May-June 2014

Tiananmen Square

By Ross Altman

tiananmen square - we shall overcomeTwenty-five years ago this June 4 something happened in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, that put the last nail in the coffin of any pretense China had towards a commitment to human rights. At the order of leader Deng Xiaoping their “Peoples Liberation Army” massacred 3,000 students who had peaceably assembled on behalf of democracy—the most dramatic clampdown on demonstrations for democratic freedom since Mao himself launched The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.

While the Soviet Union crumbled, and the Berlin Wall tumbled, the democratic winds of change in 1989 were stopped at China’s border, and their spontaneous youth movement so reminiscent of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s was set back a generation. The great photograph that told the whole story in a single frame was of a lone Chinese student standing in front of a phalanx of tanks—the individual refusing to be intimidated by the state.

But it was another image that caught my attention as a songwriter, published in the LA Weekly around May 20, shortly before the military crackdown on June 4. It showed a student holding up a sign emblazoned with the words We Shall Overcome. Wow, I thought to myself, all the way from the March on Washington to Tiananmen Square. Can a song change the world? This one clearly did. In response I wrote Tiananmen Square, as a tribute to the Chinese students today—and American students who died at Kent State demanding the same thing—democracy—and the quarter million people who marched on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of freedom and justice.

But where could I sing such a song that would have the most meaning? I found myself heading down to the Chinese Embassy on Shatto Place in downtown Los Angeles, thinking only that I would stand in front of the door and sing it loud and clear—so maybe it could be heard upstairs.

When I got there I was surprised and amazed—hundreds of local Chinese Americans were standing there too—in a silent vigil of witness and protest for democracy. I asked them if I could sing a song I had written for the students in Tiananmen Square. They were moved and gracious and the ideal audience.

And that’s how I met Ann Lau—head of a group called The Visual Artists’ Guild and organizer of their protest. She told me they would be holding a silent vigil next year too, on June 4. Would I come back and sing it then? I readily agreed; and the year after and the year after. Here we are now, 25 years later, and every year since I have joined the Chinese human rights community in Los Angeles, along with Amnesty International, and a woman friend Leslie Levy who has carried the torch as the Goddess of Democracy ever since she herself was in Tiananmen Square during that long day’s journey into night, as the then-wife of a Chinese student. She is a poet and wrote an entire book of poems about Tiananmen Square. We barely see each other during the rest of the year, but every June 4 at sundown like clockwork all three of us—Ann, Leslie and I—along with hundreds of other witnesses for human rights assemble together in front of the Chinese Embassy to not let them forget what happened. We light candles, sing songs, read poems and honor the Goddess of Democracy—which was fashioned into a majestic sculpture by artists from the Visual Artists’ Guild.

This year for the 25th anniversary I was amazed and honored to discover that Ann Lau has had my song translated into Chinese, and transliterated into phonetic English so I could learn to sing my own song in the language of the martyred students who died there. I am both looking forward to it and am nearly catatonic with dread at the prospect. Needless to say I will have to practice the song all over again to prepare for this performance. So I am putting it out there now to the wider folk music audience for support and encouragement, and to let people know so I will have to come through. It’s the first time (to my knowledge) one of my songs has been translated into a foreign language and I couldn’t be more gratified. A song has the power to cross borders, as Pete Seeger many times said, and bring people together as his personal credo described on his banjo head: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” The lessons I learned from Pete all emanate from the power of that one song he helped give birth to—by changing “will” to “shall” in We Shall Overcome. My song Tiananmen Square is a tribute to the power of Pete’s song We Shall Overcome; as the chorus says:


            My brothers and my sisters

wǒ de xiōng dì zǐ mèi men

            Don’t give in to despair

bú yào qū fú jǔ sàng

            Seeds you plant today may bloom

jīn tiān bō xià de zhǒng zi jiāng lái hui kai hua

            In a field you know not where

zài nǐ yì xiǎng bú dào de dì fāng

            Who’d have thought all those years ago

shuí xiǎng dé dào duō nián qián

            When we marched for freedom here

dāng wǒ men zài měi guó wéi zì yóu ér yóu xing

            They’d be singing “We Shall Overcome”

yǒu yì tiān tā men huì chàngwǒ men huì zhàn shèng

            In Tiananmen Square.

zài tiān ān mén 广guǎng chǎng shàng

Words and Music by Ross Altman © 1989 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Chinese characters by Anonymous

Phonetic English by Layna YunLei Wu

As I have said on a number of occasions I wrote this song in sympathy with the Chinese students in the Square who reminded me of SDS when I was a student organizer at UCLA, but I also wrote it in penance for the years I spent as a red diaper baby who had grown up in the Old Left and made far too many excuses later on for the crimes of communism. This is my way of cleaning my slate as it were—and coming to terms with my own political history. As Annie Dillard once wrote, “Are you a communist?” “No, I’m an anti-communist!” “I don’t care what kind of communist you are—I’m against it!”

The world has moved on since those dark days of the Cold (and in this case, not so cold) War. But other demonstrations in other city squares have continued to hold a spotlight on the perennial human quest for freedom—from Tahrir Square in Egypt to Azadi Square in Iran (near where Nedā Āghā-Soltān was murdered by state police in Tehran). They all owe a profound debt to those brave Chinese students who led the way in the Beijing Spring of 1989. When I think of them, how can I keep from singing?

Tiananmen Square Ross Altman

Tiananmen Square

Words and Music by Ross Altman © 1989 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Chinese characters by Anonymous; Phonetic English by Layna YunLei Wu

1) Did you hear the Chinese students singing


            “We Shall Overcome”


            Sounded sweet as it did then


            At the March on Washington


            They quoted Gandhi and Dr. King


            There was freedom in the air


            They gave flowers to the soldiers


            In Tiananmen Square.


2) Did you see the Goddess of Democracy


            Standing in front of Mao


            And the students smiling faces


            As they chanted “freedom now”


            Did you see this morning’s headlines


            “Marshall Law Declared”


            As the tanks were slowly rolling towards


            Tiananmen Square.

天tiānān门mén广guǎng场chǎng (See chorus above.)

3) Did you see the Goddess of Democracy


            Trampled to the ground


            And the People’s Liberation Army


            Shoot the people down


            It made me think of Kent State


            And the students who died there


            It’s a long way from Ohio


            To Tiananmen Square. (Ch.)


4) They can clean the streets and wash the blood


           From the bullet-ridden walls


            But alone against their sea of tanks


            One unarmed man stood tall


            And they can’t erase that photograph


            No matter how they dare


            Claim nothing ever happened


            In Tiananmen Square. (Final Chorus.)


© 1989 Grey Goose Music (BMI)

Additional Material © 2014 Grey Goose Music (BMI) and Visual Artists Guild Los Angeles

Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.

Tiananmen Commemoration 20th Anniversary

Ross Altman will sing Tiananmen Square—in English and Chinese—outside the Chinese Embassy at 443 Shatto Place, Los Angeles, CA 90020 this June 4 during the candlelight vigil in memory of the students who died demonstrating for democracy on this 25th anniversary commemoration. It is free and open to the public.

The Visual Artists Guild will hold their 25th Anniversary Spirit of Freedom Commemoration and Celebration on Sunday, May 25, at the Almansor Court Banquet & Conference Center at 700 S. Almansor St, Alhambra, CA 91801

On Sunday, May 18 at 4:30pm on the Railroad Stage of the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest in Paramount Ranch Ross Altman will present Sing Out for Pete!, a tribute to Pete Seeger; see for tickets, information and volunteer opportunities.

On Saturday, May 31st 2014 Ross will present a protest song workshop and concert at the Claremont Folk Music Festival at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden 10am-9pm. Tickets: $40

Ross Altman may be reached at


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