Eros Denied

Carolyn Wakeman is co-author with Harry Wu of "Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag" and is an assistant professor of journalism and international studies at UC Berkeley

During the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, People’s Liberation Army troops opened fire indiscriminately on students, workers, local residents, visitors--not only demonstrators but also onlookers gathered in the streets of central Beijing. This unprecedented use of military force against unarmed Chinese civilians, the government’s ultimate betrayal, devastated private lives as well as public trust in Communist Party rule. The brutal assault also severely damaged China’s image abroad. Televised footage of a lone figure daring to confront an approaching tank, of battered and bleeding bodies carried on stretchers and bicycle carts, of the towering Goddess of Democracy statue reduced to rubble, of traffic kiosks smashed and military vehicles smoldering riveted millions of viewers around the world. They watched in helpless outrage as Beijing’s monthlong festival of free expression turned into a spectacle of carnage and destruction. Eight years later, those images continue to shape perceptions of China in the West.

“Summer of Betrayal,” a first attempt at fiction by poet Hong Ying written in Chinese in London in 1991 and published in Taiwan the following year, chronicles the survivors. A bold and compelling novel that flaunts China’s prohibitions against public discussion of the Tiananmen events, this thinly fictionalized account of young intellectuals coping with outrage and impotence in the summer of 1989 offers a searing portrait of political defiance and sexual rebellion. Both its depictions of the Communist Party’s moral corruption and its scenes of daring promiscuity, which provocatively challenge officially mandated canons of literary taste, have apparently attracted an enthusiastic underground audience on the mainland. Now Martha Avery’s English translation, released to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the June 4 bloodshed, exposes readers abroad to the unseen personal chaos that followed the televised violence.

The opening sequence roots this haunting, if melodramatic, coming of age narrative in the rubble of Tiananmen Square. On the morning of June 4, Lin Ying, a writing student and aspiring poet, flees “through a city alight with flames,” concerned only to reach the sanctuary of her journalist lover’s arms. “Never looking back,” she runs, then limps, “through smoke-filled streets like a dog being chased, sniffing the ground, trying to find a corner to hide in.” When finally she reaches the familiar top-floor apartment in the People’s Daily compound and collapses into bed in the darkness, she finds Chen Yu’s arms encircling the wife he has supposedly renounced. Overwhelmed by fatigue, anger and pain, Lin Ying plunges back into the debris-filled streets, stunned by the night’s second betrayal.


A distant friend and aspiring literary critic discovers her slumped at the side of the road and carries her on his bicycle back to his dormitory room, where she falls into an exhausted sleep, still covered with dust and caked blood. She awakens from a dream about oncoming tanks to make passionate love. “She buried her head in Li Jiangjiang’s chest, trying to escape a terror that stole her breath.” The next morning in the mirror she stares at a face she has never seen before. “The past, the present, the future--a book that had been ripped to shreds. Where should she start in order to put everything together again?” In the ensuing days, with love and trust extinguished, Lin Ying drowns her anguish in Li Jiangjiang’s bed. “Their emotional relationship was like making love in the ocean--perhaps in the next moment you would be knocked over by a wave, but you could also be lifted up to the crest.”

Although Hong Ying married and began life anew in Britain after witnessing the 1989 bloodshed, her searing novel constructs the alternative experience of a young woman writer who rejects intellectual exile and despairs of an enduring relationship. The similarity of name and profession establish Lin Ying as a kind of shadow self to Hong Ying, who refuses the chance to study abroad in Germany with her lover, Li Jiangjiang, just as she scorns his confidence that China’s growing middle class will expand democracy in the future. “People so desperately want a new beginning, to be safe and secure, to go back to business,” Lin Ying declares, “that the pestilence of amnesia starts in the capital, then spreads like a contagion throughout the country.” She clings in growing isolation to a romantic illusion of spiritual freedom.


As summer passes and Lin Ying’s friends begin to reconstruct their lives, she cannot move on. “The things she had seen had gutted her of feelings, ripped away any trust she had in people.” She accepts the advice of a disaffected student of theater, with whom she watches pornographic videotapes provided by a high cadre’s son, that “what you must do is harden your heart.” Repelled by the blatant hypocrisy of newspaper articles describing how “the highest leaders in the land were saluting the troops who had come to Beijing to enforce martial law” and how “the entire country was once again united in harmony and peace,” she turns for diversion to films of well-endowed Western men’s crude sexual exploits. Only through an increasingly assertive sexuality can she retain some vestige of personal autonomy, simultaneously an escape from and defense against the encroaching political repression.

Gazing from a bus window at the immobile faces of martial law soldiers, Lin Ying acquires a new resolve. Friendships, she recognizes, must be mutually established, but sex is “quite rightly a matter pertaining solely to the individual self.” She cannot wait for history to “clean things up” and knows she must “take responsibility for her own actions.” At a farewell party for Li Jiangjiang, held at the apartment of a People’s Liberation Army officer’s son, which “was in the middle of a high-cadre district and so wouldn’t attract too much police attention,” she strips off her clothing to dance unrestrained, leading her friends in what quickly becomes an orgy of sexual free expression. “In this era of inhuman behavior, I will follow the dictates of nature’s desire,” she decides. When police break up the party, Lin Ying alone refuses to dress and is led away in handcuffs to the cold metal seat of a patrol wagon. “She had already entered a new realm where none of them was willing to follow.” Never again, she resolves, will she run from violence, and she composes a poem as the vehicle drives away.

Eight years after the Tiananmen brutality, with the demonstrations still officially labeled a “counterrevolutionary rebellion,” China’s writers cannot yet probe the personal consequences of the Communist Party’s actions. Hong Ying’s deliberately shocking portrayal of eroticized defiance signals the emergence of a new literary voice beyond the reach of Chinese censorship. While “Summer of Betrayal” remains stylistically immature, its narrative development contrived, its characters frustratingly one-dimensional, Hong Ying unmasks with dismaying immediacy the moral dislocations that followed the June 4 massacre. As testimony to the anguish of a woman’s determined liberation and to the enduring spirit of resistance to China’s continuing political repression, the novel leaves a powerful impression.