“The tragedy of loss is not that we grieve, but that we cease to grieve, and then perhaps the dead are dead at last.”

— poet Gabriel Dauntsey in P.D. James’ Original Sin (1994)

If he had not been so busy as a lawyer and a politician, Abraham Lincoln probably would have been a good archivist.  The Society of American Archivists asserts that “the primary task of the archivist is to establish and maintain control, both physical and intellectual, over records of enduring value.”  The title of today’s post — borrowed from Lincoln — certainly reflects an effort to preserve some purpose from the deaths of so many thousands of soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg (albeit not by preserving records).

These sorts of sensibilities have led me to a career as an archivist and have made me more attuned to actions that threaten history and memory.  The build-up to the 25th anniversary of the protests at Tiananmen Square has been one such example.  The protests in 1989, led by students and other activists who desired a more open society in China, spawned an aggressive silencing on the part of China’s communist party.  The number of people who died as a result of the military response has never been officially corroborated.  A search for “June 4” in the primary Chinese Internet search engine results in a message that says: “According to policies from relevant laws and regulations, part of the search results cannot be displayed.”  William Nee, a researcher for Amnesty International, has characterized the actions of the Chinese government as “an attempt at forced amnesia.”

Gate of Heavenly Peace

Gate of Heavenly Peace

I had the opportunity to travel to China in 1997 and visited Tiananmen Square.  The combination of buildings and monuments that comprise this square is fascinating:

  • Great Hall of the People, where the National People’s Congress meets
  • Mao Zedong Mausoleum, which has housed his remains since his death in 1976
  • Museum of Chinese Revolution/Museum of Chinese History — closed from 1966 to 1978 as Chinese history was being reassessed
  • Gate of Heavenly Peace — built in the 15th century and the place at which Mao announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949
  • and in the center of it all, the Monument of the People’s Heroes, completed in 1958

Our guide, who was of course an employee of the government, explained to us at Tiananmen Square that the workers and peasants didn’t join the students during the “June incident” for several reasons: the country had recently emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution; the Chinese people already had some freedom to criticize; and the Chinese already had a decent standard of living.  Yet his willingness to acknowledge the questionably scant numbers the government claimed to have been killed or arrested during the crackdown made me believe dramatic change in China was coming sooner rather than later.

In his acceptance speech for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo commented, “Even in the political arena, where progress is slowest, the weakening of the ‘enemy mentality’ has led to an ever‑growing tolerance for social pluralism on the part of the regime and substantial decrease in the force of persecution of political dissidents, and the official designation of the 1989 Movement has also been changed from ‘turmoil and riot’ to ‘political disturbance.'”  Despite not being able to deliver this speech in person due to his imprisonment, Liu evidences hope for the future of human rights and freedom in China.  He concludes, “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.  To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”

Unfortunately, optimism doesn’t equate to change.  An article published by McClatchy new service in early May details various lawyers, activists, and journalists that were being detained because of their efforts to remember the victims of the 1989 crackdown.  An article published by the Associated Press this week recounts the tribulations of family members who have wanted to commemorate the lives of those who died in 1989.

I am hopeful that change is coming.  But in the meantime, for Lincoln’s sake, we must continue to grieve the lost.