The Film - Key Characters


Man Against the Tanks

The young man photographed and filmed facing a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, is perhaps the most recognizable image from the Tiananmen Square protests and their deadly aftermath. Nothing is known about him, and even his name is uncertain. In many accounts, his name is given as Wang Weilin, but he has not been seen since his appearance on Chang'an Boulevard. Neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch have been able to uncover any information about the man or his family. Jiang Zemin, the Communist Party General Secretary, was asked about the fate of the young man in a 1992 interview with Barbara Walters. He replied in his stilted English: "I think never killed."

Pico Iyer, in "The Unknown Rebel" (Time Magazine, April 13, 1998), writes of the man against the tank as "the Unknown Soldier of a new Republic of the Image."

In "Icon of the Revolution," (The London Guardian, 4 June 1992), Patrick Wright says about the man against the tanks:

The image has been subject to much interpretation in the West.... The military historian John Keegan declares it a merely "poetic image", a story of "the impersonal armed might of the army lined up against the unvanquished human spirit." He then breaks to say, drily, "You can write the words yourself." Some newspapers have certainly done that. Tantalised by the image of this man who is universally known and yet almost completely obscure, newspapers have felt obliged to augment the story. One report confirmed Wang's status as a student by putting books in his bag, and there were diverse variations on the words he is said to have shouted at the tanks, from the simple "Go away" of the Sunday Express to "Go back, turn around, stop killing my people" elaborated by Today a week or so later.

Leaders all over the world hailed him. President Bush commended his courage, followed by senior rock stars like Neil Young. Neil Kinnock spoke for Parliament, remarking that: "The memory of one unarmed young man standing in front of a column of tanks . . . will remain . . . long after the present leadership in China and what they stand for has been forgotten." That claim has since been corroborated by Wim Wenders, whose new film Until The End of the World envisions Beijing, in 1999, when the old order has visibly fallen - and glimpses the man in front of the tank, by this time a gilded monument.
In Tiananmen on TV, Richard Gordon, co-director of THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, describes how the man against the tanks has become "one of the defining iconic images of the 20th century, like a monument in a vast public square created by television."

Chai Ling

Born 1966. Chai graduated from Beijing University and was engaged in graduate studies at Beijing Normal University at the time of the protest movement. She became the Commander-in-Chief of the Hunger Strike Group on Tiananmen Square in mid-May 1989 and then Commander-in-Chief of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters from late May until June 4th, 1989. She fled China after ten months of hiding and presently resides in the United States, where she is Founder, President, and COO of Jenzabar, a software company. More information about Chai Ling and the controversy that has followed her to Jenzabar is available here.

Chai Ling repeatedly turned down requests to be interviewed for THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, including a written plea by Robert L. Bernstein, the Chairman of Human Rights Watch. The film uses an interview that she gave to the American journalist Philip Cunningham on 28 May 1989, as a means of explicating her position on the 1989 protests. That interview was undertaken at Chai Ling's request. After it was filmed, she viewed it and asked Cunningham to release it internationally as her political statement on the student movement. The most explosive element of the interview (reported in the Hong Kong press in 1989 and commented on by a few journalists, but generally ignored in the past) was that Chai said: "I feel so sad, because how can I tell them [the students] that what we actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people."

For more about Chai Ling and the controversy over her portrayal in the film, see the section, "Reviews, Commentary and Controversy." Read the complete Chinese transcript of Chai Ling's interview with Philip Cunningham.

Related articles:

"6 Years After the Tiananmen Massacre, Survivors Clash Anew on Tactics," Patrick E. Tyler, The New York Times, April 30, 1995.
"Anatomy of a Massacre" by Richard Woodward, in The Village Voice, 4 June 1996.
An overview by Ye Ren of the Chinese dissident community's criticisms of "The Gate of Heavenly Peace."
"Cashing in on Tiananmen," Yvonne Abraham, The Boston Phoenix, March 27-April 3, 1997.

Dai Qing

Born 1941. The daughter of a Communist Party martyr, Dai was raised in the family of Ye Jianying, one of the ten marshals of the People's Liberation Army and a major Chinese political figure. Trained as a missile engineer, she later became a journalist and writer. She achieved fame during the 1980s for a series of investigative journalist studies of important dissident figures persecuted by the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s. She also helped organize China's first environmental lobby group. Dai Qing publicly denounced the June 4th massacre and quit the Party on June 5th. She was jailed for 10 months shortly thereafter and is still not allowed to publish in China. Nonetheless, she has remained an active writer and commentator on Chinese politics. Among other things, she has continued her close involvement with Chinese environmental issues, an involvement that began with her organization of the first environmental lobby group in 1989 opposed to the building of the Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River.

Related sites: "Human rights abuses and the Three Gorges dam," a talk by Dai Qing given in 2004 at the University of Toronto. See also "Yangtze! Yangtze!" -- a collection of documents by Chinese scientists, journalists, and intellectuals debating the Three Gorges Project.

Ding Zilin

Born 1936. Ding was a professor in the Philosophy Department of People's University in Beijing. Her son, Jiang Jielian, a 17-year-old middle school student, was killed on Chang'an Avenue on the night of June 3rd, 1989. Ding subsequently quit the Communist Party and began searching out the relatives of other victims, hoping to lobby the government to publish the number and names of those killed, as well as the truth of what happened on June 3-4. In 1991 she began speaking out in public and to foreign media. Ding Zilin was penalized by her university for her outspokenness. She is now a leading dissident figure in Beijing, under the constant surveillance of the Public Security Bureau. In the summer of 1995 she was detained on unspecified charges, just prior to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Related articles:
Newsweek interview, June 2, 2009: "Not an Isolated Incident"
CNN interview (1999), "Ding Zilin: An Advocate for the Dead"
Toronto Star, March 2, 2009, "Fighting for Victims of Tiananmen"
Time Magazine: Mother Courage (April 5, 2004), and 60 Years of Asian Heroes (2006)

Feng Congde

Born in 1967. Feng was a graduate student in the Physics Department at Beijing University. He was arrested briefly for his involvement in the student movement in 1986. During the 1989 student movement, he was at one time Chairman of the Coalition of Independent Student Unions of Beijing, the Vice Commander-in-Chief of the Hunger Strike Group on Tiananmen Square, and then the Vice Commander-in-Chief of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters. Married to Chai Ling at the time of the protest movement, he fled China after ten months of hiding and now resides in Paris, doing his Ph.D. work in Anthropology.

Ge Yang

Born 1916. Ge Yang was a veteran Communist Party member and a reporter who was purged as a Rightist in 1957. After more than twenty years of political disgrace, she was formally rehabilitated by the Party in the late 1970s and became editor-in-chief of New Observer, a leading Beijing bimonthly. In April 1989, New Observer, then a prominent vehicle for reformist opinion, organized a special tribute to Hu Yaobang after his death. That particular issue was banned in late April 1989, contributing to calls for an end to press censorship in China. New Observer was closed down after June 4th and Ge Yang went into exile in the United States, where she has remained an active commentator on Chinese politics.

Related site: CNN interview with Ge Yang for the series, "Cold War" (1997)

Han Dongfang

Born 1963. After serving in the People's Liberation Army and then becoming a worker, Han was a leading organizer of the Independent Workers' Union of Beijing. After June 4th, he turned himself in to the police but would not admit to any wrongdoing. He was in detention for nearly two years and became seriously ill. He was released when the authorities thought that he was about to die. In September 1993, he was allowed to travel to the U.S. to seek treatment for tuberculosis, which he had developed in jail. While overseas, he advocated for free trade unions and workers' rights in China. In November 1993, he attempted to return to China, but the Chinese authorities revoked his passport and sent him back to Hong Kong. He has remained in Hong Kong, where he has been active in workers' issues. In 1994, Han Dongfang founded the China Labour Bulletin.

For more about the participation of Han Dongfang and other workers in the 1989 protests, see "Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation," by Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia.

Related articles:
Interview with Human Rights First, 2000
"Chinese Labour Struggles," interview in the New Left Review, July-August 2005.

Hou Dejian

Born in Taiwan in 1956. A singer-songwriter, Hou achieved fame with his 1979 song "Children of the Dragon." In 1983 Hou moved to the mainland in search of his roots. He became a very popular cultural figure and introduced a new, personal style of performance. During the protest movement, Hou took part in the four-man hunger strike of June 2nd. When troops surrounded Tiananmen Square early on the morning of June 4th, Hou and Zhou Duo, another of the four hunger strikers, negotiated with the army to allow the students to leave the Square. In June 1990, after Hou repeatedly refused to remain silent about his political views, the Chinese authorities put him on a Taiwan fishing boat which they had stopped, and ordered the crew to take Hou back to Taiwan. In Taiwan he was arraigned by the authorities for illegal entry and was given a seven-month prison sentence, subsequently commuted.

For an article about popular music in China, see "Official Bad Boys or True Rebels?" by Geremie Barmé.

Liang Xiaoyan

Born 1957. Liang was a lecturer in world history at Beijing Foreign Studies University at the time of the protest movement. She supported the students' cause, while often debating with them about tactics and about the meaning of democracy. On the night of June 3rd, after hearing that the army had opened fire in the streets, she went to Tiananmen Square to be with her students and to help prevent bloodshed. At dawn on June 4th she left Tiananmen Square with the students at gunpoint. She is now one of the editors of Orient, a journal established in 1993, and one of the most important new forums for intellectual debate in China.

Liu Xiaobo

Born 1955. A literary critic and lecturer at Beijing Normal University, Liu became one of the most prominent and acerbic cultural figures in China in the late 1980s. He was a visiting fellow at Columbia University in 1989 when he decided to return to China and take part in the popular movement. He initiated the four-man hunger strike on June 2nd, and called on both the government and the students to abandon the ideology of class struggle and to adopt a new kind of political culture. Liu was jailed for 21 months after June 4th and has not been allowed to publish anything in China since 1989. In May 1995, he was detained by the Chinese authorities for organizing a new petition campaign on the eve of the sixth anniversary of June 4th, calling on the government to reassess the protest movement and to initiate political reform. In October 1996, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to three years in a labor camp for co-authoring a petition critical of the government. More recently, Liu, along with over three hundred other Chinese intellectuals and activists, signed Charter 08, a document calling for political reform in China. On December 8, 2008, he was detained by Chinese police, and is currently reported to be under house arrest. In April 2009, Liu Xiaobo was named recipient of the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

Read Liu Xiaobo's essay on the Chinese as "both victim and carrier" of That Holy Word, "Revolution".

Related sites and links:
View video clips of Liu Xiaobo from the film, The Gate of Heavenly Peace.
On Charter 08: In China, a Grass-Roots Rebellion, The Washington Post, Jan. 29, 2009
Liu Xiaobo on Civil Rights and Ideology, interviews and press coverage
Liu Xiaobo's battle against censorship, from Reporters without Borders
Interview on the 2008 Olympic Games with Der Spiegel
March 2009: Liu Xiaobo is the recipient of an award presented by former Czech president Václav Havel
April 2009: Liu Xiaobo receives the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award; Times Online: Arrested Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to receive prestigious award

Lü Jinghua

Born 1960. A garment worker who became a small-scale private entrepreneur in Beijing, Lü was active in the Independent Workers' Union in Tiananmen Square in May of 1989. She escaped from the country after June 4th. Lü attempted to return to Beijing to visit her daughter and ailing mother in June 1993, but was stopped by the authorities at the airport, interrogated, and forced to return to Hong Kong. She now works for the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union in New York, where her daughter recently joined her.

For a short description of Lü Jinghua's experiences on Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, see Black Hands of Beijing, by George Black and Robin Munro.

Wang Dan

Born 1970. A history major at Beijing University in 1989, Wang helped organize seventeen "democracy salons"--discussion groups--at Beijing University to discuss controversial subjects in the year leading up to the protest movement. A key activist during the movement, Wang was arrested after June 4th and sentenced to four years. He was released in February 1993 and chose to remain in China. After his release he consistently called for an official reassessment of the events of 1989, and for democratic reform in China. Harassed and detained by the authorities on numerous occasions, he was taken into custody again in May 1995, shortly before the sixth anniversary of June 4th. In October 1996, Wang Dan was sentenced to eleven years in prison for his political activities. In April 1998, however, he was released and flown to the United States. He completed his Ph.D. studies in history at Harvard University. He is chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association and serves on the advisory board of Wikileaks.

Related articles: Tiananmen Twenty Years On - Interview, Index on Censorship (April 15, 2009)
The Exile and the Entrepreneur - Time Magazine (May 31, 2004).

For additional material in Chinese, see a special section from the China News Digest.

Wu Guoguang

Born 1957. After graduating from Beijing University in the early 1980s, Wu became an editorial writer for the People's Daily. In the late 1980s, Wu was a member of a reformist think-tank under Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. He was involved in drafting many crucial Party documents championing reform, both for publication and for internal policy purposes. At the time of the protest movement in 1989 he was in the United States as a Nieman Fellow. He was expelled from the Party after he publicly denounced the June 4th massacre. In 1995, he completed a doctoral dissertation on the history of China's 1980s reforms.

See "Lies in Ink, Truth in Blood": The Role and Impact of the Chinese Media During the Beijing Spring of '89, for more about Wu Guoguang and the inner workings of the Chinese news media.

Wuer Kaixi

Born 1968. An ethnic Uighur (an ethnic group from Xinjiang, Chinese Turkestan), Wuer Kaixi was a student at Beijing Normal University in 1989. He emerged as a leading activist in April 1989, then fell from prominence during internecine struggles in the student movement after the imposition of martial law. Wuer Kaixi escaped from China after June 4th. He studied at Harvard University and at Dominican College in San Rafael, California. He currently resides in Taiwan, where he is the host of a radio talk show.

In a recent interview with the BBC (Witnessing Tiananmen: Student Talks Fail, May 28, 2004), Wuer Kaixi recalls the May 18 meeting with
Li Peng.

Xiang Xiaoji

Born 1957. After teaching college English for four years, Xiang became a graduate student at the Chinese Politics and Law University in Beijing. His master's thesis was on the peaceful resolution of international conflicts, and he had a special interest in the role of negotiation in international law. In 1989 Xiang was a leading organizer of the Dialogue Group in the early stages of the student movement. Xiang escaped to Hong Kong after June 4th and later moved to the United States, where he received his LLM degree from Columbia University in 1991. He is now the vice-chairman of the Chinese Alliance for Democracy, a dissident organization with branches all over the world.

See "Lies in Ink, Truth in Blood": The Role and Impact of the Chinese Media During the Beijing Spring of '89, for comments by Xiang Xiaoji about the Chinese media's influence on the 1989 movement.

Zhao Hongliang

Born 1962. Originally a bus conductor with the Beijing Bus Company, Zhao was active in worker protest before 1989 and became a member of the Independent Workers' Union during the movement of 1989. After June 4th he escaped from China, and he now lives in Canada.

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