Blog Archive

Another Incident in Tiananmen Square

Another Incident in Tiananmen Square
An incident shown on several news programs, and reported in the New York Times, happened in the space before the entrance to the Forbidden City at one end of Tiananmen Square, the entrance above which the huge portrait of Chairman Mao appears.  A flaming car rammed into a group of walkers there, and the police quickly cleared the area and tried to confiscate any photos that had been taken of it--the article explained that this area of Tiananmen is still very sensitive politically.
This reminded me of a much more important event that happened in the same place back in June of 1989. It was the erection, and eventual destruction, of the Goddess of Liberty and Democracy, a monumental (40 foot high) sculpture that stood for four days and nights in this place, confronting Chairmen Mao, before it was pushed over by tanks and destroyed when the square was evacuated on that terrible night.  The story of how it was made and erected, which for me is the greatest interaction of art and political event in our time, has been told in detail only in a single account, the “Beijing Chronicle” by my former wife Hsingyuan Tsao, which was published in several places after she returned and dictated it to me. Her account makes the main text of the video lecture, which is illustrated mostly with photos that she herself took of the making and erection of the sculpture.  This is a moving, historically important account which is absolutely unique-- it could not be told and illustrated by anyone else as it is done here.  It will be appearing before long as one of the GIPs (Gazing Into The Past) and posted on my website, later to be posted by our sponsoring organization the Institute of East Asian Studies.  I urge you all to watch for it and take the time to watch it while it is available.  You’ll find it, as I say, an unusually moving and absolutely unique document.
A number of other GIPs will also be posted before long--watch for them.
Halloween Blog Brought Back
Several years ago, at Halloween time, I published in a blog an account of how I had made a Jack Pumpkinhead figure, like the one that appeared in “The Land of Oz,” when we lived in Washington D.C., for my children Nicholas and Sarah.  With it was a photo of Sarah as a child standing beside the pumpkinhead--this was on the front page of the Washington Post, because the figure had become so famous, with people driving by just to see it.  As I related there, I made it one year just to sit there; the year after, I fixed it so it could wave its hand when the children pulled a string inside; the year after that, I installed a speaker in it and hooked it to a microphone inside the house so that Nick and Sarah could make it talk to passers-by.  The fourth year, I had to trump all those achievements, and I let it be know to the children that I was going to make it come to life-- as the witch Mowgli had done in the Oz book, when she found it sitting on the roadside as she returned home.  She sprinkled the powder of life on it, and it indeed became a living thing.  In the rest of the book, it goes off with the boy Tip, who made it in the first place, and they have various adventures.
Here is the original account and the picture:
(Reprint 10/30/11 “Making Jack Pumpkinhead for Sarah and Nick)

My daughter Sarah has posted on Facebook, on this night before Halloween, an old photo of herself at age four that was on the front page of the Washington Post; she is standing beside a Jack Pumpkinhead figure that I made for her and her older brother Nicholas, and the caption reads:

I will post that old photo with this blog. The Facebook posting has been commented on by quite a few people--my grandchildren Maggie and Abigail, my son Benedict, old friends such as Joseph Koerner. Nick and Sarah mention in their comments, as I do in mine, that I brought the figure to life, and it got up and walked away. This obviously requires some explanation, more than I can provide on Facebook. So I’m telling the story in this blog; I’ll tell it again, with more pictures (from the book), in one of my video-lectures.

The book The Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum was one of the many I read with the two of them, and they were familiar with the story that opens it: how the boy Tip makes the pumpkinhead out of old bits of wood and old clothes, and stands it up in the road so that his guardian the witch Mombi will see it and (he hopes) be frightened by it. But she recognizes what he has done, and takes out her vial of Powder of Life and sprinkles some on him, bringing him to life. Later he (under the name Jack Pumpkinhead) and Tip go off on the adventures that make up the rest of the book.

So, one Halloween--it must have been around 1960, when I was a curator at the Freer and we lived in Cleveland Park--I put together a Jack Pumpkinhead out of old pieces of wood from the basement, dressed it in old clothes of my own, stuffed it and set it up beside our front steps. It attracted some attention from passers-by, and Nick and Sarah loved that. So next year, I rigged it with a string attached to its right arm strung through a loop above and leading indoors, so they could pull it and make Jack wave to people. This was better, and presented a challenge for next Halloween. This time I rigged a small microphone inside the pumpkin and ran the wires inside, where the two of them could make it talk to people outside. This is what the caption to the Post photo talks about. (It also claims that it was rigged so that it could turn its head from side to side--maybe so, I don’t remember that--it would be easy to do.)

So that left me, on the fourth Halloween, 1964 it must have been, with a challenge: how to top all those? So I hinted to the children, who spread the word to their friends, that this year I was going to bring it to life. Dorothy and a few other mothers (as I remember) made a post-Halloween dinner for a dozen or so children, friends and classmates of Nick and Sarah. After dinner the women herded the children out onto our porch, to the end away from the steps, and stayed there to keep them from moving out toward the Pumpkinhead. I had replaced the porch light with a blue bulb, to make a more eery atmosphere. I pulled on the string, and Jack Pumpkinhead waved his hand, as before. And I produced a plastic vial of the Powder of Life, chanted the magic incantation (made up, as I remember--none in the Oz book)--and, slowly, Jack Pumpkinhead stood up, walked down the steps and down our walk toward the street. The children by now were screaming, trying to get past the mothers, who held them back. Jack crossed the street (narrowly missing being hit by a car), climbed over a fence on the other side into an unused field owned by the Washington Cathedral, and disappeared. Going there next morning, the children found the pumpkin head, nothing else. I told them that Jack had gone back to Oz, leaving behind his somewhat spoiled head.

How was it done? It didn’t really take the children long to guess, although they pretended not to; and two of the little girls at the party, when they got home, made their father let them smell his hair, which indeed smelled like pumpkin, confirming their suspicions. This father, who was tall and lanky,  had come over, by arrangement, while the party was going on, and had disassembled the pumpkinhead figure, putting on its clothes, cutting a larger hole in the bottom of the pumpkin and fitting it over his head; and he was sitting there in the same posture when the children came out. He dutifully waved his hand when I pulled the strong, and so forth. We almost, as I say, had a bad ending when he came close to being hit by a car as he crossed the street.

Days afterwards, Nick’s teacher at school was getting the children to tell their Halloween stories, and Nick told his, and she said “That’s a great story, Nick--now tell us what really happened.” And Nick went on insisting that his story was what really happened--and he had a classmate who had been there and corroborated it. She later told me, “I wish you wouldn’t do something like this without telling me, Mr. Cahill--I’m trying to get the children to distinguish reality from fantasy, and doing this kind of thing doesn’t help.”

So there, the secret is out. Those of you who can go on Facebook can find Sarah’s posting and all the comments it has elicited. And a happy, scary Halloween to all of you.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...