we were exposed to new individualistic ideas as reflected in the emerging literary genres such as Misty Poetry (朦朧詩) and Scar Literature (傷痕文學). Such feeling of in-betweenness was reflected in the two popular songs sung throughout the Tiananmen Movement: “The Internationale” and Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” (一無所有).  

My own feeling of in-betweenness was not just temporal, but also geographical, because I was born and grew up in Guangdong. I was briefly in the mountains, where my parents were sent to work after college, but the conditions there were so harsh that they sent me back to the city to live with my grandma in Guangzhou. I grew up singing songs like “Glory Belongs to the Generations of the 80s” (光榮屬於八十年代的新一輩), and later, I became a big fan of Hong Kong pop songs. As a teenager, I read both the local daily and weekly newspapers and watched Hong Kong news at dinner time with my family. I was addicted to Hong Kong soap operas, whose characters were full of humane sentiments in daily life — unlike those in the revolutionary narratives, who were ready to sacrifice personal happiness for the country. 

Rowena He has been involved in various commemorative activities for the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests. This month, she was a featured post-show speaker after the opening night performance of the play “May 35th” in London.

The day I first participated in the Spring 1989 demonstration, we needed to go to the school for self-study in the evenings. The school doors were locked to prevent us from participating in the movement. One of my girl classmates and I told the school guard that I had a stomachache and had to leave right away. That was how we slipped out before the boys who also later joined the demonstration. When the minibus driver found out where we were heading, he drove us closest to the demonstrations and let us off without making us buy a ticket. The people’s support was in the air. 

On the night of June 3, I didn’t sleep, but watched Hong Kong TV news; we were still able to receive the signal. The next day, my father resumed smoking, which he had quit for over ten years. I went to school wearing a Black mourning armband, but was told by my teacher: “If you don’t take that off, no one can protect you from now on.” I took off the armband and tried to hold back my tears. 

For a short period of time, my school friends debated whether the massacre was just a story that had been “made-up,” as we were told. As the arrests spread across the country, I shut up. Instead, I recited the official version that “the army has won a glorious victory over a counter-revolutionary riot.” In 1989, I learned to lie to survive. One thing that stayed in my mind was my parents’ friends who joined the student protests despite their previous experience throughout PRC political campaigns. When I was in college, in the post-89 era, I visited them often, listening to their life stories and reading their writings. I never saw that hope of 1989 in their face again. They used to tell me that maybe they would not see that change in China, but I would. It saddens me that, these days, I’ve now started to tell my students in Hong Kong the same: Maybe I won’t see that day myself, but they will. 

This post is part of the Fairbank Center’s commemorative series on the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests – Tiananmen @ 35 – which also included a panel discussion with journalists and a screening of the 1995 documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace.