Case Studies

Remembering Tiananmen Square

Although China is located quite far from Eastern Europe, dissidents in Eastern Europe identified with the struggles by opposition leaders in China and used images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising to reinforce memories of resistance in Eastern Europe.

Unofficial sources of information became an essential tool for survival inside each of the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Citizens more readily believed rumors than newspapers, radio, or television, which were inherently compromised by state censorship. It is increasingly hard for students in our media-saturated era to envision a society in which text-messaging was not immediately available. In order to uncover some of the ways in which unofficial connections were more real than what could be heard or seen, I have turned to some unorthodox sources to help my students connect with the past. In particular, objects of everyday life, like postage stamps, provide a powerful tool to rediscovering life in Communist societies.

In the aftermath of the events of 1989, the newly-elected government in Poland, led by Solidarity, issued a set of commemorative stamps to highlight some of the important struggles in the recent past. One set of these stamps memorializes the events of Tiananmen Square. I used this stamp set in a world history survey, as part of a lecture covering the fall of Communism. I focused on two major events, the rise of Solidarity and the Chinese economic reforms, and in this stamp these two strands of history overlapped in a very effective way.

My world history course is organized around the issue of globalization and the resistance of individual cultures to global pressures. We spent considerable time focusing on cultural interactions and exchanges, the role of information and media, and the consequences of violence as it affected world societies. In this framework, much of the course lectures, discussions, and sources related to colonial contacts. The Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe after World War II was just one of a series of Cold War colonial issues, as was the emergence of Chinese Communism. We had recently discussed several sources concerning postcolonial struggles in Algeria, Kenya, and India. As a result, my students entered the lecture on the fall of Communism anticipating another demonstration of violence to overturn the interests of the colonial power—in this case, the Soviet Union.

I laid out the lecture considering two paths toward reforming Communist regimes-one economic as in China, the other political as in Poland with the rise of Solidarity. For China, I prepared the events in Tiananmen in the spring of 1989 by discussing such events as Nixon’s “opening”of China in the 1970s, the Chinese “Most Favored Nation” trade status with the United States, and the rising student protest movement. When I reached the topic of the student protests in the spring of 1989, I used several photos of Tiananmen, including the ones referenced in the Solidarity stamps that I would later show them. For Solidarity itself, I took a similar long view, beginning with the rise of the labor union in the 1970s, the economic shortages and declaration of martial law in the early 1980s, and then culminating with the peaceful “Roundtable Talks” in February 1989. The difference between these two paths to Communist reform inspired several questions from the students, who wanted to understand how the political reforms ended so peacefully in Poland but with such violence in China. I turned this discussion back to the students by challenging them to propose reasons for different choices made by the governments in these two countries.

Having let the students discuss various alternatives for the differences, I then projected an image of the stamps at the front of the class. I provided a brief context for this particular stamp. I made it clear that these stamps were issued after Solidarity had assumed the political leadership of Poland, and that these were ordinary stamps used for everyday mail, much like the U.S. might issue Star Wars or Olympic commemorative stamps. After the brief background, I asked the students to discuss what the meanings of these stamps were. Why did Poland commemorate Tiananmen Square? What was their emotional reaction to the stamp images, with their violence, horror, and also bravery (in particular, the lone man on the bottom right-side taken from a very well-known image of Tiananmen)? The students’ first reactions focused on the large ideas—that Solidarity could remind Poles of their peaceful success in Poland by contrasting it with the failed, and violent, events in China. Several students picked up quickly that the images themselves were taken from the photos that I had shown them earlier, and this created an opportunity to discuss why these particular photos were famous. As we had discussed the media and the control of information several times throughout the course, my students became highly suspicious of the selection of the images, and which opened a more general discussion about which events of 1989 should be commemorated, and how we could represent them to an audience that had not lived through them.

While I was pleased with the interpretations offered by my students, I was surprised they had missed some of the more puzzling features of the stamps. I had to ask explicitly why the stamps were marked “Tiananmen Square” (noticeably in English) on a stamp that also had Solidarno≈õƒá and poczta in Polish. Furthermore, it was important to note that the important Roundtable Talks in Poland occurred before the events of Tiananmen Square. In other words, the Polish government was commemorating events that happened after their own victory. This observation opened up another discussion on the connection between Solidarity and the United States after the fall of Communism. When I added into the discussion that the U.S. provided some substantial economic aid to post-Soviet Poland, the students had to look at the stamps again and think how an American audience might examine these stamps. In this context, the stamps were not only about highlighting the peace of Poland‚Äôs experiences versus the violence of the Chinese but also an appeal for economic assistance, because of Poland‚Äôs successful transition from Communism. Tiananmen in this context was not a symbol of the struggle against Communism, but instead became a propaganda tool for an American audience. I added in class that the new statue in Washington, DC, commemorating the victims of Communism was also a student from Tiananmen, which only reinforced the American context of Tiananmen as a metaphor for Communist violence.

In the end, I find the stamps a powerful tool for uncovering the complexity of the events of 1989. Read one way, it reveals Polish ideas about their own victory against Communism as a great success story. Read another, it is a reminder of the victims of Communism globally or an appeal for American financial assistance. However, to uncover all of the dimensions in this stamp does take substantial preparation. It was easy to include the stamps as part of a lecture on 1989 as a way of opening up a discussion on the significance of these events. Trying to bring together these two important sets of events from 1989, however, would be difficult without this background. These stamps became a mechanism for opening an important topic of discussion in Poland, where the people maintained a deep-rooted suspicion of “official sources” like the government of the media. It is a continuing challenge to have modern students react to a society that is so fundamentally different than their own.


Document 1: Solidarity Commemorative Stamps

Matthew P. Romaniello
University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
Honolulu, Hawaii