English Feature #7-37539 Broadcast June 16, 2003
Fourteen years ago this month, an unknown Chinese man walked out onto a broad avenue in Beijing and, all alone, faced a row of tanks lumbering into Tiananmen square to disperse a student-led pro-democracy demonstration. This confrontation, relayed by television cameras around the world, is one of the most enduring images of what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre. To this day nobody knows who this brave man was, or what fate befell him. But today on New American Voices you’ll meet a Chinese-American author whose novel, set against the background of the Tiananmen Square events, creates a life for this young hero.
Terrence Cheng was seventeen years old and living the life of a typical American teenager when television brought the pro-democracy student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square into his family’s living room in New York.
“I was disturbed, and I felt very guilty, in a way, as well. Because these kids looked just like I did, and yet here I was, living a very comfortable life style, and here they were, fighting for something that I had taken for granted my whole life.”
The Cheng family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when Terrence was one year old. He grew up an American boy, doing the things American boys do – playing baseball, earning pocket money delivering newspapers. He says that it wasn’t until the events of June, 1989 in Beijing that he connected with his heritage.
“It was just so shocking, it was the first thing that ever happened that not only made me connect to a feeling and an understanding that I am Chinese, and I have connections to this other side of the world that I’ve more or less neglected my entire life, but it was also the first event in world history that really shook me and confused me and startled me and disturbed me in a way that stayed with me until I was 27-28 years old and I started to write this book.”
The book, entitled “Sons of Heaven”, deals with the way the lives of three main characters –- two imagined, one real -- intersect. The hero is the young man who faced down the tanks, whom Mr. Cheng calls Xiao-Di. In this telling he is a quiet scholar who has just returned from studies in America, and who joins the demonstrators because of his frustration with the political oppression in China after his exposure to Western culture. The second main character is the hero’s brother and antithesis -- a soldier, an ardent member of the Red Army, who is ordered to capture Xiao-Di and use the tanks to maintain civil order. The third is Deng Xiaoping, the real-life Chinese communist leader who, as Terrence Cheng writes, dedicated his life to revolution and wanting to build a stronger and greater China, and yet ordered out the Army and the tanks that killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese people.
“Why do I care about the Tiananmen Square Massacre? I feel like… as a Chinese-American, we are forced to live two lives. We’re Americans, we’re Chinese, we try to blend culture, history. We try to be good at both. And I think it’s a very interesting and sometimes perplexing dynamic. The history aspect I feel can only help you develop as an individual. I absolutely feel it is necessary for writers to write about things that are compelling to them, emotionally, psychologically.”
To be able to recreate the China of 1989 in his novel –- a world about which he admits he knew nothing -– for two years Terence Cheng immersed himself in research about the country and its people. Then, in the spring of 1999, he visited Beijing for the first time – as he says to get the smell, the feel, the taste of the city where his grandparents were born. Yet in the end he feels that his American background was equally important in shaping his view of the events he describes in his novel.
“As an American, a Chinese-American, who has an emotional bond, a cultural bond, but who has also grown up without any kind of real impediment, without any kind of constraints, I feel like I have the opportunity to deal with subject matter, and get at it in a way that maybe others cannot, certain people who are too close to the events.
Terrence Cheng studied creative writing in college, and received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Miami. While trying to make his mark as a writer, he worked at a variety of odd jobs, including, thanks to his husky build, as a bouncer – a person who ejects unruly clients from bars or nightclubs. By the time he started writing “The Sons of Heaven”, he was the director of corporate web site marketing for a large publishing house in New York. However, with the advance he received for the book, he decided to quit his job and devote himself full-time to writing.
“My mother is very unhappy about it. She was very unhappy when I quit. But especially after September 11, so many people were suddenly making these life-altering, last-minute decisions, saying, well, you never know what might happen, and I want to do what makes me happy right now.”
Now Terrence Cheng writes full-time, and also teaches creative writing part-time at a college in New York City. He says he is three-quarters of the way through a second novel. This one again focuses on China and the experiences of the Chinese people, this time during the Japanese occupation during the Second World War.
We thank VOA-TV journalist Natalie Liu for the material on which this story is based.