This month marks the 35th anniversary of the June Fourth Incident, which is known outside China as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. “Tiananmen Square,” a new autobiographical novel by Lai Wen, the pseudonym of a Beijing-born immigrant living in Britain, wraps an emotionally satisfying coming-of-age tale around a riveting account of the months-long student protests and the horrific, fateful night that Chinese troops cracked down with bullets and tanks.

Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 students gathered in Tiananmen Square between April and June 1989, demanding democratic and economic reforms in protests that were supported by many Beijingers. Eventually, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his government decided to clear the square with murderous force. Hundreds of students were gunned down by the Chinese military, some run over by tanks. The iconic image the rest of the world remembers today, despite the Chinese government’s attempts to erase and suppress mentions of June Fourth on social media and across its internet, is that of “Tank Man,” the single protester blocking the progression of a column of tanks.

The book begins long before that, with Lai as a child in the late 1970s. Ominous manifestations of death and danger color her childhood. In one early scene, she follows her friend Gen to a building she believes is the Beijing Children’s Hospital. “That’s what everyone thinks,” Gen tells her. But really, he explains, it’s a crematorium, “a place where they burn the bodies of all the children who have died.” Then years later, on a night when Lai, Gen and their friends sneak out during a citywide curfew instituted before the U.S. national security adviser’s visit to Beijing in May 1978, Lai gets an early-life lesson on how politics can affect the average citizen. Despite their youth, she and Gen are arrested and questioned about who planned this “blatant act of anti-patriotic sabotage.” Gen takes the blame and Lai is released, with Gen remaining in detention to presumably take further punishment.

Lai doesn’t see him again until they start high school in the fall. The events of the night they were detained bond the two and influence Gen’s anti-government political opinions. Despite Gen’s dark moods, Lai becomes his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Lai’s grandmother begins to show signs of dementia, and an inevitably swift decline commences.

The novel’s deliberate but surehanded pacing gives these formative moments in Lai’s adolescence an emotional resonance. When Gen downplays Lai’s achievement after she wins an essay content, the reader feels the sting, too. When Lai discovers that Gen is sleeping with another college classmate, her heartbreak is ours.

But it’s Gen who introduces Lai to the student protesters. She joins them in Tiananmen Square tentatively, at first, then with a full heart. While watching a speech in the square, Lai experiences a political awakening:


“‘Why can’t we choose our own jobs?’

“‘Why must we let the Party assign us to a workplace?’

“‘Why does the Party keep a personal file on each of us, and why don’t we have the right to see it?’

“They were simple questions, and ones we had all asked ourselves over the course of our lives; yet to hear them uttered in such a plain yet anguished tone was moving. It was as though, over the years, certain questions had been exiled to the silent shadowlands of one’s inner thoughts, one’s private moments, and you were never sure if others thought the same. Because you didn’t feel you could ever ask.”

Such immersive moments are occasionally punctured by attempts to Westernize the prose for mass consumption. Lai and her friends sometimes talk like American teens. Trying to impress Gen among his college friends, Lai says: “Hey, this is pretty rad. … I really dig this scene!”

Nonetheless the book’s arresting and bloody climax delivers a powerful punch. Lai recounts the historical record after the shots have been fired, killing unarmed students.

“The military made the following demand: ‘Leave quickly. If you do not leave we will have to implement the cleansing order and there may be bloodshed.’ Ironic, that last touch, ‘there may be bloodshed,’ when the square was strewn with the bodies of our dead.”

While lengthy, the novel is worthwhile, and not just because of the anniversary of one of the most infamous protest crackdowns in modern history. One can’t help but think of student protests elsewhere, including the Israel-Hamas war protests on campuses around the U.S. “Tiananmen Square” reminds us that while the hearts and actions of student protesters may be imperfect, their anguish and desire to be heard are deeply felt.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently “No Good Very Bad Asian.” His work has appeared in publications such as NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle and Salon.

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