Review: Lake with No Name by Diane Wei Liang


lake-coverIt’s an image most Westerners recognize immediately: A lone man standing in the middle of a five-lane street, blocking a line of tanks. Single-handedly, “Tank Man” prevented the tanks from advancing on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.

Tank Man was one of more than a million Chinese students from universities across the country’s capital who converged on the square in April of 1989, demanding democratic reform. The resulting stand-off between students and the government lasted a month and a half and, eventually, led to a military crackdown. As many as 3,600 students died and more than twice that number sustained injuries.

The picture of “Tank Man”—taken by photographer Jeff Widener of the Associated Press—was one of the most famous stories captured during the confrontation. Now, issued to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, comes another compelling story: Lake with No Name by Diane Wei Liang.

Liang writes about her own experiences as a student during that tumultuous time, providing a first-person account of the political turmoil. Although not in the square at the time the military and police swept through, she was on hand as bloody, beaten survivors began to straggle back to Beijing University.

What makes Liang’s book so compelling, though, is the second plot that threads its way through the first, entangled with each other like a pair of long, magnificent Chinese dragons. Even as her country finds itself wrapped in tumult, so too does Liang find her heart in tumult. Lake with No Name is, at once, a first-person account of the student democracy movement, and it’s also a sad love story.

“Love without hope is the most miserable kind of love,” Liang writes. While hope seems to spring eternal for her, she still manages to seem plenty miserable.

There’s no “woa-is-me” to the book, though. It’s apparent Liang has a deeply romantic heart, but she avoids sentimentality and romanticism. Her relationship troubles stem from her own inability to communicate freely with the love of her life, Dong Yi, as much as they stem from the grand, unclear machinery of destiny.

The early part of the memoir recounts Liang’s childhood, an unhappy period marred by the notorious Cultural Revolution. The government relocated Liang’s family, and forced her parents to live separately. She was bullied at school. At one point, her home is destroyed in a massive earthquake.

Liang writes about these things with simplicity and honesty. Her personal story provides the political and cultural context that leads to the pro-democracy movement of 1989.

“I was excited to be part of life and renewal,” she writes, once the demonstrations erupt and she’s swept up by them. “I looked ahead and saw students marching in step, flags flying above their heads. I looked behind and saw tens of thousands doing the same. The enthusiasm of my generation shot excitement into my veins. ‘This will be a new world!’ I thought.”

Laing also has a talent for capturing beauty, which frequently reflects the love she has for her country. For instance, while on a mountain-climbing trip with a friend, she watches the sun rise over the plains below her. “On the horizon, the rich land of my ancestors fused into the sky, in golden rays of light, and I could see no border or limit. So this is China, my motherland,” she writes. “As the sun rose above the horizon, light exploded, radiating hundreds of thousands of rays to the earth, penetrating air, clouds, rocks, beings, everything seemed suddenly transparent.”

Liang’s memoir seems like an attempt at creating transparency, too. Lake with No Name provides an excellent glimpse of life inside one of the world’s most enigmatic countries during one of its most pivotal times. The literary face Liang gives that larger story is beautiful and sad—and ultimately wonderful.

7 replies »

  1. Oh for heaven’s sake: check Reuters and the US State Dept background note on China. The “figure” for Tiananmen fatalities is ‘hundreds, possibly thousands”. “Hundreds” is as close as anyone in the West will get to the actual figure.

    Except for Ms/Mr. Chris Mackowski who gives us a pretty scientific 3,600 but covers his buns with the qualificaion “as many as”.

    Yup, that sure anything from 0 on up.

  2. I have my own “tankman” story: in 1993 I ended up in Guangzhou almost flat broke and had to spend the night outside the railway station, waiting for a morning train to Hong Kong. At that time, the station was notorious for all manner of thievery. Along came these two teens, about 5’4″ each. They were also waiting for a train to return their unit. The conversation was going along pleasantly when they turned out to be navy combat divers. They had spotted me as a foreigner, and thus a prime target of robbery. One sat on each side of me on the steps all the way through to dawn, there was no way I was going to have any trouble and I knew it instantly.

  3. The figure of 3,600 came from the Chinese Red Cross right after the incident, although they later revised that figure (presumably under pressure from the Chinese government) and even went so far as to say they had never issued the first estimate. Since I have no way of knowing the actual figure, I sure am going to cover my buns!

    — Mr. Mackowski

  4. Dear Mr. Mackowski,

    Apologies over the gender confusion.

    If you haven’t got a hard figure, you give a range. If an official source revises a figure, you’re stuck with the revision; otherwise find another source that strikes you as credible. Presumption is not an excuse.

    Kind Regards,

    Arthur Borges

  5. Dear Mr. Manckowski,

    A touch more googling obtains a Time Magazine article which reports a figure of 2,600 (sic: 2,600) “told to reporters” (unnamed) but the sentence goes on to add that the Chinese Red Cross issued a denial, not a downward revision. The article goes on to say that Amnesty International’s figure is 1,000 deaths. The “hardline” mayor of Beijing’s figure is 200.

    Further Kind Regards,



  6. Thanks for your additional Googling (and your own tank man story). I’m sorry you seem to be having such an issue with the figures. The figures I cite come from Ms. Liang’s book. She also cites the disparity in numbers that you mention. Other sources have corroborated that numbers she includes in her book, but as nearly everyone admits, it’s impossible to find a definitive figure. Therefore, for me to suggest a definitive number exists would be irresponsible.

    I would suggest, if you have a problem with the figures Ms. Liang uses, that you contact her directly. My intent was to review her book, not provide a recap of the massacre–after all, she was in Beijing at the time; I was not.

    — C

  7. Dear Chris,

    I enjoyed your review and I might even buy Ms. Liang’s book if I come across it in a bookshop.

    Please forgive if my content comes across as nagging — when I operate in grump mode, as I do now and then, 3,000-something figures that resonate too readily with the tragedies of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 make me even grumpier. 😀

    Personally, all I can document with names attached is 200 to 1,000 (Beijing Mayor + Amnesty International).

    Have a nice day.