All the Rage in China

He shang [River Dirge]

A six-part film for television directed by Xia Jun

He shang lun [About 'River Dirge']

Compiled by Cui Wenhua
Wenhua yishu Press, 232 pp., 2.45 yuan

For the past six months in China and among Chinese-speaking communities abroad there have been circulating videotapes of a six-part television series, He shang, which was broadcast in the People’s Republic last summer. The series soon became the most talked-about television documentary in recent Chinese history. The writers of the script and the director of the series—Su Xiaokang, Wang Luxiang, and Xia Jun—have been interviewed extensively by the Hong Kong press. Numerous articles for and against the film have appeared on the mainland (some of which are reproduced in the collection He shang lun along with the original script), and pirated copies of the tape can be bought in street-corner shops in Taiwan. In a special seminar held with Xia Jun and Su Xiaokang in Beijing in September, supporters of the young men hailed them for their intellectual honesty and political courage.

By contrast, a high-ranking official of the People’s Republic publicly declared that the film “vilified the Chinese people,” while recently the dean of Taiwan’s National University compared the script to “pus oozing from a sore,” and accused the authors of betraying the great patriots of Chinese history who gave up their lives to defend the country against barbarian invaders.1 Yet in an interview with an American publication, New Perspectives Quarterly, this winter, Hu Qili, the most liberal member of the Politburo, remarked:

Generally speaking, this TV series is a good one. It is conducive to reform. There are drawbacks, though. A film or work of art should take a more analytical attitude toward the heritage of a country. A more analytical attitude would discard the dross but not the essence of our inheritance. Of course, we cannot expect any TV series to be perfect. It is a good thing that people have different opinions on this film. I think the controversy over this TV series is itself the success.

China has been in the throes of “culture fever” (wenhua re) for more than five years now. After the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution and the often confused attempts to shift from a collective to a market economy, Chinese at every level of society seem engaged in a fervent search for those characteristics of their national character that will explain just why they are the way they are.2 They are now questioning not only Marxism but China’s longstanding cultural and political traditions as well. The Chinese preoccupation with themselves has differed markedly from the contemporary Japanese interest in “Japaneseness” (Nihonjinron), which has been nationalistically self-promoting and self-congratulatory. The Chinese are far more ambivalent about themselves, as the title of Bo Yang’s reflective history Ugly Chinaman would suggest. Now, with the broadcasting of River Dirge, the controversy reaches a new level of political sensitivity not only because the television show was seen by hundreds of millions of people, but also because the production uses a combination of striking cinematic images and ambiguous textual references to call into question the most hallowed symbols of Chinese tradition.

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