From Tiananmen to Tian Men (Heavenly Gate)
As a lonely, little child growing up around a government hospital,I was always afraid of death. I had nightmares of sinking into a deep,endless, and dark hole that simply would not end. Each time I screamed to awake and put an end to the dream.But THIS night, it was not a dream—even a bad dream. It was real, and this time we would not wake upfrom it.
In 1989 as a 23-year-old national honor student in China’s great BeijingUniversity, Beida, I found myself atTiananmen Square, leading the student protest and hunger strike for a better, freer, and more loving China. Many called the 1989 Tiananmen movementa pro-democracy movement; some called it a revolution. Both are partially true. In a more profound sense, for the students involved, the Tiananmen movement was a spiritual awakening. We wanted to know the truth about our country, our lives, and our beliefs. And for a brief while, the movement brought smiles and love out of our hearts. That smile and love spread into more people, woke more neighbors out of hatred and distrust…so that the whole city, the whole country, and the whole world was touched by the energy of love and hope…and the glorious dream that we could be free—free from hatred, free from violence, free from separation, and free from fear. Even the thieves in Beijing called a strike and stopped stealing to support the movement.
I was propelled into the movement by a story told me by a graduate student who had done a bike trip along China’s famous Yellow River. In the middle of his journey, he entered a poor village where destitute villagers asked him to do them a favor. That night they gathered in a small shack, and in the dim, oil-lantern light, they passed him something that was wrapped in a thick, black, rain cloth. He opened the cloth, layer by layer, to find a copy of the Bible, a copy left by a missionary some 40 years earlier.The villagers, who could not read, passed the Bible around, touching it with their hands to connect with God’s spirit. They begged him, a college student, to read to them— and he did. That night he stood and read, and read, and read, until dawn broke through the window. To thank my friend, the villages gave him a bag of sweet potatoes to bring home.
As a young university student dashing around campus doing a million things, this story stopped my rush. The spirit that attracted those villagers attracted me. I had seen people worship leaders out of fear and obedience; I had never seen people follow someone with genuine devotion and faith.
For 50 days in the spring of 1989, the Tiananmen event grew and grew until it became a global event, in a society that allows no free media. When tanks and troops rolled in, I was with my last 5000 students at the Square. The death toll and casualty numers on the Long Peace Avenue were reported back to me. Death was marching at us step by step.
During those 50 days, I experienced many new emotions and trials: from living the simple life of a graduate student, to being a Commanderin- Chief of a mass movement; from being young and carefree with a love to dance, to taking a stand that would potentially lead to years of life in prison; from dreaming about studying in America and building a life of happiness and laughter, to just hoping to survive. Many thoughts rushed through my mind: What will happen to my family thousands of miles away? What about their future if I am no longer there for them? I am their hope and their pride. How about all our dreams for a fulfilled life, with children and grandchildren…so many questions, so little time. For now, we faced death!
As a leader, I could not dwell on my own thoughts; I had to tend to my troops. They were sitting by each other, holding hands and sharing blankets, their eyes fixed like lambs waiting to be slaughtered. Staring sadly into the darkness of the Square, occasionally lit by gleams of gunfire from the tanks, their faces showed the same kinds of emotions I was feeling: sadness, sorrow, anger, disbelief and helplessness. What could I say to comfort them?
I remembered a story I’d heard about a community of ants that lived on a mountain.
One day the mountain caught on fire and the ants had to get down to the bottom of the hill to survive. They rolled into a ball, went through the fire, and the outside ants were burned, but the ant nation survived. So that night we were the ants on the frontier of our nation. In our demise, there would be born a free nation. As I finished the story, smiles came back to the students’ faces and cheers arose as, in those last minutes, we found our purpose. The purpose we shared gave us courage to face the unbearable darkness and the unknown that comes from facing death. We were about to give our lives, our most precious gift, for our people and our nation. If only the leaders who ordered the massacre could feel that same love, that priceless gift! But the cold and dark tanks showed no emotion.
For some miraculous reason, I survived that night. After leading the remainder of the last 5000 students out of the Square, my life was thrown into the dangerous underground. There, I was rescued by a group of devoted Buddhists, whose beliefs are truth, kindness and endurance. They risked their own lives to save me. When I expressed the deeply troubling question, “Why did I survive when so many others died?” they told me it was because my work in this life was not yet done. With some clarity and relief, I endured five nights and four days of complete darkness and isolation in a wooden crate inside a boat—on a trip that was supposed to be only eight hours. Hanging on, with nothing but the simple faith that “My work in this life is not yet done,” I escaped to freedom, first through Hong Kong, then Paris, and finally to America.
Life as an immigrant in this country was not easy for me. I couldn’t speak much English and longed to continue working to bring freedom in China— yet I couldn’t even go back to my home country. My first marriage to another Chinese student leader fell apart. Then my dear mother and my grandmother passed away, the job I loved failed because the company did not want to risk their China business on me, and I endured vicious defamation and attacks from fellow countrymen.
Each dark hour seemed darker than the first one. But I relied on my own strength and the kindness of others to overcome. I completed a graduate degree from Princeton, another degree from Harvard, worked in NGOs, worked in government, and worked in companies. For over a decade I worked to build back my life: I married a wonderful American man and we had three children; I brought my extended family out of China, gave money to save orphans in China, and built a software company with over 280 employees. These tasks kept my mind and hands busy as I inched towards that illusive big and grand goal—complete peace and happiness.
Ten years later, 2009, the 20th year after the Tiananmen movement, I was surprised by a visitor from China, my Tiananmen colleague Fang Zheng. I had not known Fang in person, but I later learned that on the June 4th morning when the students left the Square, he was leading the team at the end while I was marching in the front. The tanks came from behind with high speed, and Fang instantly pushed a young lady to safety, and in the process, both of his legs were crushed by the tank. Now here we were, twenty years later, and I was meeting Fang in his wheelchair.
While I listened to Fang’s story, I could not stop thinking that his life could have been mine—had the tanks come in from the front instead of the back. Fang told that many people in China are benefiting from greater freedom and new economic developments, but that many of the victims of Tiananmen struggle in China on a daily basis. The sacrifices they made were being forgotten. Hearing this, my heart stirred with the same desire I had as a young college student, to help bring hope to the people there.
But how could I do this? I now have a responsibility for my young and innocent children and my dear husband who are completely ignorant of the cruelty suffered by countless numbers of my own people. After losing many of my beloved friends to the cause, this time, the thought of losing my precious family was simply unbearable. Yet my life was supposed to have a purpose; My work was not yet done!—I was told! This time my emotions were stuck—between the past and the future!
On a plane to Washington, D.C., to join Fang in celebrating his first dance with his wife after he had been generously outfitted with state of arts prosthetic legs, I encountered an experience I had never had before—a panic attack. I lost all purpose and clarity and was left completely without strength. As a result, the truth about myself emerged! For all my triumphs, I actually am a very weak and humble individual––without resources or networks. How could I join a battle that could not be won?
Over the years, many sowed the seeds about Christ to me, but questions always arose. A new friend, Reggie Little John, a devoted Christian who believes she is called to expose the brutality of China’s forced abortion practice, sent me a movie of the Gospel of John. As I watched the movie and heard the words of Christ,an unexplainable sense of peace and calm came into my burning heart. One day Reggie asked me to accompany her to the U.S. Congress to hear the Human Rights Committee’s report on China’s forced abortion practice. The testimony of a young mother struck me to the core. It brought back memories of the helplessness and pain we experienced the night of the June 4th massacre in 1989. That night was so brutal, yet we had no strength to stop it, and the rest of the world could not stop it either. I thought, If there is anyone who can stop this brutality, it has to be God, and it can only be God—because I have tried to change China, and I did not succeed. Once again, I ambled back and forth at the gate to God’s kingdom, wanting to believe, but hindered by so many questions. Big questions!
“What is the purpose of my life?”“What is God’s plan for me?” These were questions that had been bothering me for the past 20 years.
Reggie explained, “God definitely has a special job for you, because you grew up in China, got excellent education, ended up in Tiananmen, came to the U.S., married an American husband, and started your business. Very few have achieved the level of experiences and understanding you have in so many unique areas.”
As she was speaking, my heart was filled with a warm desire. So I blurted out: “If only I could bring God’s love to China…”
“That’s it!” Reggie stopped me, “Bring God’s love to China—that’s the Lord’s plan for you. A job He has prepared you for, and you can accomplish in a way no one else can.” Then Reggie’s response became soft and tender. “Chai Ling, because of what you have been through, the pain you have endured, the Lord will know what you are prepared to do for Him.”
That night, after talking to Reggie, I knelt down in my office and prayed, “Dear Lord, Jesus Christ, I now accept you as my Savior and my only God. Please forgive all my sins, known or unknown; please come into my heart and guide my life.” An amazing sense of peace came over me. After dinner I shared the news with my husband who was so overjoyed for me and for our family. He has been a devoted Christian and has taken me to church from time to time ever since we started dating 12 years earlier. His love was very patient and complete.And now, finally, God was in charge of both our lives.
Amazingly, in a matter of days, many of my long-lost friends from the Tiananmen movement reunited withme through the event of my coming to Christ. This time, it was not our bundling youth and trust that broughtus together but our shared faith in the Lord.
Looking at China today, I rejoice that during the past 20 years, God has used His mighty power to bring the Good News to the most populous nation on earth. And I can see how God was at work in my own life, even though as I grew up, I wasn’t allowed to know Him. He was in every part of my life: He answered my prayers even though I didn’t know to whom I was praying; He made me into an outstanding student able to escape the small fishing village where I grew up; He unleashed a powerful force of love and peace in my heart to move the world to become a better place; He provided protection through some brave Buddhists who risked their lives to save me; and though He didn’t stop the bad things from happening, His presence was with me through the journey.
My experience at Tiananmen helps me understand how immense God’s love is. Just as on the night of June3rd, we faced the last hour before giving up the most precious life and love we had, Christ sacrificed Himselfso we could be reunited with God and be given eternal life in heaven with Him. Just like the many ants burned to death in my story, Christ was sacrificed so a new nation could be reborn to be God’s children.
I know that my work in this life is not yet done. Through God’s power, I can help bring God’s love to China. And God’s plan will succeed. His victory is definite.
(Chai Ling, former Tiananmen Square student leader, was baptized and gave her testimony on Easter, April 4, 2010.)