Ten days changed the life of Chaohua Wang forever and shaped her legacy. For 10 days, the 36-year-old graduate student in literature refused to leave Tiananmen Square in Beijing except for brief negotiations with top government officials and an overnight stay at a hospital after she collapsed from hunger.
“It was the most intense period of my life,” Wang recalled 20 years later.
In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, she became one of only two women on China’s list of 21 most wanted student leaders who defiantly stood up against the military might of their government and survived the ensuing massacre.
Now 56, she has finally reached a long-awaited goal — she will participate in the June 11 Ph.D. hooding ceremony for UCLA’s Graduate Division, after completing graduate studies that were unexpectedly interrupted by the uprising that held China's — and the world’s — attention for a month and a half.
Wang’s 83-old mother and older sister, both of whom immigrated to England after she fled China, plan to attend the ceremony in Royce Hall. Also present will be Zhang Enhe, Wang’s adviser at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Bejing, where she did graduate studies in modern Chinese literature before she answered a fateful call from student protesters for a representative from her school.
“I am very grateful to UCLA,” said the holder of a doctorate in Asian languages and cultures. “In addition to financial support over many years, UCLA has given me the best intellectual training I could have ever imagined. It is also here at UCLA that I learned a lot about the world beyond China.”
Ironically, the further Wang gets from Tiananmen Square, the more the historic occasion seems to pull her back into its grip. UCLA’s commencement exercises fall just a week after the 20th anniversary of the June 3-4 military crackdown, when the deaths of hundreds of students and workers ended contemporary China’s most important pro-democracy movement.
Wang flew this week to Washington, D.C., where she participated June 3 in a candlelight vigil at the Chinese Embassy. Then she joined more than 40 activists in exile at a press conference at the National Press Club. She flew back that afternoon to Los Angeles to participate in a candlelight vigil in front of the Chinese consulate near Koreatown.
“We want the world to remember the Tiananmen Square massacre,” Wang explained. “It’s illegal for a government to use armed force against its own people, and we want this recognized. This is still a taboo topic inside China.”
In particular, she is troubled by restrictions that remain to this day on family members of protesters killed in the crackdown. The government still prevents them from publicly mourning the loss of their loved ones, she said.
The human toll of Tiananmen Square is a subject with which Wang is all too familiar. After the crackdown, she went into hiding for nine months, she said. During that time, her father, a prominent professor in the same field as her own, died. But she didn't learn of his funeral until after it was reported in the news.
“I cut off any connection with my family,” she said. “I thought that would be safest for both parties. Moreover, my family was also determined not to seek me out or try to pass the news to me. To do so would have risked the safety of the people who were helping me. It was mutual understanding between my family and me at the time.”
With the help of an international network of supporters, Wang fled China in 1990 to the United States — and Los Angeles — as a political refugee.
“The main advantage of L.A. was probably its reputation as one of the hubs for Chinese immigrants, which could make a new immigrant's life easier …"
Hard times follow
But Wang’s new life did not begin that way. Determined to resume her graduate studies, she worked in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and became a live-in caregiver for an elderly couple. Chinese students at UCLA helped her apply to the university and put her in touch with a UCLA professor of modern Chinese literature who ultimately became her graduate school adviser, Leo Ou-fan Lee.
“Chinese students had already held quite a few big demonstrations here to support Beijing students,” she said. “When I arrived, they were eager to help.”
Because the Chinese government would not allow her university to issue her an official transcript, Zhang, her former adviser, and another scholar in Beijing risked political persecution to write letters of recommendation for her. In 1991, she was admitted to both Stanford and UCLA, but she chose UCLA because of “the warm support from Professor Leo Lee,” who guided her through a review of her “Dean’s special admission” in her first two quarters here. A year later, she secured a teaching assistantship.
In 1994, Wang earned a master’s degree in Asian languages and cultures. By then, Lee had taken a position at Harvard, leaving the job of advising Wang to, first, Theodore Huters and, later, Shu-mei Shih, both professors of Asian language and cultures.
Despite all the obstacles that Wang faced, Shih said, there was never any doubt that she would eventually earn a Ph.D. "Her father was the founder of the discipline of modern Chinese literature," Shih said. "She’s a born scholar. It’s in her genes. … It was just a matter of striking a balance between her independent research and her scholarly work. Completing the degree required tenacity because there was so much she could do."
The legacy of Tiananmen Square
Politics frequently tugged at Wang’s conscience. She devoted considerable time and energy to marking the 10th anniversary of protest and massacre. The rise of the Internet in the late 1990s resulted in a wave of lively online discussions by Chinese intellectuals. Wang decided she could help translate their work into English. She also edited the 2003 book, “One China, Many Paths,” a collection of essays by leading Chinese intellectuals. And she contributed articles on the legacy of Tiananmen Square to a range of publications.
“When the crackdown came on the night of 3-4 June, most of the victims were not students, but ordinary citizens,” Wang wrote in a 2007 article in the London Review of Books. “Strangers helped each other without asking questions, and some were killed as they tried to save the lives of others. The world remembers the image of a single man standing alone, in front of a column of advancing tanks. The city was full of such courageous people that night. The reason for commemorating 4 June each year is not simply to remember its tragic cost, but to recapture the magnificent spirit of the movement, rarely seen in China in recent centuries.”
A brighter future
If Wang’s involvement in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square delayed her academic progress, it also helped to define her unique scholarly path. Her 400-page dissertation is an intellectual biography of Ci Yunpi (1868-1940), a Chinese educator, former chancellor of Peking University and anarchist who is considered the father of China’s student activist movement.
Ci’s leadership in higher-education reform is credited with building the groundwork for the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which in turn is credited with laying the foundation for China’s Communist Revolution.
“May Fourth was very important to Chinese history,” she recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Like the students of May Fourth, we in 1989 wanted to propose something new. Political authorities did not command the public imagination. The vacuum was filled by intellectual energy.”
The decision to focus on Ci not only helped Wang gain perspective on her past, but also opened the door to a bright new future. Wang has accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Academia Sinica, the national academy of the Republic of China in Taiwan, which was founded by Ci.
“It’s a hot spot that attracts a lot of scholars from mainland China,” she said. “I very much hope to see many people I haven’t seen in years.”