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Graphic novel on the Tiananmen Massacre shows medium’s power to capture history

As a young man in Beijing in the 1980s, Lun Zhang felt like he was taking part in a new Chinese enlightenment.

The country was undergoing paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening Up,” and previously sealed-off areas of knowledge, arts, and culture were becoming newly available.

People who had only years before been living in the stifling, hyper-Maoist orthodoxy of the Cultural Revolution, in which anything foreign or historical was deemed counter-revolutionary, could now listen to Wham!, hold intellectual salons in which people read Jean-Paul Sartre or Sigmund Freud, or even publish their own works, taking aim at previously sacred political targets.

“In those days, our thirst to read, learn and explore the outside world was insatiable,” Zhang writes in his new graphic novel, “Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes.”

But with this intellectual awakening came a growing frustration with the pace of reform in China, particularly how economic liberalization was taking precedence over any suggestion that the Communist Party give up its tight control on the country’s politics.

An apocryphal quote attributed to Deng captured the mood at this time, that “to get rich is glorious,” but for many people, it was increasingly apparent that only a handful were becoming wealthy, while others were suffering due to growing corruption and the destruction of the social safety net.
Small demonstrations against graft and for greater political reform ballooned into what would become the 1989 Tiananmen movement, in which hundreds of thousands of people protested across the country, with the largest demonstration in Beijing led by workers and student groups.

The pro-democracy protesters occupied Tiananmen Square for months, even holding meetings with top officials. At the time, many felt hopeful that these actions would bring about wider societal change in the one-party state.

Crackdown

Zhang was on the square that spring, when the protesters put forward seven demands, including for democratic elections and an end to state censorship. He was there as the crowds paid tribute to the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang, and he was there as the occupiers sang and danced on what had become the people’s square.

He was not there when soldiers opened fire on protesters and fought with them in the streets of the Chinese capital. He was not there when the tanks rolled in. Zhang was in the suburbs of the city with another activist, recuperating in preparation for what some thought would be a last push before the government gave into the protesters’ demands.

“When we heard the army had entered Beijing, we tried to reach the square, but our efforts were in vain,” Zhang writes of when they learned of the bloodshed.

Far from reaching the center of the city, Zhang’s attention turned to escape: the authorities were rounding up prominent protesters and leaders, and he was worried about arrest. He fled first to rural China, eventually becoming one of dozens of Tiananmen protesters smuggled into Hong Kong by activists in the then British colony.

An excerpt from "Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes." Zhang (pictured wearing a sash on the bottom left) was a young sociology teacher in the late 1980s. During protests, he was in charge of management and safety.

An excerpt from “Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes.” Zhang (pictured wearing a sash on the bottom left) was a young sociology teacher in the late 1980s. During protests, he was in charge of management and safety. Credit: IDW Publishing

Graphic novel

Zhang eventually moved to France, where he has lived ever since, and is teaching at the Cergy-Pontoise University near Paris. While he writes about the Chinese economy and geopolitics, he has largely left out his own personal history prior to this month’s publication of his graphic novel.

“I worked with (French journalist) Adrien Gombeaud, who wrote the script for the format,” Zhang told CNN. “We read some graphic novels about historical events, and together came up with the plan, for example, to imagine a theater scene to link all the parts of the story.”

While the Tiananmen Square Massacre has been widely covered in the media and in documentaries, with many focusing on the iconic image of the Tank Man or utilizing archive footage from the square itself, much of the events leading up to the infamous night have been lost to history, available only through witnesses’ accounts. Zhang said that the comics format provided a key means of capturing the emotion of the demonstrations, in a way that does not necessarily come across in text.

“It is difficult to find a satisfactory way in which this kind of big event is reported, in my opinion,” he said. “In some reporting on Tiananmen, the authors didn’t reflect enough on the will of students to cooperate with the authorities in peacefully reforming China.

When you take into account the emotion involved, we can understand why the peaceful way of demonstration was chosen, why there was the huge hunger strike.”

After the initial script was written, the authors worked with French artist Ameziane to develop the comic’s visuals, by sourcing images of the various characters, and referencing archival photos of era-appropriate objects, such as clothes, cars and teacups from 1980s China. “We spent a lot of time in discussions on how to arrange the scenes, how to convey the essential message, what limits we might have on a given page. It played to the style and skill of our painter,” Zhang said.

The shift in artistic style is most notable in the scenes depicting the massacre itself. Prior pages feature white backgrounds and muted colors, but as the crackdown begins, the pages turn to black, with a heavy use of oranges and reds. Ameziane’s illustrations become looser and full of movement, emphasizing the chaos and panic experienced by the characters.

The book is structured in several acts, with Zhang as its narrator. He said the play format was an obvious storytelling device, given “the protest movement itself felt like a drama, with its different phases akin to great acts.”

Comics journalism

Zhang, Gombeaud and Ameziane’s book joins what has quietly become a major strand of modern comics: graphic journalism or historical comics dealing with topics that were once considered out of the art form’s remit.

American cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his parents’ experiences as Holocaust survivors — with the Jews depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats — has long been considered a masterwork in the graphic novel genre.

While adult themes and history were features in comics long before “Maus” debuted in 1980, including in Spiegelman’s own work, its use of accessible, black and white art combined with a sweeping historical narrative broke into the mainstream, and set a new standard for “grown up” comics with political subject matter and potentially upsetting content.

Works like Maltese-American Joe Sacco’s ground-breaking comics journalism in “Palestine” or “Safe Area Gorazde,” and French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” have further driven this trend, with the latter turned into an Oscar-nominated movie in 2007.
The popularity of comics and graphic novels has only grown in recent years — with the help of blockbuster film adaptations. This has happened in conjunction with the rise of comics journalism, in everything from newspapers to dedicated publications such as The Nib, which has long recognized the medium’s ability to tackle serious issues, interweaving reporting with satirical cartoons.

Sacco has talked about how the use of comics, the presentation of the artist and writer as a figure in the story, helps remove “the illusion that a journalist is a fly on the wall, all seeing and all knowing.”

“To me, drawing myself signals to the reader that I’m a filter between the information, the people and them. They know that I’m a presence, and that they’re seeing things through my eyes,” he said in a recent interview.

This is very much apparent in Zhang’s book, as he uses his role as narrator to critique both the protest movement and himself.

"Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes" cover.

“Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes” cover. Credit: IDW Publishing

Asked once about whether drawing helped him deal with being the child of Holocaust survivors, Spiegelman answered: “I’ve had therapy, and I’ve made comics. The comics are cheaper.”

Part of “Maus” deals with Spiegelman’s guilt over his difficult relationship with his father and in comparing his problems with depression and work to the experiences of his parents. Zhang too writes in “Tiananmen” of his own survivor’s guilt and of questioning his decisions made as a younger man in the midst of history.

In an interview, Zhang said he did not write about Tiananmen for so long, because his role, his involvement, seemed inconsequential compared to what some went through.

“The way I saw it, there were many people dead or wounded in the aftermath, and many people lost their jobs; their families were never the same after,” he said. “The real heroes were the ordinary students and people in (Beijing) and other cities. By comparison, what I did personally didn’t seem worth telling. The most important thing I could do was live my life in a way that wouldn’t dishonor the dead.”

He was eventually convinced by an editor to write the book last year, around the 30th anniversary of the massacre. “She convinced me that I had a duty to the memory of that time,” Zhang said. “I accepted it. ‘No justice, no peace,’ but I think also, ‘No memory, no justice.'”

“Tiananmen 1989: Our Shattered Hopes” is out now.

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