Subscriber OnlyBooksReview

Tiananmen Square by Lai Wen: A laudable work with lush melancholy but also some shortcomings

This piece of autobiographical fiction provides an understanding of China during a crucial period but the author does not fully meet high ambitions

Chinese tanks are confronted by a lone demonstrator after the crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989
Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
Author: Lai Wen
ISBN-13: 978-1800753464
Publisher: Swift Press
Guideline Price: £20

In the spring of 1989, students congregated at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing demanding a more democratic government. A protest in Tiananmen – “Gate of Heavenly Peace” – had a precedent, as in the May 4th, 1919 movement by students and writers that helped lead to China’s 1949 political transformation. Late spring is a good season to protest, as historians have remarked, because the weather is wonderful. On June 4th, tanks rolled in and bullets were fired, with deaths estimated to be in the thousands.

“My earliest memory,” Lai Wen begins in the novel Tiananmen Square, “is of my grandmother”. Lai Wen is a pseudonym for an author born in 1970 in Beijing at the height of the Cultural Revolution. She also shares her name with her narrator, which positions her book in the genre of autobiographical fiction. Although Tiananmen culminates in that tragedy, it starts with childhood, and primarily functions as a coming-of-age tale.

The Cultural Revolution: a storm that swept through ChinaOpens in new window ]

Wen’s grandmother makes shoes for women who had their feet crushed by foot-binding, and merrily belches to the horror of Wen’s ambitious mother. Wen’s father is a scholar, a cartographer and downtrodden. Her boyfriend Gen is a government cadre’s son who lives in a mansion. Wen’s first experience of Tiananmen is a school trip to see Mao’s embalmed corpse.

Wen evokes a specific sliver of Beijing experienced by an educated, once-elite class. China was not kind to these people, idealists who had read Marx and supported Mao but who were subsequently persecuted. Generations were crammed into a two-bedroom apartment with a concrete floor and a toilet that was a hole sheltered by a screen. There was hurly-burly from the neighbours. “In our corridor,” Wen recalls, “husbands would occasionally beat their wives. Sometimes you would hear their arguments; you could even make out the sudden deadening silence before a hand met the side of a woman’s face, and then the high-pitched yelp which followed.” Nevertheless, in these households, books and conversation abounded; there was a courtyard where children would play, and because there were few toys, imagination reigned.


“I was inspired,” Wen says in her preface, “by my reading of [Italian novelist] Elena Ferrante’s novels ...(by) way of basing the main character loosely on myself and things that happened to me, while at the same time being able to separate myself from events in order to provide them with fictional sparkle and colour.” Like Ferrante’s work, Tiananmen Square is driven by mood rather than plot.

Why I love Elena Ferrante: ‘A savage honesty that is both unsettling and comforting’Opens in new window ]

Wen, who now lives in the UK, writes in English. The Chinese language is terse, and Chinese writers who use English, such as Ha Jin (Waiting), often reflect this. But Wen seeks to imitate Ferrante, and as a result, her prose is overripe with a plethora of lyrical adjectives. About her grandmother: “She gave a salacious wink, but there was no humour in it, just the bleakest contempt.” About landscape: “Outside, I could see the silky shreds of fine dark cloud scrolling across the pale moon. Underneath, the city formed its shapes in deep shadows, touched every now and then by the glow of forlorn light – like a great ship rolling through the darkness.” Also because Wen hearkens to Ferrante, author of My Brilliant Friend, one assumes that Tiananmen is about female friendship. Instead, Wen’s “friend” appears late and is not properly fleshed out.

In her preface, Wen describes herself as “quiet and mousy”. She claims that if her book “contains some level of truth, then who knows?”. In the end, her modesty rings false. Her pseudonym, Wen “文”, means literature. Her protagonist of the same name wins a scholarship to Beijing University. Moreover, in autobiographical fiction, one still quibbles with facts. Wen’s characters have blue and green eyes, uncommon among the Chinese.

Wen’s epigraph, “A flame burns brightest the moment before it perishes” is attributed to a mysterious “unknown,” but the 1940s American actress Gene Tierney said, “A flame burns brightest just before it goes out”, a quote also echoed in the movie Blade Runner.

Doubtless, Tiananmen Square, with its lush melancholy, will be praised. It provides an understanding of China during a crucial period, through which one can start exploring the dazzling, distressing, but frequently humorous array that is that country’s literature and history. Wen strives for the new Wild Swans, the book by Jung Chang that opened western eyes to Chinese womanhood. However, it draws upon the exotic “other” narrative, one that manipulates a reader’s reaction to oppression and heartbreak.

Jung Chang : ‘I’m very wary about the role of written history’Opens in new window ]

At the end of Tiananmen, there is a breathtaking twist; it is, in fact, the reason for finishing the book. There are writers talented enough to pull off this finale and have it be fiction, but Wen is not one. If her ending is indeed invented, it may seem a betrayal, especially for those close to that turbulent moment that was 1989 Beijing.