Digitizing Tiananmen

Concealed in a Harvard repository, accessible only by special request, are some remarkable materials whose potential to influence collective memory is considerable, and whose public disclosure could be significant. The Tiananmen archives of the Harvard-Yenching Library contain thousands of photographs, manuscripts, and newspaper articles detailing the violent military crackdown of June 4, 1989, on student demonstrators in Beijing. The recent debate on library digitization, in the context of the Collections Digitization Program of the Harvard College Library, has not yet touched upon the Tianamen archives, whose role nonetheless appears significant in such a discussion. Although the sensitive nature of the material poses concerns about the safety of authors and interviewees alike, enough time has passed so that the bulk of these materials may be made digitally available to the public without harm, potentially offering novel historical evidence regarding a highly contentious moment in the recent past of China.

Harvard has had a fundamental role in keeping alive the memory of the Tiananmen massacre of June Fourth, a role perhaps best highlighted by the remarks of Lawrence Sullivan, research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at the time of the crackdown. Sullivan declared to The Crimson in 1990, “Harvard has become the center of the Chinese dissident community.” The intention to establish a collection of material dealing with the pro-democracy movement of 1989 and its military suppression was first announced by Harvard-Yenching librarian Eugene W. Wu in October 1989. Wu, whose efforts were pivotal to the creation of the archives, talked of the Tiananmen collection to the Harvard Gazette at the time of his retirement in 1997. The librarian said he was “particularly pleased” with the acquisitions. The library became a recognized center for preserving the memory of June Fourth, and—as relayed by current librarian Xiao-he Ma—outsiders have been sending material for inclusion in the archives up to the present day. Strikingly, the archives include a pair of bloodstained trousers and a jacket, as well as several banners handwritten by the student demonstrators.

“In view of the sensitive nature of some of the targeted materials, strict guidelines will be established regarding access,” Wu wrote in his 1989 announcement, “so as to provide maximum protection for the individuals whose identity might be revealed through these materials.” The potential dangers of a public disclosure of the materials are also highlighted by a notice appended at the front of the senior thesis of Tamar P. Shay ’93, which is included in the archives, and deals with the happenings of June Fourth. “The names of interviewees in this thesis have been disguised by pseudonyms,” Shay wrote. “However, because their identity can be surmised from other information, the safety of the interviewees could be compromised if the thesis comes to the knowledge of the Chinese government.”

Many years have passed, however, and June 2014 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Time has now eroded those dangers that prompted Wu and Shay to keep their work strictly confidential, and an initiative aimed at digitizing some of the Tiananmen archives’ materials could be plausible. While the decision to publicly distribute any single piece of archival evidence will ultimately have to rest with those whom the material concerns, it is conceivable that a critical mass of individuals willing to divulge information about themselves may be gathered. The possibility of a future digitization of the archives is particularly significant in light of the continuing censorship of the 1989 events on Chinese soil. The absence of a museum or memorial to the happenings of Tiananmen within China only adds to the momentousness of the archives.

The importance of the quest for truthful historical memory that countless reporters, scholars, and students carry out daily stands pivotal in the face of persistent censorship. Although potentially long and costly, an initiative to digitize and disclose the Tiananmen Archives could offer fertile ground for more genuine historical investigation, in defiance of the authoritarian winds that many a time have blown to distort collective memory.


Antonio Coppola ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Hollis Hall.


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