top of page
  • dgeneratefilms

Chinese Reality #1: River Elegy

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art(May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

River Elegy (1988)

River Elegy (1988)

Today’s film:

Heshang (River Elegy)

1988. China. Directed by Xia Jun.

Sprung from the intellectual openness of reform-era China in the 1980s, this six-part TV documentary inspired fierce public debate. Its outspoken criticism of traditional Chinese culture as an obstacle to social progress was unprecedented for a nationally televised series. Following the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, the documentary was censored and some of its creators fled China or were arrested.

Note: The MoMA will screen a one-hour condensed version edited by Mi Ling Tsui, which concisely conveys the film’s legacy as a progenitor of the independent documentary movement.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings: 

I remember watching the legendary six-part CCTV miniseries River Elegy in my dorm room at Peking University in June of 1988—the last June in the Chinese historical calendar that would not have its 4th day permanently stained red.

At the time I could not understand much of the stentorian voice-over (I was only a couple of years into my lifelong struggle with Chinese), but during the week the show was broadcast it became clear that the documentary had hit academic circles like an atomic bomb. The series’ content—a sweeping, brutally painful critique of the deep structure of Chinese culture—was the topic of conversation among many of the Peking University grad students I was hanging out with. They had seen nothing like it. “At last,” they would say to me, “a TV show that tells the truth (shuo shihua).” It was common to see handwritten postings discussing the documentary on the outdoor bulletin boards at Peking University’s sanjiaodi, “triangle area,” and informal discussion sessions on the topics of the program were organized at Tsinghua other universities throughout China.

– David Moser, The China Beat

In terms of the extent to which the River Elegy TV series caught the attention of the general public, and especially of the students, it was extremely successful. Its immense passion, elegant prose, and sobering tone were fully extended by its temporally and spatially unbounded moving pictures, further adding to its theoretical flavor, and showcasing a way of thinking that was novel to most Chinese. The series captured the attention of millions of Chinese as soon as it was televised by the China Central Television Station (CCTV) during prime time in June 1988. A “River Elegy fever” developed immediately. Students in universities discussed and debated various issues raised in the series. After watching the program many people wanted to have a copy of the script, leading to the rapid sale of over five million copies of it. Pushed by high demand, as well as supported by the then CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang, the CCTV re-televised the whole program. The viewing rate among intellectuals and students was incredibly high. Among fifty-eight informants to whom I posed the question: “Did you watch the TV series River Elegy?” fifty had watched the complete TV series, five had watched part of it, and only three had not watched it at all.

Dingxin ZhaoThe Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement. Published by the University of Chicago Press.

Although its message was challenging, in other ways it followed existing paradigms. All Chinese documentaries made prior to 1989 took the form of the pre-scripted illustrated lecture. For the most part they were known as zhuanti pian (literally, “special topic films”) as opposed to newsreels (xinwen pian), which cover a range of topics in short reports. With the benefit of hindsight, the criticism is often made that the “cultural fever” and “democracy spring” of the late eighties were events isolated from ordinary people. And indeed, the contniued use of the illustrated lecture format in River Elegy implies that its arguments are part of disputations among the governing elite. It belies both the Maoist rhetoric of going down among the people to learn from them and the newer participatory rhetoric of democracy, suggesting that the ordinary people (laobaixing) are not involved in the process of determining the future of their society but are waiting to be educated about the decisions made above and about them through documentaries such as River Elegy and other pedagogical materials.

Chris Berry, “Getting Real: Chinese Documentary, Chinese Postsocialism.” From The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Edited by Zhang Zhen. Published by Duke University Press.

The River fever came to an abrupt halt as the 1989 student uprising implicated the reform-minded Zhao Ziyang, dragging down the entire reform camp. River was accused of instigating the student movement, and an intense media campaign was launched to discredit the series. CCTV broadcast a self-criticism meeting on the evening news, denouncing River as bourgeois propaganda.

With the documentary repudiated, its creators, many of them having openly endorsed the democratic movement, were purged, detained, or forced into exile. [director Xia Jun] was promptly stripped of major responsibilities at CCTV. Instead of leaving China like many of his collaborators, he underwent a self-imposed exile, spending the next five years roaming around China’s poverty-ridden rural areas.

“Many things had changed during my five years in exile. I returned to a different CCTV, now housing celebrated shows such as Oriental Horizon and Focus. Reform and opening up had brought changes to CCTV. And I was a changed person as well. When I made River at twenty-six, I knew little about the real world. I did not have a real in-depth understanding of the many issues facing China. My years wandering around China’s countryside transformed me. I experienced the real China and realized that there was a gap between my abstract notion of Chinese tradition and how the tradition is lived through real Chinese people.”

Ying Zhu, from Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. Published by The New Press, 2011. Reprinted by the Asia Society.


bottom of page