Reading Yu Hua‘s 余华 China in Ten Words 十个词汇里的中国 I was struck (as many others must have been before me) with his nostalgic description of Beijing in the spring of 1989, a few months before what has since been referred to as the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ 天安门事件 or ‘June Fourth Incident‘ 六四事件.
He writes: “It was a Beijing we are unlikely to see again. A common purpose and shared aspirations put a police-free city in perfect order. As you walked down the street you felt a warm, friendly atmosphere around you. You could take the subway or a bus for free, and everyone was smiling at one another, barriers down […] Beijing then was a city where, you could say, ‘all men are brothers.'” (Yu Hua: China in Ten words, translated by Allan H. Barr. New York, Pantheon Books: 2011. pp. 7)
This description immediately put me in mind of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the early spring of 2011. Many protesters and commentators of the time wrote of the same feeling of brotherhood, the same symbolic power of the place and in the same romanticized narrative style as Yu Hua in his relation of the protests leading up to the Tiananmen Incident.
Slavoj Žižek wrote: The most sublime moment occurred when Muslims and Coptic Christians engaged in common prayer on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, chanting ‘We are one!’ […] the protesters’ call to the army, and even the hated police, was not ‘Death to you!’, but ‘We are brothers! Join us!'” (Slavoj Žižek in The Guardian, Thursday 10 February 2011)
Though these two cases vary very much in outcome, the urban square as a site for democratic protest links them together. The square as a physical place for gathering, as well as a symbolic space for the creation of a common narrative, is a powerful democratic tool. No wonder the Bahrain government saw fit to demolish the Pearl Square to prevent protesters from gathering there.
Again I become aware how deeply the reader is part of the inter-human contract that we name literature, and how one’s immediate social and historical context cannot fail to determine or at least flavour the reading of a given text. And again I am forced to admit that there is no such thing as a pure text, nor an original meaning to be conveyed. All the more reason to read good books over and over again!