The 1988, six-part television documentary River Elegy, hugely popular and controversial, was blatantly critical of traditional Chinese culture (and implicitly of Chairman Mao). The plot centered on the Yangzi River as an analogy of China’s decline from a great civilization to an isolated country teetering on the brink of obsolescence. Here men gather earth to rebuild dykes along the Yangzi River in Sichuan Province. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The 1988 television documentary River Elegy criticized Chinese culture and major national symbols, while indirectly attacking Chairman Mao’s legacy. Both the film and the book version drew an immense audience and generated significant controversy within and without mainland China.
Heshang is the title of a television documentary in six parts, which was broadcast twice by Chinese Central Television, in June and August of 1988; is also the title of a book based on the series. The character he ? of the title refers to the Huang (Yellow) River, long regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization; the character shang ? means “to die young” as well as “elegy or threnody.” The title, rendered in English as River Elegy, implies a lament for the death of Heshang culture, or Chinese culture. Although aired only twice, Heshang was viewed by hundreds of millions of people in China, while the text was excerpted in newspapers and published in several different editions, with an estimated million copies printed. Because of its controversial attitude toward Chinese tradition and Western culture, Heshang created a shock wave among Chinese intellectuals inside and outside mainland China and gave rise to heated debates. It was praised by Zhao Ziyang, then general secretary of the Communist party, but vigorously opposed by hardliners such as the vice president Wang Zhen.
Heshang represented a collaboration between several young intellectuals led by Su Xiaokang (b. 1949), a veteran writer of the literature of reportage. As intellectuals, they expressed a strong sense of mission ??? and social concern ????. In the decade from 1978 to 1988, Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “reforming the economy and opening up to the outside” ???? had gradually given intellectuals greater freedom to express themselves. The increasingly liberal climate gave rise to New Wave Films and New Era Literature. From 1985 to 1987, in particular, intellectuals focused on the themes of cultural reflection ???? and the search for roots ???. They were acutely conscious of China’s past greatness and modern weakness, and sought to find the roots of backwardness in its traditional culture. But by 1988, difficulties in economic reform, including inflation, had generated public uneasiness. It was under these circumstances that Heshang was conceived and produced. Its creators proclaimed that its purpose was to “arouse the whole nation to self-questioning” and to motivate people to ponder China’s old culture and destiny.
While Heshang’s narration often adopts a scholarly tone, the miniseries is better viewed as a work of art, combining literary and cinematic techniques to push the envelope of permissible discourse at the time. Those whom it offended certainly considered it a political commentary, and in the aftermath of the crackdown of 4 June 1989 at Tiananmen Square, it was officially blamed for provoking the student protests.
Critique of Cultural Icons
In searching for the sources of China’s weakness, Heshang’s creators took an iconoclastic approach, questioning major icons of Chinese national identity such as the Great Wall, the Huang River, and the dragon. The writers’ primary strategy was to place China’s conservative and inward-looking civilization in opposition to the dynamic and expansionist world of Western civilization.
In the twentieth century, as China defended itself from Japan, the Great Wall became a major symbol of China’s nationalism. The national anthem says, “Let’s make our flesh and blood into a new Great Wall,” while the People’s Liberation Army is called a “Great Wall of steel.” Heshang points out, however, that throughout China’s history, the Great Wall never stopped “barbarian” invasions, and its maintenance cost untold lives and treasure. The real effect of the wall was to isolate China from the outside and to assist the ruler in consolidating centralized power. Heshang condemns the wall as “a gigantic and tragic gravestone,” representing an isolationist psychology and a defensive civilization, unable to take risks or make progress.
While the Huang River basin is revered as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, Heshang notes that the river’s heavy load of sediment rapidly raises the river bed, leading to frequent floods. Flood prevention requires an enormous network of dikes and ditches as well as a system of forced peasant labor to keep the dikes in repair. The need for collective labor tied peasants to the soil, creating a mentality of subservience to authority and resistance to change. The river’s heavy load of sediment is compared to the oppressive weight of the Confucian bureaucratic tradition, which in turn led to the periodic rebellions and insurrections that have devastated the Chinese landscape no less thoroughly than the river’s floods.
Chinese culture regards dragons as benevolent guardian deities, as river spirits that shower the thirsty earth with needed rain, just as China’s emperors, in theory, bestow blessings on a grateful people. Emperors were considered incarnate dragons, and a popular song in the 1980s called the Chinese “descendants of the dragon.” Heshang’s creators remind their audience that the spirit of the Huang River used to require human sacrifice and that reverence for the charismatic dragon created a tradition of totalitarian rule. An unspoken comparison, made possible by matching scenes with newsreel footage of the Cultural Revolution, suggests that Chairman Mao inherited the role of dragon and dictator.
Yet another Chinese icon is the city of Yan’an in northern Shaanxi province, where Chairman Mao led Communist forces after the Long March. While official history regards Yan’an as Mao’s revolutionary base during the anti-Japanese war, the makers of Heshang show footage of a modern Yan’an that is still poor and backward.
A Theory of Civilizations
Heshang boldly proposes that world civilizations can be categorized as either yellow or blue. Yellowness suggests the birthplace of Chinese civilization in the region of loess, or yellowish brown soil, while blueness suggests the open ocean, which Western countries daringly crossed to found empires and to create modern industrial civilization. China is a yellow civilization in that it is agricultural, inward looking, and defensive; Europe and America are blue in that they are industrial, outward looking, and aggressive. Politically, yellow civilizations are despotic and have an ethical creed that forbids opposing views; blue civilizations are marked by the liberation of productive, industrial forces, which in turn require democracy, science, and diversity of opinion as prerequisites. Intellectuals should lead the way in helping China transition to a new blue culture because the only way for China to survive in this competitive world is to bring about modernization and Westernization, according to Heshang. The twenty years since the broadcast of Heshang
have indeed witnessed China’s transformation into a “bluer” civilization, though economic reform has been much more actively promoted than political reform. China is now a major world economic power, one in which the state has given up monopoly control of the economy in favor of markets, created an urban middle class, and pulled large numbers of peasants out of poverty, while also somewhat loosening restrictions on dissent and expanding the freedom of individuals.
Heshang’s critics accused the authors of the television series of being in favor of “total Westernization,” while its supporters saw the creators as the embodiment of China’s social conscience and the inheritors of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. The TV series and the debate it aroused have been studied by historians of Chinese popular culture as the reflection of an identity crisis in contemporary Chinese society.
Neder, C. (1996). Flusselegie—China’s Identitätskrise: die Debatte um die Chinesische Fernserie Heshang 1988–1994 [River Elegy—China’s Identity Crisis: The Debate over the TV series Heshang from 1988 to 1994]. Dortmund, Germany: Projekt Verlag.
Source: Wan, Pin P., & Bodman, Richard W.. (2009). River Elegy (Heshang). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1902–1904. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
River Elegy (Heshang) (Hé Sh?ng ??)|Hé Sh?ng ?? (River Elegy (Heshang))