Speaking As Then: Dramaturgy Note

Written by:  Carol Ann Tan

The 2016 U.S. elections helped throw the existing ideological gaps within Chinese-American families into stark contrast, as many immigrant parents and their American-born children took up opposing stances regarding the Trump administration. In observing such familial conflicts, Chinese playwright Ruoxin Xu grew intrigued by the extent to which this generation gap was caused by differences in lived experiences. In her play Speaking As Then, Xu — who is currently pursuing her MFA in playwriting from Columbia University in New York City — examines how a country’s history and politics can profoundly influence the average citizen’s daily life.

An event referenced during the play is the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989, which took place in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China. In May that year, nearly one million protesters — many of whom were students — had assembled to demand greater democracy, increased government accountability, and freedom of expression. But the Chinese government felt that these protests posed a political threat. To shut down the protests, Chinese troops stormed Tiananmen Square in central Beijing on June 3rd and 4th, armed with automatic rifles and tanks. Some protesters tried to fight back using sticks, rocks, and molotov cocktails — prompting the Chinese military to claim that their methods were in self-defense. But in total, just seven military fatalities occurred. By contrast, the total number of civilian deaths has been estimated to exceed 10,000.

Within a week, the Chinese government had largely regained political and social control of Beijing. Afterwards, the government also conducted a political purge: Officials who had assisted the protests in any way were removed; protest leaders were tried, jailed, and on occasion executed; many others implicated in the protests were tainted by the political stigma, their employment prospects suffering as a result. But a number of the dissidents, fearing the government backlash, managed to flee to foreign countries like the United States. The better-known ones have, till now, been unable to return to China: While the government no longer arrests those who attempt to re-enter the country, it does deny them entry, keeping them in exile.

The Chinese government currently forbids public discussions of the incident, stating that its actions were necessary in order to quash a “political disturbance.” Information about the protests has been censored from publicly available media; references are either removed altogether, or must align with the government’s official version of events. Even internet searches have been blocked, although to varying degrees of success. For example, Google decided in 2010 to stop cooperating with Chinese government censors.

Internationally, the Chinese government attracted widespread condemnation for its use of force to resolve the Tiananmen Square incident. In the immediate aftermath, China faced tough economic sanctions and political pressure from major powers like the United States. The political fallout dealt an irreparable blow to the country’s global reputation — and this was made worse still by the Communist Party’s increasingly undemocratic style of governance over the years.

Today, the American media frequently paints China as a repressive environment, ruled by a power-hungry, authoritarian regime with little respect for its citizens’ personal privacy or the right to freedom of expression. But while these portrayals may not be entirely baseless, they are still simplistic. Speaking As Then offers us a more nuanced look into the perspectives of both Chinese citizens and Chinese-Americans alike who must navigate a complex political reality that’s set against a culture that has irrevocably shaped their values — and a country they ultimately still view as home.