Rowena Xiaoqing He is a Chinese historian and guest researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study. I meet the small, modest woman over lunch. “I have a lot on my mind,” she says, eating her salad. “I have to prepare for the coming weeks, the many lectures I give throughout the country.”
For Rowena, who chooses her words carefully, everything is about June 4. That very day, 30 years ago, student protests in Tiananmen Square were forcefully suppressed by the government, a horror many of us witnessed live on television. Since then Rowena’s goal has been to not let the world forget what happened. In the beginning, when she started out as a researcher, she kept a low profile. But in 2014 she became known to a wider audience with her acclaimed book, Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China. The book was named one of the top five China books of 2014 by the Asia Society’s China File.
How brave this woman must be, more or less on her own, taking on powerful China. She works tirelessly and allows herself no time for things other than work. I ask her where her urge comes from to keep confronting the world with what happened in 1989 at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing.
“I was 18 at the time and idealistic,” she says. “My friends and I expected a lot from the protests. We wanted democracy, freedom. But by the end of the day, many of us were dead. We were in shock. We could not believe that the government had fired shorts on unarmed civilians. They were youth who only wanted the best for their country.
“The next day at school I wore a black wristband, a symbol of mourning. My teacher took me aside. ‘If you don’t take that off now,’ he told me, ‘no one will protect you from now on.’ That day I was told the meaning of my Chinese name: pure dawn. That day my life started again. “
She tells it all with a smile, while I tear up. Thirty years ago, that June 4, I was glued to the television in horror. I held my breath for that young man on the square in front of the tanks. Somewhere in the crowd stood Rowena, watching helplessly.
When Rowena studied history in Canada and America, she discovered that the government in China denies or falsifies what happened that day. In 2010, at Harvard, she taught a class on the student uprising. “There were Chinese students in my class who had never heard of Tiananmen,” she says, “and others simply did not believe what I told them.” She received a lot of criticism but was also voted teacher of the year.
“Why do you smile when you tell me such painful things,” I ask, “while you are often about to cry?”
“I can only pretend to be cheerful,” she says. “For two generations we were not allowed to show our emotions. I got used to it, and now I can’t change it anymore. “
The lunch conversation takes a completely different turn. We suddenly talk about young children. How important the first years are. How children need the love and attention of their parents in order to flourish. Suddenly Rowena says: “But if that is the case, then I should never have been here. When I was just born my parents were sent to a prison camp. It was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. I did not see them the first four years. I grew up as an orphan. “
A moment later she walks off with her travel suitcase. A woman with a mission. And a smile.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, Saving Charlotte, was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at email@example.com.