Published in That’s Shanghai

26 years ago this week, martial law was declared in Beijing. 300,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army began their march on their own capital, mobolized to quash the student-led protest movement that had occupied Tiananmen Square and demanded free speech, a free press, and an end to systemic corruption. This march ended on June 4, with tragic consequences known throughout the world – except, that is, in China itself.

The causes behind these demonstrations the inspirations they drew upon are many, but today we look at one: a 1988 six-part television documentary series that challenged viewers conceptions of what it meant to be Chinese at the end of the long twentieth century. He Shang (River Elegy) sought to take the nation from a backwards, inward-looking Yellow River culture into a forward-looking and receptive ‘blue ocean’ culture.

With its frank and critical assessment of Chinese history, politics and culture, He Shang was the culmination of a brief flowering of the arts in the 1980s that would never be allowed to air in today’s China – which has taken so many steps forward, and yet many steps back as well…

When China passed over from the Cultural Revolution to the era of Reform and Opening Up, it’s people were transported from the peak of revolutionary euphoria to an abyss of cultural uncertainty. The socialist orthodoxy that had suspended Mao in godlike exaltation and had formed the foundation of the Party’s legitimacy was shed unceremoniously, as the country donned the gilded robes of global capitalism.

The situation in which China found itself in the 1980s was much like that of the 1910s and 20s. Seventy years earlier, the people’s faith both in the superiority of Chinese civilization and in republicanism as the panacea for the country’s woes were shattered in turn, broken up like the country itself in an melee of shifting warlord factions and would-be emperors. In 1919, as in 1988, China faced a crisis of identity: to save China, should the country westernize totally or partially?; was Chinese civilization truly superior to Western civilization?; and could science and technology be used to materially modernize China whilst retaining its cultural essence?

Like the May Fourth Movement, He Shang suggests that the success of democracy in China hinges upon the country’s ability to sweep away its own cultural tradition, which is inherently undemocratic and incompatible with modernity and plurality.

He Shang is, indeed, almost embarrassingly positive in its evaluation of all things Western, and this can make it easy to dismiss. However, viewers in a repressive political environment necessarily learn to read between the lines of such works, and we must similarly assess the series on a level beyond its face value. Official, anti-Western Occidentalism had long been a cornerstone of the world view propagated by the CCP, which advanced the threat of ‘Westernization’ or ‘capitalization’ as justification for the Cultural Revolution and the persecution of intellectuals.

He Shang therefore takes this tradition of official Maoist Occidentalism and turns it upside-down, creating a counter-discourse of anti-establishment Occidentalism that makes use of an officially sanctioned mode of reductionism to critique China’s own oppressive official ideology. Much like how Western discourse on the Oriental ‘other’ functions as what Edward Said described as a ‘shadow’ or ‘underground self’, saying more about the West by means of reflection than it factually reveals about the Eastern world, Occidentalism in China is ultimately more about self-reflection than historical inquiry.

Whereas Orientalism in the West was used as a grounds for maintaining dominance over the Orient, however, the primary aim Chinese Occidentalism has been the oppression of domestic political opponents. Although He Shang‘s unbridled admiration for all things Western may appear glib on the surface, it is in fact a form of positive, liberating cultural appropriation that is aimed more at criticizing the China of reality than at praising an imagined, idealized West.

Both the May Fourth Movement and He Shang were elite acts of resistance, instigated by esteemed intellectuals with limited support from industrial workers or the peasantry. Despite its elite origins, however, what made He Shang so powerful—and so threatening to the conservatives in power—was how successfully it bridged the gap between the intelligentsia and the public. It introduced the thinking of some of the foremost Chinese academics to the people at large, communicating complex ideas in such a way that anyone could understand.

Although May Fourth was indeed an intellectual bombshell that sparked nation-wide debate, this discussion only took place amongst an educated, urban elite. Most of China could easily have slept through the May Fourth Movement, but in 1988 the rapidly increasing ubiquitousness of televisions in the reform era meant that even peasants from remote parts of the country joined in the discussions and debate that would that would come to be known as “He Shang re”—River Elegy fever.

The series is replete with historical inaccuracies and gross oversimplifications, but these are a part of how it makes academic themes accessible to a wider audience. From exile in the United States, the director Su Xiaokang explained that they “did not dare to confront the CCP system, and therefore we attacked our ancestors instead… What we now have in China is Communist culture, not traditional Chinese culture.”

The primary target of He Shang, therefore, was not Chinese culture, but an outmoded political system. The inferior China depicted in the series is in fact a part of a strategy to expose the inferiority of a monological, single-party autocracy. Even its creators admit that He Shang is a poor work of history, and its strength is as a symbolic, poetical text rather than as a teleology of contemporary society.

The failure of May Fourth was in this way the success of He Shang. However, the May Fourth Movement was generally successful in attaining its professed goals: the Beiyang government was compelled to release all of the demonstrators that were detained over the course of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, and to placate public anger by refusing to sign the Versailles accord. By comparison, the government’s response in 1989 to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of that year were far more brutal, and the movement of which He Shang was a part was brutally quashed in its infancy, unable to mature into the great flowering of creativity that the May Fourth Movement became.

Both the May Fourth Movement and He Shang arose in times that saw the breakdown of established values, and therefore the messages of both are similar in their iconoclastic themes and pro-Western bias.

However, though it may be easy to dismiss He Shang as a cheap rehash of the ideas of 1919, this would deny it its most decisive achievement—the bridge constructed, by means of newly disseminated media, between intellectuals and the public—as well as its subtextual depth, and a sense of utter desperation yet unknown to the May Fourth vanguard: that born not simply of foreign aggression and frustrated hopes, but of half a century of continuous, self-inflicted trauma.