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.

River Dirge opens with a vista of the Yellow River moving out of the great loess plateau of northwestern China. A single male voice sings a simple Shanxi folk song.

Do you know under Heaven
How many twists and turns there are in the Yellow River?
How many boats there are
On each of the twists and turns?
How many poles there are
On each of the boats?
How many oarsmen there are
On each of the twists and turns
To pole the boats along?

Each of the six segments repeats that refrain, and the Yellow River motif permeates the entire documentary though its symbolic presence is diluted in parts three and four. Throughout the series one sees scenes of life on the Yellow River taken for the film as well as excerpts from popular Chinese films such as Yellow Earth and Old Well in which the Yellow River has a part.

Part one, “Xun meng” (“In Search of a Dream”), shows how the Yellow River nurtured China’s ancient civilization—an Asiatic civilization that worshiped the tyrannical and ferocious dragon, the inhuman symbol of the despotic Son of Heaven.

Part Two, “Mingyun” (“Destiny”), explains how the geographical features of China’s loess plateau formed the cradle of a landlocked and earthbound agrarian culture that enclosed itself within the Great Wall, shutting out the maritime world of trade and industry beyond the coastline.

The third section, “Lingguang” (“Glimmering Radiance”), ponders the reasons for the stagnation of Chinese science and technology after the twelfth century, and pleads for intellectuals to be given the freedom they need to turn their glimpses of light into the radiance of the sun.

Part Four, “Xin jiyuan” (“New Era”), recounts the history of China’s repeated failures to modernize its economy and society from the “Hundred Days’ Reform” at the end of the nineteenth century through the “Great Leap Forward” of the 1950s.


The fifth section, “Youhuan” (“Suffering”), describes China’s twin calamities: the natural disaster of the repeated flooding of the Yellow River and the man-made holocaust of the Cultural Revolution.

Part Six, “Weilan” (“Azure”), follows the Yellow River to the Pacific Ocean, which has come to symbolize the global civilization of the twenty-first century. As the camera shows the huge silt-ridden blot of yellow effluvium spreading out against the opposing waves of the deep blue ocean, the narrator’s voice intones:

The characteristics of despotism are secrecy, autocracy, and arbitrary rule. The characteristics of democracy should be transparency, popular will, and science.

We are just now in the process of moving from opacity to transparency. We have already moved from enclosure to openness.

The Yellow River is destined to cut across the loess plateau. The Yellow River will ultimately enter the azure ocean.

The anguish of the Yellow River, the hope of the Yellow River, contribute to the Yellow River’s greatness. The greatness of the Yellow River perhaps rests on its creation of a strip of mainland between the loess plateau and the ocean.

The Yellow River has arrived at the mouth of the ocean—a magnificent but painful juncture. It is here that the mud and slit carried turbulently along for thousands of li will be deposited to form a new mainland. It is here that the surging waves and the Yellow River will collide together. The Yellow River must cleanse itself of its terror of the ocean. The Yellow River must keep the indomitable will and vigor that came with it from the high plateau.

The life-giving water comes from the ocean and returns to the ocean.

After a thousand years of solitude the Yellow River finally catches sight of the azure-colored sea.

In China’s present political situation, the message is certainly lucid enough. The narrator says:

Reform on a deeper level means a major transformation of the civilization—a painful, dangerous, and arduous process that may require the sacrifice of this generation or of several generations to come. We are standing at the crossroads: either we let our ancient civilization fall never to rise again, or we help it to acquire the mechanisms for a new life. Whatever we do, there is no way that any of us can shirk our historical responsibility.

But the symbols accompanying that message are not always clear. What, for instance, does the title He shang itself signify? He means “river.” The locus classicus of shang is the section on mourning in The Book of Ritual of the 6th century BC in which shang means “the premature death of someone who has not reached adulthood [age 19].” One critic who notes this meaning says that he “can only guess” at the deeper significance of the title, which suggests that the authors believe that “Chinese civilization has had a premature death without ever attaining a healthy [stage of] development as a civilization.”3 Shang is also bound to remind Chinese readers of guo shang—“dying for the affairs of the nation”—as it is glossed by Hong Xingzu in the “Nine Songs” section of the Chuci by Qu Yuan (?343-?280).4 Are the authors alluding to the sacrifices of generations of young people like themselves to the “frenzy” (hunre bing) of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution?

Certainly the image of dead youths is vividly conveyed in the opening sequences of the first installment when the television camera is attached to the cockpit of a kayak as it shoots the rapids, and the voice-over tells the true story of two brave young men from the Beijing and Luoyang kayaking teams who died in the nationally hailed effort to be the first to travel the full length of the Yellow River. An American had requested permission to go before them, but that was denied, even though—the commentator wryly remarks—no one would confuse his tiny craft with the foreign gunboats that crisscrossed China’s rivers a century before.

Gunboats appear and reappear in River Dirge, often in the form of the foreign sailing vessels from Chinese movies about the Opium War of 1840, when Commissioner Lin Zexu was defeated by the British imperialists. And one hears again and again in the script the word “humiliation” (chiru).

Have our feelings and attitudes today been shaped by the history of the continual humiliating defeats of the last century? Or are they the product of the poverty and backwardness of the last several decades? Perhaps both are so, but that’s not all. Hiding behind these surface phenomena is the anguish in the heart and soul of a nation (minzu). All of its anguish comes down to this: the civilization has declined!

The humiliation is all the more gnawing because one has to recognize that foreign gunboats were only a somatic cause of China’s fall from greatness.


Quoting Toynbee, Su Xiaokang, the principal writer of the script, notes that external enemies only give the coup de grâe to a society that has long embarked on a suicidal course. China’s economic backwardness—the fact that its per capita GNP hovers around the twentieth place from the bottom of a list of 128 nations, near Somalia and Tanzania—cannot be blamed on imperialism and its consequences. China’s present predicament has to be attributed to the sheer weight of its ancient agrarian civilization. Simply to take pride in that antiquity, to find comfort in the hundreds of thousands of tourists who come to see the terra-cotta warriors at Xi’an, is to ignore the poverty, weakness, and backwardness that have prevailed since 1840. This is a dangerous self-indulgence, as if the humiliation of the past hundred years were no more than a deviation from a glorious past.

We need to create a brand new civilization. It cannot emerge once more from the currents of the Yellow River. The alluvium of the old civilization is like silt that has been deposited in the bed of the Yellow River, sediment that has accumulated in the arteries of our race. It has to be scoured out and washed away on the peak of a flood.

The time has come—the audience is told again and again—for the Chinese to awaken and face their plight. And the intention of the authors of the documentary clearly is to force their audience to realize that the very symbols of their race, their nation, enforce the somnolent passivity of centuries.

Dragon worship originated in the Yellow River region, symbolizing the inhabitants’ awe of the most tyrannical and erratic river in the world. As the television screen shows scenes of peasants sacrificing to the Dragon King from the film Yellow Earth, the commentator explains that this was an agrarian civilization that was made possible by massive waterworks. The struggle over water (cut to shots of the peasants fighting over irrigation rights in the movie Old Well) was at the very heart of the people’s existence. The dragon thus became the symbol of life and death. As a nonhuman creature, violent in nature, it also became the symbol of the emperor. Both in the past and in the recent present, this inhumanity of the ruler—this violence and unpredictability—have afflicted the Chinese people.

By this logic River Dirge passes to a discussion of Hegel, Marx, Plekhanov, and the Asiatic Mode of Production. The analysis of the nature of oriental despotism—which the late Karl August Wittfogel5 would have thoroughly commended, by the way—is conventional enough. It is accompanied by film clips of Asian peasants, often dark-skinned and primitive-looking, who seem to embody the backwardness of Asian civilization. In the same way later in the documentary, comments about the poor quality of human talent among peasants are illustrated with photographs of slackjawed Chinese “bumpkins” (tubaozi). The effect of both is to discredit Asian peasant cultures in a quiet but devastating way that calls into question both the Chinese Communist revolution and the virtues of peasant life. Visually the impact is quite devastating, and this may account for some of the extremely negative reactions to the documentary that critics have expressed in China and abroad.

Oriental despotism connotes the Qin dynasty autocrats of the third century BC for whom those terra-cotta warriors were baked, and they in turn remind audiences of the Great Wall, which they first had built, at a cost of many thousands of lives. The wall, which draws in the “yellow earth” of the North China plain, creates the emperor’s own private garden: his property, his people. It also turns the Chinese even more onto themselves. There are geopolitical explanations for the constant need that China had to defend itself against nomads like the Mongols, but River Dirge painfully reminds the Chinese that the Great Wall that astronauts saw from the moon was after all an expression of China’s withdrawal from the world. It was as useless against the Mongols and Manchus as the Maginot line was against the Germans. The narrator says:

If the Great Wall could speak it would in all honesty tell the descendants of the ancient Chinese that historical destiny has turned it into a gigantic monument of tragedy. It does not stand for power, expansion, and glory. It stands for enclosure, conservatism, incompetent defenses, and a cowardly and weak unwillingness to launch an attack. Because it is massive and ancient, it has branded its boastfulness, its conceit, and its deception deep into our national soul.

In that sense, the producers of River Dirge view the Great Wall as perfectly reflecting the parochialism of a country of timid peasants, lacking in courage and innovativeness. They contend that smallscale agricultural production created over millennia a value system characterized by low-level goals and self-centered views—a world view dominated by avoidance of risk and that stresses sheer survival at the expense of the quality of life. Interviewed on screen, a northern Shanxi peasant youth who has stayed at home with his mother and father is asked why he has not explored opportunities elsewhere. He answers with a shrug: “My parents didn’t endow me with that sort of guts!”

The Hegelian contrast to landlocked Asia, where historical time stands still or repeats itself in wearying cycles of imperial despotism, is the ocean. For the authors of River Dirge, the Chinese turned their backs upon the sea thus also upon the explorations that brought the West world empire. It is true that the imperial eunuch Zheng He sailed as far west as Africa in the early fifteenth century, and the documentary shows pictures of the vessels used in these voyages. But because the explorations were shortlived and because maritime trade was restricted by the Ming in the sixteenth century, the Chinese were unable to cut their bonds to the earth of their ancestors. (The so-called restriction of maritime trade, incidentally, hardly affected burgeoning maritime activity at all in the late Ming, though the authors do not seem to realize this. They present sometimes mistaken conventional textbook history to the general public.)

In He shang the sea is the source of modernity, the medium of historical change. The Industrial Revolution was intimately related to a global commercial network of supply and demand. And it is the sea and maritime activity that connect the “four little dragons” of the Pacific rim: Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. Shots of the skyscrapers of Manhattan alternate with pictures of downtown Tokyo, and these in turn are contrasted with the bicycles and horse carts of Chinese city scenes.

It is said that the manager of an automobile factory one day stood up over the gate overlooking Tiananmen and counted each car passing by on Chang’an Street. By the time he reached one hundred, he had only counted three cars of national manufacture. The other ninety-seven were all imports.

The choice that China must make, then, is a decision to turn to the sea. Otherwise, it will forever remain technologically backward: forever an agrarian and never an industrial civilization.

Why is that decision so difficult? Why does River Dirge suggest that China is in such dire peril? Why does one of the narrators say “the sword of Damocles hangs high over our heads, and we have no way of knowing when it will descend upon us”? The authors’ answer—delivered in the equivalent of a March of Time voice by narrators who have themselves experienced one “movement” (yundong) after the next—is to throw on the screen pictures of the Yellow River raging in flood.

The visual references are not hyperbolic. Throughout Chinese history the river has overflown its banks, rising thirty feet or more above the North China plain, and it destroyed millions of lives when it changed its pathway to the sea. Paintings of peasant armies make it quite clear that the counterpart to this periodic flooding is to be found in the turbulent peasant rebellions that burst forth at the end of each dynastic cycle. Communist historians used to praise these rebellions as harbingers of the proletarian revolution to come, but the authors of He shang deny them any revolutionary significance whatsoever. Evoking the Cultural Revolution, Su Xiaokang calls these prolonged episodes of violence “moments of extraordinary destructiveness and cruelty.” He claims that with memories of the Cultural Revolution still so fresh, the Chinese people only wish that they will never be visited by such social chaos in the future, just as they hope that the Yellow River will never again burst its dikes.

The producers of River Dirge are young intellectuals who have grown up in a universe of politically charged symbols where the art of textual interpretation has drastic personal consequences beyond the experience of most Western literary critics. Ambiguity serves a useful purpose, and in the documentary it is the connotations of the images one sees, and the hints that are dropped about the possible meaning, that are most telling.

The broad implication of He shang is that the Yellow River is a mothering force of nature as long as it remains in the northwest, where the Communists kept their bases during the Yan’an period (roughly 1937–1945), when they were on their way to winning the revolution. Once the Yellow River (a torrent whose capriciousness is only rivaled in the social world by Mao Zedong) leaves the northwest it turns monstrous, oppressive, tyrannical. Just as we are shown the river threatening to devastate the ancient capital of Kaifeng, pointed mention is made of Mao’s rival Liu Shaoqi, who died in anguish in that same city during the Cultural Revolution after being arrested and abused at the orders of the Chairman’s wife.

The layered political analogies are all too obvious—which is certainly one reason why one of the two most common criticisms of River Dirge is that “it points to the mulberry [i.e., the world of the river] and reviles the locust tree [Chinese political leaders].”6 The critic Yan Yuanshu, for instance, attacks the authors of He shang for venting their grievances upon Chinese tradition when they are actually expressing their dislike of Mao’s dictatorial rule. He and many others of an older generation on both sides of the Taiwan straits seem to feel that the young men who wrote He shang are betraying Chinese culture. Yan asks why the authors should so cruelly “shred the face of the dragon” as to turn it into a simple eel once it reaches the sea, where it will swim helplessly into the nets of the Japanese, who will cook it for supper. Have the authors of He shang not underestimated the “spiritual strength” of Chinese civilization while simplistically exaggerating the virtues of an industrialized West already outstripped by a post-industrial Asia?7

For all its glorification of the industrialized world beyond the azure ocean, He shang remains at its heart deeply nationalistic. At a seminar on the film held in Beijing this last October, the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins spoke out against cultural self-deprecation, suggesting that too much self-questioning was destructive and casting doubt upon such Western cultural concepts as “progress” and “modernization.” Su Xiaokang responded fervently, even testily, by saying quite simply that the empire of the Qing had been overwhelmed by the West—just like the Ottomans—and that one had to learn from the enemy, one had to recognize one’s own weaknesses, before national dignity could be restored. To me, therefore, one of the most telling lines in the entire production occurs early in the script, when Su Xiaokang writes: “Our dream of a thousand-year empire ended at the time of Kangxi (1662–1722).”8

River Dirge ends with a reprise of the opening, now sung in two voices, male and female—

We know under Heaven
There are ninety-nine twists and turns in the Yellow River.
There are ninety-nine boats
On each of the twists and turns.
There are ninety-nine poles
On each of the boats.
There are ninety-nine oarsmen
On each of the ninety-nine twists and turns
To pole the boats along.

—but I was still startled to hear and see footage of the mawkish and stirringly nationalistic Taiwan song “Heirs to the Dragon” presented in the documentary, followed by the rhetorical question: “Are there any Chinese who fail to recognize the melody of this song?” It made me appreciate the revelation by the film’s director, Xia Jun, that the original working title of the series was to have been Da xuemai (“Great Artery”), a phrase that calls up the combined action of blood and pulse that is supposed to unite the Chinese people.9 The image is hyperbolic, exaggerated, and even disproportionate if extended to the Yellow River, the vast blood pulse of the race. But it does convey the deep patriotism that this generation ambivalently expresses through River Dirge, and that has such ancient ethnic roots.

This Issue

March 2, 1989