How We Got Her Out: Tian-an-men Massacre @ 30

In the spring of 1985, I met Zhang Ying in my Advanced Oral English class at Tianjin University. After our first three-hour session, Zhang, a college junior, stepped up to my desk briskly. Our classroom was in a prerevolutionary building with a pagoda-style roof, seventy miles southeast of Beijing.

Zhang was bold. She asked if she might study with me privately, “to improve my English composition,” she said, “for myself, to be better than the rest.”

Before I opened my mouth—I was sipping hot tea from a student-provided thermos, as I recall—she assured me that she knew “Americans like money so I can pay you but it will have to be in renminbi, not in your dollars, Teacher Wolf-man, because I am only poor Zhang Ying and I have no real money.”

I told her I’d accept no payment, that the university was generous with foreign teachers. (Indeed, we earned nearly four hundred times each month what Chinese professors in the English Department at the time did.) With that, our bargain was sealed. Zhang applied herself to one writing assignment after another, for ten weeks that first semester.

During our lessons, I used writing prompts that were designed to spark more than simple answers or a single sentence. In response to “Would You Parachute from an Airplane?,” for example, Zhang wrote:

“I would not! The only person who would do that who is not a soldier needs to be in a hospital for people who are not very well in their emotion. If my husband did this I would kill him.”

I still wonder if learning to write in another language is like taking a leap into space. You could say I was the equivalent of a parachute for an eager student like Zhang, but it turned out I was flimsy silk. In China, I discovered that such a leap could be terrifying, with consequences I doubt she imagined at first.

Then again, maybe Zhang could imagine what would happen and did it anyway. Our lessons continued for the next two terms that I was in the People’s Republic of China—until I got myself thrown out.

• • •

In February 1985, Tamar Weiss and I had been married just two years when we arrived at Tianjin University to teach. I had recently completed an eleven-year, just-out-of-grad-school stint of teaching humanities at Akiba Hebrew Academy west of Philadelphia. Tamar had served in several combined social work and art-teaching positions in the Philly area.

Simply put, we wanted new challenges. The idea of teaching overseas appealed to our joint sense of adventure and began as something of a lark.

I was 34. While Tamar had studied art in Siena, Italy, I’d never been abroad. We were both excited by the prospect of immersing ourselves in a world as alien as post-Mao China a decade after the infamous Cultural Revolution.

It came together very fast, even though China was just then reopening to the West. I wrote a brief letter to its Ministry of Education in September 1984; we had Tianjin University’s invitation by early November.

We flew there on Valentine’s Day—holding hands and talking nonstop. We didn’t study Mandarin before we went. We learned a little once we were there (we were fascinated by all things Chinese, maybe as dizzy about the place as we were with each other), but we remained cocooned in English.

• • •

To Zhang’s vociferous consternation, we began with the fundamentals of constructing a paragraph. I was struck by how she and many of my Chinese students, all accomplished in the sciences, thought little of ending almost any kind of paragraph in the middle.

Proper paragraphs, I’d tell Zhang, did readers a favor when their last sentence brought readers back to core ideas in an interesting way.

Zhang’s tart response: “You want my writing to look backwards, Teacher Wolf-man. I want to move ahead. We are taught that we must move ahead.”

She wasn’t the first to complain about the basics of English composition. Early on, I asked another class if they were confused by my approach. Most students agreed that my desire might be bound up in what one called “a Western need” for simplistic closure.

Another scientist-student, in his mid-forties, wondered if I failed to realize that a paragraph is just one small part of a larger whole. I might wish to develop “more patience,” he instructed me, to content myself to wait for “an interesting, ultimate ending,” much as he and his colleagues summoned patience before drawing conclusions in a series of related experiments.

When I asked if Chinese students in the humanities also saw their writing this way, he reminded me that history was a process, as Marx had taught, and could be approached scientifically. History, Mao had said, like progress in science, was yi-ding! Certain! Inevitable!

This student was one of the few who always wore a Mao jacket. He had an angular face, and his hair was closely cropped. I never asked him if he’d been a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution—that would have been poor form—but it wouldn’t have surprised me.

I decided not to turn this into a political discussion I couldn’t win. I just told the class that they’d have to humor me if and when I asked for a paragraph.

Was Comrade Scientist serious? The first time I gave another group a test that asked for three-to-five sentence responses to oral questions, those students, to my shock, openly consulted one another for answers.

“You think ‘cheating,’ I know,” Zhang said when I asked her about it. “The tests you give us are not university entrance examinations. We are already here; we have passed the examinations. Here, students succeed together.”

While Comrade Scientist might have been toying with me, I know Zhang was not. I also wasn’t the only Western teacher on that campus to have experienced such a forehead-slapping moment.

Months later, I asked a Chinese professor in the English Department if she’d ever seen students working together like this. She studied me closely, smiled, then nodded and shook her head—before wishing me a good day.

• • •

After we were invited to teach in Tianjin, we learned that it and Philadelphia were “Sister Cities.” Our Philadelphia Mayor’s Office even named Tamar a cultural representative. We lived in Tianjin University’s “Foreign Expert’s Guest House” with perhaps twenty other English teachers—Brits, Canadians, Aussies, and other Americans—on its sprawling, 30,000-student campus.

Tian-Da (Big Tianjin), the university’s informal name, is a leading national science and technology institute that was founded in 1895. By the mid-1980s, its administrators had started inviting Western teachers such as Tamar and me for short stays. The plan was that we’d help prepare professors and students for participation in overseas conferences and research symposia. English had already become the lingua franca at such international academic events.

Tamar’s batik-design classes at the Thomas Eakins House of the Philadelphia Art Museum had always been small, with no more than ten students. Now she taught at the Tianjin Fine Arts College, one hour from Tian-Da across this heavily trafficked Chinese city of nine million. Her classes contained up to 30 students, yet the self-discipline of the Chinese made them feel smaller.

The Chinese art students were a joyous, talented bunch, and Tamar loved it. She helped connect Tianjin artists with those in our sister city back home. Riding her shiny, black, factory-new Flying Phoenix bike every day, she really did see herself as an ambassador.

Still, the seeming openness of the Chinese to other cultures was both real and an official fantasy. We enjoyed going to overflowing banquets with our hosts, regaling them with tales of “strange” American customs, laughing at our joint misunderstandings. But from our first days there, Tamar and I saw how the African students on campus were regarded.

On the surface, they were housed and fed far better than Tian-Da’s Chinese students. While Chinese dorms were continually coated with coal dust in the cold months, the African dorm was kept almost spotless by Chinese workers. The African student cafeteria served a much greater variety of dishes in a far more hygienic setting. They enjoyed fresh vegetables regularly, even fresh fish on occasion. The Chinese student cafeteria diet seemed to serve nothing but pork-filled buns.

But although the Africans were treated as honored guests, many Chinese students resented this. The university assigned no workers to clean the Chinese student quarters; the Chinese students were left to fend for themselves. They often complained bitterly about having no time for much at all after study, sleeping, and eating.

They understood the political value of treating the African students well—I knew many who could parrot the right phrases, much as Comrade Scientist knew Mao’s lines about the inevitability of history—but that didn’t mean they liked it.

Even Zhang, in the midst of quizzing me about a popular American movie at the time (Kramer vs. Kramer) suddenly asked, “Why do the blacks smell oddly? Are they dirty?”

I was stunned. While I’d taught no African American students at Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private high school, such overt forms of racism were especially striking to a Philly resident. When I taught for a semester at the Community College of Philadelphia, all my students were black or Hispanic. Tamar, for her part, had worked with many at-risk children and young adults at the art museum in Philadelphia.

• • •

Zhang’s first composition assignment struck a raw nerve in her: “Describe Yourself and a Friend. Use Descriptive Adjectives.” She wrote maybe eight sentences, noting that her western province’s typically round face, rounder-than-usual eyes, dark skin, and long thick black hair with “reddening streakings” made her look “foreign” compared with all the far lighter skinned Han in Eastern China.

In fact, more than 90 percent of Chinese are of Han descent. (For that matter, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population is.) And when you’re an ethnic minority in China, you’re a real minority.

When she’d arrived from Xin-jiang Province two years earlier, Zhang told me, “People said I didn’t look Chinese.” She’d been teased, a great deal at first, by other university men and women—although they’d stopped when word got around she didn’t mind using her fists. According to Zhang, one smartly flattened nose had brought the teasing to a quick halt.

In her composition, she wrote that she stood “a little short than Teacher Wolf-man,” which made her about 5’6” in black canvas Chinese slip-ons. Tamar guessed she weighed 130 pounds. To 23-year-old Zhang, that made her “incredible fat; it is why they every day call me behind of my back bu hau kan [ugly].”

But her written description of her friend was far more forgiving:

“Of course, Liu is Han and very pretty. She is small and short than I. Her face is oval-shape. Her hair is black. All of it is black and long. Mine is longer. My hair is less black. The hair of Liu does not extend past her back’s middle. Mine does extend.”

That’s how Zhang’s initial rewrite concluded. It gave us our first opportunity to do some sentence combining, and by the final draft, which grew to twelve sentences, she had wrapped up her core ideas well: “Even though in my hometown I am thought of as pretty, Liu is thought of as pretty here. I am not and I feel sad.”

• • •

The Tian-Da campus was unlike any in the West and not just because of its architecture. It had no grass. Between 1966 and 1976, during Wen-ge, Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Red Guards had ordered students and faculty to pull up all the grass and to shoot the campus birds. Appreciating greenery and sweet bird songs were considered emblems of corrupt, Western bourgeois culture.

Even in 1985, close to a decade after the Cultural Revolution’s last days, no one had re-sodded our campus. There were newly planted hedges, bushes, and trees, but birds were still scarce.

The barrenness of Tian-Da created a feeling of sensory alienation that Tamar and I never shook off. It was our own Gobi Desert of dust each day it didn’t rain. When it did rain, the university turned to mud, often swamping its bike paths and roads. Coal was piled outside nearly every campus building, and coal dust turned the mud a turgid gray.

Given our evident shock at the state of Tian-Da, Zhang and others quietly shared with us the new pieties—a Party line that said Mao himself had the right ideas at the start of the Cultural Revolution but was increasingly undermined by his radical comrades, including his now-disgraced, imprisoned wife.

Then, as now, the University’s brochures showed green grass and mature trees, but in the mid-eighties that was pure fiction. Even when we got off campus, the city seemed to be a mass of bricks, construction sites, and new shopping malls. Only when we took trains through the countryside did we see green agricultural fields. Some of Tianjin’s parks had begun to show life, but they weren’t near campus, and we rarely biked to them.

We saw no lush urban greenery until we traveled back to the States for summer break in 1985. When we picnicked with friends just east of the Schuylkill River, that Philadelphia public park looked like paradise.

• • •

In subsequent weeks, Zhang penned nine other English paragraphs by hand. They were mostly descriptive and on a variety of topics. With each draft, her paragraphs became clearer and better structured, fit for use in longer essays.

I can still hear her excitedly reading her answers aloud before handing them to me for correction. In response to “Would You Ever Give Money to a Beggar?,” she wrote:

“I would not! Begging is an illegal activity and it is unnecessary in a Socialist Republic with Chinese Characteristics. In the U.S. they are punished very severely. If a beggar is found in Beijing, he is taken from the street and he is given food and a place to live and clothing. He is given by our government a place to stay for many months. Maybe he will stay years. Begging is like stealing and in China stealing touches the law. If my husband would hear I had done this, even he is studying now at Beijing University, he would be angry.”

With “If You Have a Child, Will You Encourage Him/Her to Join the Military?,” her response was emphatic:

“Of course I would do that! We owe much to the People’s Liberation Army. My child will be a soldier like the soldiers who defeated Jiang Jie-shir [Chiang Kai-Shek]. Gloriously Mao Zedong defeated him even it took many years! Then my son will study in an important university.”

Zhang appended a note to this one suggesting I buy up quantities of used, pea-green and navy Chinese Army overcoats for resale to young Americans back in the States. She said that while making a profit in China remained suspect, for a foreigner it would be fine. A 500-percent markup was reasonable, she told me. While Zhang never said so, I got the impression that she wanted to be my partner in this venture.

• • •

Perhaps the Tian-Da campus itself, this dusty ongoing monument to zeal, should have worried us more than it did. Yet, Tamar and I didn’t realize for nearly eighteen months after our arrival in China how far zeal could go.

By the spring of 1986, we were scheduled to teach the following fall at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou (Canton), a three-hour Pearl River motorboat ride north of Hong Kong. I was thrilled. Sun Yat-Sen had a decidedly greener, palm-treed campus than Tian-Da; Hong Kong was already my favorite city.

We never made it.

• • •

China had hosted African graduate students since well before the Cultural Revolution. “Our Little Brothers”—African nations like Burundi and Tanzania that had liberated themselves from the West—sent their best to Chinese technology institutes for graduate study. They usually remained three years, learning written and spoken Chinese the first year, earning doctorates in the next two.

Since the 1960s, Chinese investment in Africa’s infrastructure and modernization projects, often run by those same African grad students when they returned home, had been enormous. But one night in May 1986, all the official policies and socialist language couldn’t stop a sudden onslaught of racism.

The Chinese Women’s National Volleyball Squad, ranked first in the world, was slated to play a long-ballyhooed match against the powerful Cuban women’s team. All the Cuban players were black.

Like millions throughout China, our campus had gone crazy for weeks in anticipation of the showdown. Hundreds of male students had written devotionals to team members, many proposing marriage. The team, in fact, had an official letter-reader who fielded and replied to the lovesick.

Then the Chinese lost to the Cubans. It was a non-tournament game, and I don’t recall the exact score, but it was definitive—and an unexpected upset.

• • •

Toward the middle of our third semester together, Zhang had completed several essays on topics of her choice, including her desire, one she shared with many Chinese, to one day study in the West.

Throughout our writing sessions, she and I discussed the possible uses of American English idioms like “break the law”—the literal Mandarin uses “touches”—or “taking a bullet” for someone.

But I learned from her, too.

For example, in her rewrite of a paragraph called “Would You Ever Take a Bullet for Someone?,” Zhang specifically added that she’d do so for her husband. She told me this was important to understand, because traditional Chinese ideas about family had been severely undermined by the Cultural Revolution, when spouses had denounced one another. She also wrote:

“For my family only and in battle for a soldier who is in my group, yes, I would do this. I am sorry, teacher. I cannot take a bullet for you. You are not my country and you are not my family. I hope you will understand my thinking.”

• • •

The day after the Cubans beat the Chinese team, Tamar and I invited Zhang to join us at the African students’ dorm that evening. Those students had planned a cultural exhibition and dance in the dining hall of the dorm to honor the twenty-third anniversary of the Organization for African Unity (now the African Union). The night of May 25, 1986, began with dance performances, art exhibitions, and delicious spicy fish to eat.

We danced among a hundred or so African graduate students and twenty or more Western teachers. About ten Chinese women attended. The dorm event was supposed to wind up at midnight. But at 11 p.m., a riot broke out. Hundreds of Chinese students (including many of my own) attacked us there, hurling bricks, rocks, and bottles, shattering every window of the dining hall.

What had the African students done? What had Zhang and the other Chinese women done? What on earth hadwe done?

We knew, as did Zhang, that some Chinese students assumed she was there to dance with wai guo-ren(foreigners) and hei-gwei (black devils). Throughout the night, we heard rioters chanting that noxious phrase. The rocks and bricks and bottles kept coming.

Within minutes, we were crouched in the dorm’s kitchen and small offices. University officials did nothing but watch. Some old China hands among us Westerners said that, since the Cultural Revolution, collective memory of Red Guard violence was still raw; officials would hesitate a very long time before doing anything to upset mobs of students. Even the city police were skittish. Some of us called them repeatedly only to be dismissed with quick, cheery comments like “You’ll work it out!” and fast hang-ups.

It seemed clear that we’d fallen into an unlucky confluence of popular culture and racism. The loss of the Chinese team had challenged the generally held fantasy of Han superiority. The bubble had been pricked by “black devils”— hei-gwei—and I promise you, the drumbeat of that chant, the one we heard throughout the night, matched in viciousness any slur ever flung at black students in 1950s Little Rock.

The next day, I recall thinking how ironic it was to have spent much of that evening dreamily swaying to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” an African student favorite. And then, how we all stood huddled in the rear of the window-shattered dining hall—then later, crouched in back rooms as we protected one another from repeatedly threatened physical attack all night long—well into the next morning.

• • •

The mob demanded that we American and British teachers—their teachers—hand over our African hosts. We handed over no one. When the police showed up to restore order at about 7 a.m., the tired mob largely dispersed on its own. University officials now made a show of coming to our rescue, warning us not to discuss what had happened.

The Africans were led out and detained at an unopened hotel on the city’s outskirts. Later that day, we brought them magazines, sodas, and candy.

We’d always understood that our phones were tapped, but I still called several African embassies. We were certain the Chinese wouldn’t, and if the embassies remained unaware of what had happened, Tian-Da officials would keep the men detained as long as they wanted.

Not long after I made the calls, the police returned the whole group of students to campus. But several of them, probably chosen at random, were forced to make a ludicrous public apology for an attack they did not provoke, in which they did not participate, and for alleged injuries no Chinese student had suffered.

Then there was Zhang. Because she was our friend and had attended the dance, my budding writer was officially labeled: she’d aided foreigners unfriendly to China.

Tamar and I were expelled within days. I’d called the embassies, after all. Chinese officialdom claimed we’d fomented the riot; we were lucky not to have been disappeared. We could have been charged with incitement and, as we learned later, we nearly were.

While we got out, Zhang Ying remained, a marked woman. Her application several months later for Party membership was laughed off the pile, shutting all the right academic doors. Her stipend would never rise; her husband’s career in economics would stall. Urged to divorce her, he hung tough. Zhang was never physically abused, but she endured over forty separate interrogations about her foreign contacts.

“My child will be a soldier like the soldiers who defeated Jiang Jie-shir. Gloriously Mao Zedong defeated him even it took many years! Then my son will study in an important university.”

• • •

Once home, now in Grafton, Vermont, Tamar and I were determined to get Zhang out, too. Under a pseudonym, I began to edit the now long-defunct China Spring, a democracy movement journal out of New York. Its chief editor, Wang Bingzhang, has since been lost in the vast Chinese penal maze.

We heard nothing of Zhang for three years. Then came June 4, 1989, and the massacre of 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square.

Later that summer, I received an unsigned letter I knew was from Zhang. I recognized her handwriting, and at that point, she was the only conceivable person in China who’d be writing to me. She’d found me through a relative of mine who taught at a well-known American university. She was desperate to leave, frightened to her core by the ubiquitous purges after Tiananmen.

She noted that she practiced her English composition daily but had no teacher. Still, she felt sure that “my English writing is now good enough to get a U.S. graduate school to accept me.”

Zhang enclosed a tightly written English paragraph, championing her claim to become a doctoral candidate in engineering. Her statement required no correction. It wrapped up boldly, neatly capturing her paragraphs’ core ideas, calling for her to be accepted on the basis of her academic record, work ethic, and certainty that she’d make lasting professional contributions.

A week later, I received transcripts with an application to the University of Cincinnati and six other engineering programs. I was to forward them with a cover letter of my own. Zhang wrote, “I want Cincinnati because it is the Home of the Reds.” In my cover, I noted that her composition skills included ironic humor. She went seven for seven.

Now she needed official permission to study abroad, not a small feat for a person already in bad odor with the authorities. I won’t go into detail except to say that Zhang, her husband, and her family scraped; Tamar and I scraped—and people were bribed. (Zhang reminded me later with an enormous grin that bribery, like begging, is illegal in China.)

Money went to university leaders, local police and party officials, others. A long period followed during which we heard nothing.

• • •

In August, 1990, more than four years after we’d left China, Zhang’s call came. Her tone was businesslike. This was it: I was to meet her at JFK the next morning. She knew she might never return home.

I drove down from Vermont and slept at a friend’s. Her arrival was delayed a day when her plane attempted to lift off, spun, lurched like a drunk, and passed out on the tarmac in Shanghai. The next day, the plane stayed aloft and landed safely.

I won’t forget the moment we met again. She looked the same as she had in Tianjin: broad-shouldered and healthy, her hair still thick and very long. She wore jeans and a button-down striped top. We stopped two hours up I-91 at a Pizza Hut in Connecticut. Zhang ordered Pepsi and pepperoni. She said the women’s room was nicer than her dorm room.

Soon after we drove up the gravel drive at the farmhouse, Tamar and Zhang hugged long and hard. Zhang said, “I’m so thirsty.” I turned on the tap and drew deliciously cold water from our well. Zhang, used to drinking only very hot tea because no sane Chinese ever sips untreated ground water, stared at me. I remembered that stare from years before.

“You bring me, poor Zhang Ying, from Tianjin, China, to Vermont, USA, just to kill me?” Then she smiled. She took the glass, swallowed gingerly, and survived.