‘And you can’t speak of Tiananmen’


The 20th anniversary reports of the massacres in Tiananmen Square – complete with a Chinese digital media blackout – reminded me of ‘Tiananmen’, the fine poem by the writer and sometime foreign correspondent James Fenton, written in haste and in anger within days of the killings.

Tiananmen by James Fenton

Tiananmen Is broad and clean

And you can’t tell

Where the dead have been

And you can’t tell

What happened then

And you can’t speak

Of Tiananmen.

You must not speak.

You must not think.

You must not dip

Your brush in ink.

You must not say

What happened then,

What happened there.

What happened there In Tiananmen.

The cruel men

Are old and deaf

Ready to kill

But short of breath

And they will die

Like other men

And they’ll lie in state In Tiananmen.

They lie in state.

They lie in style.

Another lie’s

Thrown on the pile,

Thrown on the pile

By the cruel men

To cleanse the blood From Tiananmen.

Truth is a secret.

Keep it dark.

Keep it dark.

In our heart of hearts.

Keep it dark

Till you know when

Truth may return To Tiananmen.

Tiananmen Is broad and clean

And you can’t tell

Where the dead have been

And you can’t tell

When they’ll come again.

They’ll come again

To Tiananmen.

Hong Kong, 15 June 1989 –

I hope his publishers will forgive my reproducing it here: Fenton’s collection Out of Danger, from which this comes, or his Selected Poems. are worth some of anyone’s time and money. Normally poems written at such speed are unmemorable after the moment has passed. I was struck by reports of people reading this at a commemoration this week in the UK. News that stayed news, to borrow Ezra Pound’s aphorism.



  1. Wonderful poem. I am going to share it with my students who are reading Son of the Revolution by Liang Heng — about the Cultural Revolution. We will end with a discussion of where things stand today.

    1. “We will end with a discussion of where things stand today”

      What will you say about “where things stand today”?

    1. No-one seems to know what happened to him. The Times of London last year (30 May 2009) quoted a PBS documentary on the subject:

      “The American broadcaster PBS devoted a 50-minute documentary to Tank Man in 2006. If it reached any conclusion, it was that he simply disappeared back into the anonymity of his daily life. The Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights in China cited an internal party document as saying that the authorities were never able to find him. Mr Jiang was quoted as saying: “We can’t find him. We got his name from journalists. We have checked through computers but can’t find him among the dead or among those in prison.”

  2. This poem was published in the Independent newspaper and I cut it out to save and never found again. Until today. I had memorised the first few lines as I do for almost all poems but had forgotten how incredibly powerful it was and still is today. Thank you. I hope he lived.. that would be really something

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