How Beethoven Rallied Students During the Tiananmen Square Uprising

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Many historical events are tied to a single, dramatic photo, which often keeps reappearing to make a universal statement. The scene of the lone protester confronting the tank in Tiananmen Square is indelibly associated with the 1989 uprising in China.

There's never been a musical equivalent to that image of the tank, one that continuously reappears in books, films and news coverage. But Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 could qualify, according to first-hand accounts of the pro-democracy protests.

In the recent documentary "Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony," Chinese student organizer Feng Congde tells the filmmaker Kerry Candaele about how in May 1989 the piece became an expression of hope, solidarity and defiance, with its key line, Alle Menschen warden Brudert, or "all men will be brothers."

As Feng recalls, he and several protesters borrowed car batteries from supporters who lived in neighborhoods near Tiananmen Square and cobbled together a makeshift sound system. When the authorities broadcast droning speeches of Li Peng and other Chinese government officials, Feng pulled out a cassette tape of the Ninth and defiantly blared it back. 

"He used it as a weapon, in a sense," said Candaele, in an interview on Tuesday. "He called it a battle of voices. When the Chinese authorities would be making speeches and telling the students or working people to go home or go back to their dorms, Feng would put on the Ninth."

Unlike in today's China, classical music in 1989 was still considered a symbol of Western bourgeois decadence and cultural imperialism by the Communist Party. But the protesters saw the Ninth as a way to connect with one another, and would sing along to the final "Ode to Joy." "There was a sense that 'we are rediscovering ourselves. We didn't know how to talk to each other but now we do,'" noted Candaele. "Beethoven 9 helped in that process because it's about brotherhood and sisterhood."

After the June 4, 1989 crackdown, Feng and his then-wife, Chain Ling were smuggled to Hong Kong, given false identities, passports and disguises and sent abroad. They later divorced. Feng lives today near San Francisco.

Later in 1989 came another historic performance of Beethoven's Ninth. On Christmas Day, just six weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, Leonard Bernstein led a celebratory performance of the piece at the Schauspielhaus, near the site of the demolished wall in East Berlin. It involved musicians from the former East and West Germany, plus Great Britain, France, Russia and the United States. It was later made into a recording and video, seen below.