Tiananmen Square and the unconscious mind — Discovering a shared cultural experience that no one ever speaks of

A lone protester takes on the Chinese army in Tiananmen Square, in the heart of Beijing. It’s one of the most iconic photos ever taken, defining a moment and movement that continues to polarize opinion decades later - if it’s even talked about.

Thirty years on, we set out to discover how Chinese Canadians thought and felt about this moment.

To do so, we invited more than 200 Canadian adults to an hour-long screening of video content, wherein three different segments covering the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were played. Approximately 1/3 of the audience (69 people) identified as ethnic Chinese.

Everyone wore a portable electroencephalograph, measuring their unconscious response to the content. Segmenting the viewers by ethnicity – Chinese v Non-Chinese – and comparing their responses across the clips, as well as evaluating each moment within the clips, gave us clues into the impact of this iconic historical moment in the minds of Chinese Canadians.

The three segments were as follows:

We selected the content for variety. The Guardian was an explainer, using stock footage and text on screen (but no voiceover) to explain the series of events that unfolded.

CNN was simply footage of the standoff. No auditory commentary or explanation provided.

The BBC was an archival news segment, with on the ground coverage and reporting.

Our core hypothesis was that Chinese Canadians would be more deeply engaged in Tiananmen Square content than non-Chinese Canadians. Overall, this was indeed the case, but only marginally. Just 2% separates their neural engagement score from those of non-Chinese Canadians.


However, a deeper look at each segment reveals that this difference is driven by one particular piece of content – the Guardian explainer video. Chinese Canadians were 9% more neurally engaged than everyone else. Why?

Here's the Neural Engagement Trace - a second-by-second breakdown of aggregated Attention, Connection and Encoding responses - for both Chinese Canadians and non-Chinese Canadians as they view the Guardian News video.

A closer look reveals 5 key moments of significant difference for Chinese Canadians:

The 5 Key Moments of Difference between Chinese Canadians and non-Chinese Canadians in the Guardian News segment “What happened in Tiananmen Square?”

The 5 Key Moments of Difference between Chinese Canadians and non-Chinese Canadians in the Guardian News segment “What happened in Tiananmen Square?”

What does all of this tell us?

The emotionally charged moments in this Guardian video resonate much more deeply with Chinese Canadians than non-Chinese Canadians. Hunger strikes, the staring down of tanks, the scale of citizen involvement, and then the squashing of the protest by the government and army – each of these moments are highly emotive events.

We would expect these to elicit an even deeper response from those people who share a common cultural heritage, due to the greater likelihood and possibility of loved ones having been involved in the incident.

But in analyzing each underlying metric for neural engagement – Attention, emotional Connection and Encoding to memory – emotional Connection was the top underlying driver in just one of the five key moments – the final one. (Attention was the top driver for two of the moments, and Encoding the top drivers for the other two.)

Brainsights often sees this phenomenon, where emotional Connection outpaces both Attention and Encoding to Memory. It can indicate a deep level of introspection – where viewers withdraw from the content on the screen (lower levels of Attention) and process the stimuli at a deeper level (higher levels of Connection).  This makes sense, given the content of the segment, wherein violence is used to put the protest down.

Screenshot from Guardian News segment at 1:17

Screenshot from Guardian News segment at 1:17

Screenshot from Guardian News segment at 1:22

Screenshot from Guardian News segment at 1:22

But Attention was still above average. Well above average, in fact (28% greater than average, and 15% greater than non-Chinese Canadians). So there was no withdrawal from the content. There was instead complete tune in, with emotional resonance to the depictions on screen rising even higher.

And it’s important to note that non-Chinese Canadians showed increased levels of Connection at this point, too – 10% higher than their average levels. But Chinese Canadians showed 51% higher emotional Connection than their average levels during this segment, a difference that illustrates the importance of this moment to them.

This is not to say that the other four moments aren’t relevant – the difference between Chinese Canadian and non-Chinese Canadian responses is still significant across each of the three metrics for the other four moments. But it’s this final one where emotional Connection was the key unconscious driver.

We weren’t satisfied with our understanding. We needed to dig more. At Brainsights, the insights and consulting team often talk about “surrounding problems” - pursuing a curiosity from a number of angles. We wanted to surround this challenge of understanding the response of Chinese Canadians to Tiananmen Square.

So, we started by digging into the specific audience data for the Chinese Canadian segment, thinking that if the majority of participants were new to Canada, or were from a certain age group, that it may provide some additional insight into their responses.

Instead, we found a vast and varied group:

  • 12% of those who identified as ethnically Chinese, also identified with another ethnicity, like Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Hispanic.

  • One-third of the Chinese Canadian segment were born outside of Canada, from places as far afield as Barcelona, London, Saigon and Kingston, Jamaica.

  • Thirty-five percent of those born outside Canada were born in mainland China; 43% were born in Hong Kong.

  • Half of those who were born in Hong Kong indicated that they were born in Hong Kong China (it was an open text question), which we thought was interesting. The other half indicated just “Hong Kong”.

  • Of those who moved to Canada from either Hong Kong or China, half had arrived in 1989 or earlier, and half in 1990 or afterwards, so we can’t really parse out whether the “experienced event” – living in China during that time - had a meaningful impact on one’s unconscious response.

  • The segment was equal parts under 30, between 30-40 and over 40 years of age.

Such a diverse group shared this common response to the stimuli. But what about their upbringing and family life? Was Tiananmen Square important to them, their families? Was it talked about, and if so, how?

To get this perspective, we invited our community members who participated in the research to share their thoughts. All members who offered their thoughts requested that we keep their identities anonymous, as many have family in mainland China and did not want to put them at any risk.

We asked them three questions:

  1. Is the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests important for you and your family? 

  2. Has the Tiananmen Square Protests been discussed within your family/friends circle here and/or in China?

  3. When/if you talk about it, would you use the term Protests or Massacre? 

 We’ve edited their responses for readability and to preserve their anonymity here

Is the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Protests important for you and your family? 

Member A: No, not me personally. I was born in Canada, so it didn't affect me personally. For me and my family, it's just another example of why my family got out of there. 

Member B: Since moving to Canada I would not say the anniversary is important to me and my family.

Member C: We understand the importance and morality issues of Tiananmen Square Protests, but since we were distant (nor did it happen to our close relatives) the effects aren’t felt in my family. It’s not discussed with my family/friends circle here in Canada. I did see one friend posting about it today on facebook but that’s about it. I also mentioned that Taiwan’s old educational system included a study of the Tiananmen Square Protests (I’m unsure of the newly edited versions from recent years).

Member D: Not very much.

Do you discuss it with your friends/family here and/or in China? 

Member A: Yes - we've discussed it. Nobody my age or younger back home knows about it, because it's censored. I have a relative who only recently learned about Tiananmen when they moved to Hong Kong. 

Member B: It has been discussed here within my family. It is definitely discussed in HK but not sure about mainland China. 

Member C: Unlike China, where they practically banned the mention of such event, Taiwan in my youth days had no such censorship surrounding this issue.

Member D: Not much either here or in China (also I am the only one in my family in Canada). Occasionally we would talk about it, especially around this time of the year, mostly among younger generation, but more broader topics rather than just the incident. It is still not a popular topic for people to discuss back home. My family didn't wish to discuss with me when I was a child. My teachers in school however did encourage us to learn about the history but did not formally teach as part of the curriculum. 

Do you say Protests or Massacre?

Member A:  I don't know any other words for it in Mandarin, so I just call it Tiananmen. 

Member B: The term protests or massacre (translated in Chinese) is not used, instead the it deemed as "June 4th incident".

Member C: When we talk about it in Mandarin, the correct translation is more akin to Massacre. The textbooks growing up coined it as Tianamen Square Massacre more than the term Protests. In English it sounds more politically neutral or natural with the term protests. To me, both are interchangeable to describe the same event.

Member D: Neither. We normally refer it as "6/4 Student Movement" or "6/4 Movement", or "Tiananmen incident". 

Additional thoughts:

Member A: Certain search words and combinations, both in search engines and other platforms (like WeChat) are blocked and can get your account blocked for using them. My relative had their WeChat account blocked for inadvertently using some wrong phrase around this time of year. Normal forms of social censorship (porn, violent videos, etc.) are relaxed around this time of year to distract people from Tiananmen. 


Member C: A bit of background: I was born and raised in Taiwan until I was 11 years old. My parents, too were also born and raised in Taiwan. Growing up, we did learn about the proceedings and meanings of the Tiananmen Square Protests and studied them in school (in Taiwan).


Member D: I understand the time limitation [of the study], but do not think the clips being screened provided a fair presentation on what happened, especially to audience with little to no knowledge or only biased view on the subject. There was a lack of background information and history narrative, and went straight to the highlights of the day.

 The topic of Tiananmen Square/June 4th is not openly discussed in China, and even people thousands of miles away opt against revealing their identity for fear of some kind of retribution, whether against them or their families.

But more than that, it’s a complex subject to untangle, in large part because information about it is scarce. And lack of discussion about it - which can be through shame, guilt and/or a desire for social harmony - erodes its social memory.

As painful and complicated as that experience is, and as tough as it is to discuss, deep in the unconscious minds of Chinese Canadians can be found the markings of a shared cultural experience. The power of neuro-technology is in enabling this to bubble to the surface – and be shared anonymously - without saying a word.

To understand more about Canadians of all backgrounds, join us for Connecting with Canadians - Culture, Bias + Content on June 19th in Toronto. Information and tickets here.