Tiananmen

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Warning: this post has nothing to do with fitness or CrossFit. Not a barbell is budged or a medball thrown. But, it has a lot to do with the human spirit, and that may be something of interest to anyone who pursues the enlarging of their own. 

Twenty-five years ago, just about to the day, something profound was happening on the other side of the world and it affected me deeply. When the protests in Tiananmen Square broke out, I was living in Tokyo and, like many who lived so near to China, I followed the protests closely. The death in Japan of the Emperor Hirohito, the emperor who had presided over Japan’s involvement in World War Two, some six months earlier had brought about a feeling of newness, of possibility, to Japan. Hirohito’s death wasn’t a happy occurrence and the entire country shut down to mourn him, but there was an unsaid feeling that the past had been laid to rest and the future would be new and unstained. Japan was also still in the midst of its great economic bubble, which allowed an 18 year old high school dropout obsessed with martial arts, rock music, and girls to earn $60 an hour.

News of the protests in Beijing, centered in its great Tiananmen Square, was on the breath of everyone I met. My friends and I spoke of little else (except, of course, martial arts, rock’n roll, and girls). This massive country, the great Asian communist powerhouse in which no glasnot could have been imagined, was on the verge of being changed by the peaceful protest of thousands of students. Freedom, democracy, China. Hitherto oxymorons now seemed a real possibility, and Tokyo, buoyed by its own recent changes, seemed, to me at any rate, to hold its breath in anticipation.

And then the tanks rolled in. Almost exactly 25 years ago to the moment I am writing this, soldiers were opening fire on unarmed civilians, shooting them in the back and literally running them over from behind with tanks as the army made its way to Tiananmen Square. I was stunned. The rest of the world, I have no doubt, saw it all coming, but I was sure, riding that wave of new feeling, cheering the thousands of protestors in China on from neighboring Japan, and being so very young, that something would be different this time.

When the dust cleared a day later, a single image was seared into the consciousness of the world. A lone man standing in front of a column of tanks. The lead tank turns and bucks, but the man blocks it and then the tank stands still, the entire column stopped. Absolutely unthinkable. Unfathomable. So incredible were this man’s actions that the thought and image of them played an inspirational role in the collapse of the USSR two years later.

Was this bravery? Was it craziness? Was it simply a person who had been pushed too far? The actions, like the identity and fate, of the man who halted a column of tanks are a mystery, and knowledge of any of these would not change the impact of that image in the least.

The human spirit lies in direct contrast to the fragility of our body. Our body breaks, it hurts, it fails. But that spirit is so very strong. Indomitable, really.

It’s been a long time since I first saw that image and video, the tank juking to and fro and the man angrily waving shopping bags as he denies it passage, and I don’t think about it regularly. Many many people who I have known and interacted with, shared talk and laughter, tears and years, have far more influence on my life and being, but the the heady days of late spring 1989 that culminated in death in China, are a lesson in what it really means to believe and to put all one has into that belief.