Tiananmen by James Fenton

tiananmenIn June 1989, hundreds of innocent civilians were massacred in Beijing in an uprising by students campaigning for democracy. This memorable poem, Tiananmen by James Fenton (born 1949) is a powerful, but accessible, reflection on the incident. I used this poem with a Year 5 class and, even though they were unaware of the incident, they brought many intelligent thoughts to the discussion, especially when confronted by the most famous image of this event in history.

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.

Here is the full text of the poem. Below is a video showing the most striking image of the events in the square – a young man stands in front of a tank and will not let it pass. You could show this video, with or without the soundtrack which contains a poem by Rod Kerr.

Possible activities with this poem

I think I began with the text of this poem and just put it out there to the class. I asked them to read it in pairs, and note down a couple of questions on whiteboards which they would like to ask about the poem. I didn’t give them any clues about it and I didn’t even tell them what Tiananmen was or why it was important.

These are some of the possible questions:

Why are there dead people?
Where is Tiananmen? What happened there?
Why are you not allowed to think? Why are you not allowed to write things down?
Who are the ‘cruel men’? Why are they ‘ready to kill’?

It would be good at this stage, to move towards some kind of class or group performance of the poem. By now, children should have gathered what the appropriate mood is for the poem. The vocabulary is very simple and straightforward, though the meaning is deep.

At this stage, you may wish to reveal the picture (above, or similar) of the student facing up the tank. Alternatively, you could show the whole incident in the Youtube clip. I found that children were fascinated by this and suddenly the meaning of the poem fell into place.

Read the poem again. And look again at the questions posed at the beginning. Then, broaden out the discussion with questions such as:

What is democracy?
Why do people feel it is important to cast a vote for how their country is run?
Will you vote when you grow up?
Do you think children should have a vote?
For which things do we vote in school (eg school councils, class captains)? Why do we do this?
How does it make you feel when you vote?
Can you think of anywhere in the world where people cannot vote?
How does this make them feel?