The Chinese Qingming festival every April — or “tomb-sweeping day” — is a moment to remember one’s ancestors. Graves are delicately cleaned. Spring flowers are left at monuments. And along with physical maintenance, memories of loved ones are often given a dusting-off.
But as people gathered in the spring of 1976 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, they were honoring the ghost of someone the Communist Party politburo would have rather forgotten: Premier Zhou Enlai, known as a force of moderation in the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution, had died in January.
Although popular with the public — their “beloved premier” — he had earned the ire of radicals in the party as a political threat, for positions like the support of various “modernizations” challenging hard-line doctrine. Chairman Mao Zedong even skipped the longtime revolutionary’s funeral. And so after the premier’s death, a list known as the “Five No’s” was dictated to the public. No wreath laying, no gathering to mourn Zhou, no wearing black armbands, no memorial activities and no handing out photos of Zhou.
[In Chinese culture] you use the dead to put pressure on the living.
Warren Sun, professor of Chinese studies at Monash University
Tiananmen Square has long been known as the place where China’s public makes its voice heard. In 1919, there were protests there against the Treaty of Versailles. In 1935, demonstrations launched resistance against Japanese forces. And in 1947 the square was the location of a mass mobilization during the nation’s Civil War. The events in 1976, which would be the first grassroots challenge to the communist regime, would begin around March 19 when a wreath was laid for Zhou in Tiananmen Square by children from an elementary school.
The wreath was quickly removed by authorities — a clear “No.” But more soon followed, piling up directly under the gaze of Mao’s enormous portrait like a flowery taunt. “These wreaths reflect severe class struggle,” Beijing’s public security head was reported saying. Then, breaking another “No,” people began gathering to mourn their fallen leader. By early April there were more than 1 million people gathered, by some estimates. But by that time they weren’t just remembering Zhou, they were protesting the harshness of the Cultural Revolution.
“It’s a symbol of this conflict between radical Maoism and what I can only call more moderate Maoism,” says Frederick Teiwes, a sinologist at the University of Sydney, describing the protests. By 1976, Mao was largely bedridden, and the so-called Gang of Four — Vice Premier Zhang Chunqiao, literary propagandist Yao Wenyuan, Vice Chairman Wang Hongwen and Mao Zadong’s wife, Jiang Qing — were in a fierce power struggle for control of the party. They represented the radical faction, which still supported the more brutal tenets of the Cultural Revolution, like paranoid suppression of those labeled class enemies. At Tiananmen, there were eulogies, posters and poems explicitly criticizing the Gang of Four — and, in a few instances, even Mao. “There was a lot of passion because of a sense ‘the radicals’ had gone too far,” says Teiwes.
In Chinese culture, “you use the dead to put pressure on the living,” says Warren Sun, a professor of Chinese studies at Monash University. Sun says it’s significant that after all the death and hardships of the Great Leap Forward and years of the Cultural Revolution, this was the first large-scale public challenge to the party’s elite. “Thirty-six million people died of hunger, but there was no rebellion because Mao did have some sort of moral leadership,” he says. By 1976, though, that leadership had been tarnished, with the economy in shambles and no change in sight.
Things would soon spin out of control in Tiananmen. A police van was torched. A command post was stormed and set ablaze. Finally, a decision was made to clear the square of the “counterrevolutionary rebellion” — but Mao explicitly instructed that deadly force not be used. As a repeated statement by the mayor of Beijing denounced the gathering over loudspeakers, police and party militia waited until the crowd dwindled to its lowest level late at night before storming the square. The skirmish was brief yet violent, lasting reportedly no more than 15 minutes but resulting in a few hundred arrests. Nobody was killed.
On Sept. 9 of that same year, Mao died at the age of 82. Within less than a month, the Gang of Four was arrested. And within two years Deng Xiaoping, another reformer removed from leadership and erroneously blamed for the ’76 protests, would be leading the country with promises of change echoing those that were demanded in Tiananmen.
More than a decade later, with Deng still in power, another moderate’s death would see the square fill again. The April 15, 1989, passing of ex-Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang brought students in droves to protest against corruption and for Western-style liberalizations. Hu had been forced to resign two years earlier after party leadership thought him too soft on student protesters. But the show of restraint was over. And the former reformer, Deng, wouldn’t prohibit deadly force as Mao did. Tanks rolled in. Soldiers opened fire. No one knows exactly how many died — it may have been hundreds or even thousands.
The events of April 1976 would later be reclassified as a “revolutionary action” by Deng. Its participants were lauded as heroes and patriots. The massacre of 1989, meanwhile, has been scrubbed from state history. Any mention on the internet is reported and blocked. Many young Chinese citizens don’t know it ever happened.
And yet Tiananmen Square remains open for the next generation to make its demands.
Photograph by Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty
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