CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 18, June 2009


1989, 1999, 2009: Totalitarian Nostalgia | China Heritage Quarterly

1989, 1999, 2009: Totalitarian Nostalgia

Geremie R. Barmé

There are obdurate aspects of cultural heritage that cannot necessarily be enjoyed or appreciated dispassionately by all. Such legacies, while worthy of forensic academic analysis, can prove to be an obnoxious presence in everyday life. As we discuss various strains of abiding heritage in the context of 2009, a year of commemorations and anniversaries, it is worth considering a habit of mind and style of discourse that enjoys a peculiar 'heritage status' in the Chinese world. This is the living tradition of denunciation. In Chinese-language social, political and cultural discussions it is a kind of interaction that expresses extreme and unreflective positions in the overblown language of high dudgeon, as well as through egregious discursive violence. This mode of denunciation offers simplistic solutions to complex realities; it demands unthinking support of partisan positions; it invariably finds expression in risible, but seductive, hyperbole. It forms a heritage that would appear to be as vital—or should we say as virulent?—today as it has been over the past century.

In our consideration of this unsavoury aspect of China's cultural heritage, I thought it would be useful to reprint material from 'Totalitarian Nostalgia', the concluding chapter of my book In the Red, on contemporary Chinese culture (New York: Columbia University Press) that appeared, as luck would have it, a decade ago. This material appeared just as the Chinese Communist Party was using the full power of state and media violence to carry out yet another denunciation and purge of an outlawed group.

The following excerpt formed part of a conclusion to a text that focused mostly on Chinese culture and thought in the 1980s and 90s (minor stylistic alterations have been made to the published text). I would suggest that as the global community continues to live with the swirls and eddies of aggrieved nationalism, in the thrall of overarching plans and paradigms to resolve the shared issues of humanity, and with the presumption of the ill-informed and self-entitled to adjudicate categorically on matters of common importance, it too should find a place for reconsideration today.

In the following, I discuss and analyse the vituperative denunciation of a group of independent historians and film-makers (including myself) launched by self-styled Chinese democratic activists in 1995. The tenor and style of their denunciations has been replicated in renewed attacks on that same group of historians in 2009. For some observations on this kind of abiding 'totalitarian nostalgia', see '2009: The Long Bow Appeal', also in the Features section of this issue.—The Editor.

A Nostalgic Temper

'Totalitarian nostalgia' as Svetlana Boym writes is 'primarily an aesthetic nostalgia for the last grand style in the twentieth century—the Stalinist Empire Style—and even more, a "nostalgia for world culture."'[1] Boym also points out that in 1990s Russia totalitarian nostalgia was the product of an environment in which culture had 'to survive a balancing act between the old...ideology and mentality, the demands of art, and new commercial imperatives.'

Here I argue that the totalitarian temper in 1990s China, one that remains in evidence in the new millennium, constantly harks back to and feeds off abiding totalistic and totalising temptations. They are temptations evident in Chinese political and cultural debates since the end of the nineteenth century; they are present in the intellectual and political projects that seek to formulate holistic systems, paradigms and arguments for the salvation of China; they persist despite the relative decline of the official ideocracy since the 1970s.

Faced with the decay of socio-political coherence, even if the coherence that had once existed was premised on an unjust, erratic and inhumane system, some writers from the 1990s called for a moral revival, identifying some of the devalued ideals of the past as a touchstone for the present. They chided artists who would seek answers in the cultural marketplace; they lambasted those who rejected the notion that literature must serve the higher cause of politics and Kultur. They despised the writers and intellectuals who took heart in the growth of a pluralistic culture that could respond not only to the impulses of the individual artist but also to the needs of a varied public. They mourned the loss of their presumed position as the cultural arbiters of the nation, their role as the conscience of society. They resiled from a complex reality in which their obnoxious rhetoric and overblown bombast occupied nothing more than a quaint market niche. They were nostalgic for the grand purpose of history, their avowed role (as actor and/or victim) in it, and longed for its return.

Totalitarian nostalgia was not the sole province of a clutch of displaced literati, nor was it merely a commodified social mood sated simply by the revenant Mao cult of the early 1990s, or a crude retro Cultural Revolution longing that fed the success of works like Jiang Wen's 1995 film 'Under the Burning Sun'.[2] It was a nostalgia for a style of thought and public discourse; it was a nostalgia for a language of denunciation that offered simple solutions to complex problems. It was a style in which China's dissidents and democratic oppositionists all too often chose to express themselves. It is a style that reinforces itself by its appeal to well-worn paths that lead to the past.

The word nostalgia originally connoted a longing for or painful yearning to return home. It was coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer to describe a malady, an 'extreme homesickness among Swiss mercenaries fighting far from their native land in the legions of one or another European despot.' He identified the symptoms of the illness of nostalgia as leading to despondency, melancholia, lability of emotion, anorexia and, in some cases suicide.[3] The condition was variously treated with leeches, opium, a range of emulsions and exposure to curative alpine air.

Nostalgia is a condition of being lost to an abode which is familiar, an exile from home, and as such is said to be closely related to the homing instinct. What was in the nineteenth century viewed as a physical condition, today nostalgia has become a general state of mind. The widespread condition of nostalgia can be symptomatic of a social interior dialogue regarding the irrevocable past, an identification with that which is perceived as having been lost. The dynamics of the diaolgue between past and present that finds expression in various forms of public nostalgia are complex. In the case of Mainland China, that dialogue has generally been muted and more often than not forestalled by government fiat. There is much that has been left unsaid about the recent past in Mainland China, and much of that which has been concealed excites new waves of nostalgia and longing. This disjointed dialogue with the past thus, by necessity, continues in fits and starts, and not just among the elderly or ex-Red Guards. In the ranks of the young the past can also be a resource on which they rely, prey and can exploit for their own uses.

Nostalgia does not necessarily mean that a longing for the past and hand-wringing over the present will be a negative or non-creative venture. The mechanism of public nostalgia, especially when it is manipulated by the media, often makes the past more palatable and handy for shoring up present exigencies. Given the perceived burdens of the Chinese past and its complex mesh of historical precedents, the various lapses in collective memory that have occurred over the past two decades may not, however, have been such a bad thing. They may well have allowed people a chance to clear the way to the future without the pressures of earlier horrors constantly invading and overwhelming the present.

From the official end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the leadership of the Communist Party rose in public esteem on a wave of nostalgia for the past. The authorities instituted a program of 'bringing order out of chaos and returning to the rectitude [of the past]' (bo luan fan zheng 拨乱反正); they spoke of 'giving things back their original appearance' (huan lishi benlai mianmu 还历史本来面目) and 'turning an inverted history on its head' (ba diandaolede lishi zai diandao guolai 把颠倒了的历史再颠倒过来).[4] As the government undertook the nationwide process of rehabilitating cadres and individuals purged during the Cultural Revolution and before, old films, songs and books were released during the late 1970s, and they fed the frenzy to recover the past. The media also began depicting the first years of Communist Party rule in the early 1950s before radical socialization and the aberrant economic policies of Mao Zedong took hold as having been some halcyon age of simplicity and purity in which a nation newly born from the terrors of the Civil War was united by a common goal and inspired by an idealistic purpose.

As Dai Qing, a journalist turned historiographer cum dissident, wrote in 1988:

Since 1978, the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals of China, regardless of their age (from twenty to ninety), no matter whether they have been attacked by others or have attacked others, have all witnessed with a mixture of pain, delight, bitterness and relief the yellowing pages extracted, one by one, from old files. This has been translated into tearful family reunions and sighs for the months and years that have irrevocably passed... [B]y now the Chinese all know that a prosperous and strong China depends on its people being intelligent and enthusiastic, and for them to be both of these things they must be able to understand historical truth, for indeed it entwines them at every turn.[5]

Of course, the past was also used to sanction the policies and actions of the present. Independent political and cultural trends were attacked for being part of a concerted effort by maladjusted individuals or groups to negate the heritage of the revolution and betray the sacrifices made by the Party's martyrs.[6] Writers and historians who attempted to formulate their own version of the past were often banned or criticised and, broadly speaking, the official Party line on the past continued to dominate the mass media view of history.

In his sociology of nostalgia, Yearning for Yesterday, Fred Davis outlines an 'ascending order of nostalgia'. He speaks of: Simple nostalgia, 'a positively toned evocation of a lived past in the context of some negative feeling toward the present or impeding circumstance'; reflexive nostalgia, in which the individual 'in perhaps an inchoate though nevertheless psychologically active fashion... summons to feeling and thought certain empirically oriented questions concerning the truth, accuracy, completeness, or representativeness of the nostalgic claim'; and, interpreted nostalgia, an attempt to objectify the sense of nostalgia and question reasons behind the nostalgic mood and its significance for the present.[7]

Nostalgia is a central feature in how people form, maintain and reconstruct a sense of self and the place of the individual in the world. Nostalgia develops usually in the face of present fears, disquiet about the state of affairs and uncertainty about the future. Confronted with social anomie and disjuncture nostalgia provides a sense of continuity. Nostalgia has politically often been used for extremist, in particular totalitarian and nationalist, ends.[8] In Mainland China, nostalgia was institutionalised by the Communist Party and its claims to legitimacy which increasingly emphasised its role as the inheritor and protector of a codefied body of national traditions that were summed up in terms of China's unique 'spiritual civilisation'.[9]

From the mid 1980s, as the publishing and media industries became economically more independent, reprisions of the past accrued a market value. Mainland China entered the age of spontaneous (or commercially enhanced and manufactured), and not merely state-directed, revivals. As in so many areas of cultural production, Hong Kong and Taiwan played a crucial role in this by providing a ready audience for films and books that dwelt on the imperial past, the decadent Late-Qing period, the Republican era, and even socialism. On the Mainland, a commercial nostalgic revival of the Cultural Revolution, for example, can be dated from the mid 1980s with the release of the first disco versions of Model Beijing Operas geming yangbanxi 革命样板戏 and the publication of sensational accounts of the period.[10]

The Communist Party's post-4 June 'state-of-the-nation education' guoqing jiaoyu 国情教育 campaign included the screening of old revolutionary films and the distribution of karaoke tapes of 'classic' revolutionary songs. It was hoped that such material would inculcate a sense of positive nostalgia among the young. Thus, old war films dating from the early 1950s were screened on prime time television and heavily publicized contemporary historical films including the story of Deng Xiaoping's youthful military career ('The Bose Uprising' Bose qiyi 白色起义), and the epic-length extravaganza on the founding of the People's Republic ('The Birth of a Nation' Kaiguo dadian 开国大典) were also produced. Furthermore, in 1990 the 150th anniversary of the first Opium War was commemorated amidst considerable talk of the blood shed by patriotic martyrs and revolutionaries for the cause of national independence. The message was simple: the blood debt of the past was so great, no citizen today had the right to renege on the final choice of history for China: Marxism-Leninism and the leadership of the Communist Party.

The Rhetoric of Denunciation

The language of totalitarianism itself operates according to rules and an internal logic that aid and abet a thought process conducive to its continued purchase on power and authority. In the decades of its ascendance, as well in the long years of tenacious reform, the totalitarian in China has exhibited an intriguing versatility, 'commodifying' culture, ideas and even opposition in the general cause of its re-definition and self-affirmation.

It is the concern of many students of things Chinese that the yawning gap between reality and rhetoric must surely, in the long run, make things untenable, or lead to some massive collapse of the vestigial ideological power of the Party-state. I would argue, rather, again taking a sidewards glance at the parallels between Soviet and Chinese socialism, that Communist rule in China has created a range of ideological simulacra that have to date incorporated cultural alternatives and opponents in a postmodern pastiche of the kind described in the Russian philosopher Mikhail Epstein's work on the Soviet ideological landscape.[11]

In his work on relativistic patterns in totalitarian thinking, Epstein analyses totalitarianism as 'a specific postmodern model that came to replace the modernist ideological stance elaborated in earlier Marxism.'[12] He argues that the use of 'descriptive-evaluative' words, that is terms that combine both descriptive and evaluative meanings, what Epstein calls 'ideologemes', deployed universally in Soviet speech communicate not only information but also a particular ideological message, or concealed judgments that take the form of words. His arguments are too elaborate to reproduce here in full, however, Epstein's analysis of how ideologemes functioned in Soviet public discourse has striking parallels in contemporary China. In short, he notes that a key to the function of ideologemes is that they can encompass both leftist and rightist concepts, encompassing the spectrum of utilitarian shifts made within a totalitarian or totalising system. A simple example of this can be found in the Chinese usage of the expression 'socialist market economy'. It is a term created to convey the extreme contradictions of contemporary economic realities and to allow for an ideological underpinning to what, superficially at least, appears to have been an example of the Party's retreat from its avowed Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideals. According to Epstein, this kind of linguistic formulation is not the result of clumsy pragmatism, but rather the reflection of the core philosophy of totalitarian politics which 'uses leftist slogans to defeat the right, rightist slogans to defeat the left' while maintain its own primacy.[13]

Totalitarian speech is marked by its ability to employ ideologically-laden words to weaken opposing sides while taking advantage of the resulting confusion. The Chinese language has a rich and venerable lexicon of words that have been converted under Communist rule to act as 'ideologemes'. It is a lexicon that was, according to tradition, first formulated by Confucius when he edited the history of the State of Lu 鲁国, the Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋, judiciously choosing expressions to describe political actions in moral terms. Classical scholars claimed that the Sage thereby created a 'Spring-and-Autumn writing style' chunqiu bifa 春秋笔法 which relied on a vocabulary of baobianci 褒贬词, or judgmental words, to praise bao 褒 or censure bian 贬 every political act and event contained in the annals of Lu. In modern usage, all activities beneficial to the Party-state are represented by words with positive connotations baoyici 褒义词, while those that are deleterious in nature are condemned with negative verbs, nouns and adjectives bianyici 贬义词. The growth or maturation of socialist society has led to linguistic accretion, incorporating Maoist doublethink with the left-right parole of Reform. The general Party line exists in a state of constant tension with both right and left deviations, maintaining a rhetorical and practical balance between the two, thus betraying and being betrayed as it maintains its grip on society. One could postulate, as Epstein does for Soviet Marxism, that 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' is an enigmatic and hybrid phenomenon that, 'like postmodern pastiche... combines within itself very different ideological doctrines.'[14]

There is reason to believe that Soviet Marxism, which survived for seventy years as the dominant ideology of the Soviet Union, accommodating itself to enormous historical change in the process, has become de-ideologized in direct proportion to its expansion. This ideology exceeded and absorbed all other systems until it approached the limits of ideological imagination. Over the course of seven decades, Soviet Marxism lost its specificity as a particular ideology and became instead an all-encompassing system of ideological signs that can acquire any significance desired.[15]

In China, too, the ruling ideology has gone through a transmogrification rather than a collapse, absorbing both communist and capitalist ideas. And, as Epstein observes, 'ideology becomes simply a habit of thinking, a manner of expression, the prism through which all views and expressions are refracted without depending on particular views and ideas—a sort of universal network that may be compared to the advertising networks of Western nations.'[16] As goods are exchanged for money in a capitalist environment, so facts can be exchanged for ideas in the totalitarian realm. As a form of currency, ideas accrue their own 'ideological capital'. Their value lies in their ability to shore up the 'correctness' of the ideology of their proponents, and it is this correctness that compensates people for their sacrifices to the cause, and recoups the cost of policy errors. Such ideological capital has outgrown the limitations of particular personalities and systems of ideas to 'become an omnipresent mentality, appropriating any fact to serve any idea.'[17]

Modes of criticism in Mainland Chinese culture still readily fall back on the habits of mind and language inculcated by decades of Party rule. Even in an environment of free speech and media openness the rhetorical style of totalitarianism, and its refusal to allow for critical self-reflection, maintains its appeal.

From April 1995, a heated controversy erupted in the dissident Chinese community overseas. It centred on the role of radical student activists during the 1989 Protest Movement as depicted the documentary film 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace' (hereafter referred to as 'Gate', see The debate surrounding issues raised by the film quickly revealed the style of political rhetoric typical of extreme Chinese radicals. Whereas the nature of the debate was not surprising—the film 'Gate' touched on some of the most contentious areas of in contemporary political discourse—what was interesting was that some of the internationally fêted members of the exiled dissident community articulated their views in a language reminiscent of the ideological Newspeak of Mainland Chinese politics. It was the language of totalitarianism, its deployment, for readers versed in Cultural Revolution venom, held a certain nostalgic charm. It also revealed much about Chinese 'democratic dissidents' that is rarely discussed in non-Chinese language works.

Before continuing, I should point out my own interest in 'Gate'.[18] I was involved with the project from an early stage and acted as both as the main scriptwriter, an associate director and the senior academic adviser for the final three-hour film.

On 22 April 1995, Hsüeh Hsiao-kuang, a prominent Hong Kong-based reporter for the Taiwan newspaper United News Daily,[19] published a story about the as-yet-incomplete film. Hsüeh's article focussed on an interview featured in the film with the student leader Chai Ling, the Commander of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters in the last days of the Protest Movement. Chai had chosen to speak to the American journalist Philip Cunningham on 28 May 1989, a crucial moment on the eve of the 4 June Beijing Massacre. In the interview Chai articulated her views on the student movement and her role in it. Hsüeh Hsiao-kuang's article, which was based heavily on materials provided by Carma Hinton, one of the film's directors, and the Long Bow Film Archives, discussed the issues raised by that interview and questioned the responsibility Chai Ling shared for the final bloody outcome of the student movement. The piece was published on the Mainland News page of her paper in Taipei, and reprinted in the New York edition of World Journal, New York, the leading North-American Chinese daily on 26 April 1995.[20]

In that article Hsüeh quoted from the Chai interview as follows:

Chai Ling: 'My fellow students keep asking me, "What should we do next? What can we accomplish?" I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly. Only when the Square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united. But how can I explain any of this to my fellow students?

'And what is truly sad is that some students, and famous, well-connected people, are working hard to help the government, to prevent it from taking such measures. For the sake of their selfish interests and their private dealings they are trying to cause our movement to disintegrate and get us out of the Square before the government becomes so desperate that it takes action....

'That's why I feel so sad, because I can't say all this to my fellow students. I can't tell them straight out that we must use our blood and our lives to wake up the people. Of course, they will be willing. But they are still so young...' [cries]

Interviewer: 'Are you going to stay in the Square yourself?'

Chai Ling: 'No.'

Interviewer: 'Why?'

Chai Ling: 'Because my situation is different. My name is on the government's blacklist. I'm not going to be destroyed by this government. I want to live. Anyway, that's how I feel about it. I don't know if people will say I'm selfish. I believe that people have to continue the work I have started. A democracy movement can't succeed with only one person. I hope you don't report what I've just said for the time being, okay?'[21]

Hsüeh acknowledged that when Chai spoke of Tiananmen Square being 'awash with blood' she could not have known about the violence that awaited the protesters on 3-4 June; she may only have thought that the government would use rubber bullets and batons to quell the demonstrations. Nonetheless, Hsüeh asks, as one reads Chai's chilling comments one cannot help but wonder 'what type of environment could have produced a value system that has resulted in the attitudes of this post-Cultural Revolution generation of Chinese youth?' Although she emphasized that the Chinese government was responsible for the bloodletting of 4 June, Hsüeh observed that surely student leaders like Chai Ling and Li Lu had, through their constant refusal to leave the Square even as disaster loomed ever closer, were also responsible in part for the continued escalation of the conflict and its tragic denouement.

Hsüeh Hsiao-kuang's article also quoted Ding Xueliang, then a lecturer at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a prominent analyst of Mainland Chinese affairs, on the reasons why extremism had won out among the students towards the end of the Protest Movement. Ding responded that those who had felt that remaining on in the Square was pointless gradually left while those who thought that they had no alternative but to struggle on stayed behind. In turn these extremists in turn supported and elected even more extreme people to lead them. He further commented that all of this had to be understood in the context of the collapse of moral values and self-restraint in post-Mao China, as well as in light of the communist-style rhetoric of the students during the movement itself.

On 27 April 1995, Chai Ling published a rebuttal of Hsüeh's article in the features page of World Journal. It was a heavily edited-down version of a much longer piece which appeared in full in Beijing Spring, the leading Chinese dissident publication based in New York and again in Tiananmen, a radical dissident journal that appeared in June 1995.[22] In her response, Chai described the reasons for Hsüeh Hsiao-kuang's critique in the following way:

...certain individuals have for the sake of the gaining approval of the authorities racked their brains for ways and means to come up with policies for them. And there is another person with a pro-Communist history who has been hawking [her] documentary film for crude commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to reveal something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white. First, last year, there was Dai Qing who clamoured for Chai Ling to be 'given a stiff sentence', 'guilty of interfering with traffic'; now today Chai Ling has become a person with extremely selfish motives who 'will let others shed blood while she saves her own skin.'[23]

Chai's defence of herself—one that was given considerable coverage in both the U.S. and Kong-Tai media—is not our particular concern here. Rather, we are attracted to the revealing use of rhetoric as we contemplate the question of totalitarian nostalgia. Her language is so colourful and ideologically laden that it is useful to list some of the ideologemes she uses in Chinese:

liyu taohao dangzhengzhe 利于讨好当政者—to engage in an act beneficial to ingratiating [oneself] with the government

wakong xinsi wei dangzhengzhe chumou huace 挖空心思为当政者出谋划策—rack one's brains to mastermind a scheme on behalf of the government

mouqu shangye baoli—牟取商业暴利 reap staggering [and immoral] profits

tuixiao yingpian 推销影片—hawk a film

duanzhang quyi qitu yao biaoxin liyi 断章取义企图标新立异—quote out of context in an attempt [negative connotation] to do something new just so as to appear different

ying yao ba lishide heibai diandao guolai 硬要把历史的黑白颠倒过来—obstinately wanting to turn the black and white of history on its head [grammatically confused]

Dai Qing jiaorang 戴晴叫嚷—Dai Qing clamoured/ shouted/ howled...

Chai's is a parole replete with the connotative-evaluative messages that Epstein dissects in his work on relativistic patterns in totalitarian thinking. It is a language that is steeped in the discursive style of the official Chinese media, one that is also highly reminiscent of the emotive mode of denunciation commonly employed in the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, it is a fulsome expression of the megalomaniac rivalry that built up between trenchant members of the Chinese government and their opponents. Chai Ling's language was not the only element of the article that bespoke a totalitarian inertia in her mental habits. In defence of her comments to Cunningham she ignored the verbatim quote given by Hsüeh: 'I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we actually are hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to brazenly butcher the people.' Instead she translates what is for her, and her defenders like Ruan Ming (a former Party curmudgeon who became a rabid democrat from the late 1980s and a dissident in the 90s), a sanitized English line back into Chinese to the effect that 'all we can expect, qidai, is bloodshed.'[24]

Chai also claimed that during the movement 'our demands never exceeded the freedoms and rights granted to citizens by the Constitution...'[25] Here again she ignores what she said to Cunningham, to whit: 'Unless we overthrow this inhuman government, our country will have no hope! Our people will have no hope!'[26] During the 1990s, faced with the implacable rule of the Communist Party and the erratic policies of the Clinton administration in regard to China, it become acceptable for the extremist dissidents of 1989 to become supporters of 'constitutional change' and 'gradual reform' in China. By the mid 1990s, as the Mainland economy boomed, they tactically reposition themselves. Where they had vociferously opposed the U.S. government granting Most Favoured Nation status only a few years earlier, they now lobbied for constructive engagement with China. It was perhaps no coincidence that a number of them now spoke on behalf of the American business interests that now employed them. The truth remains, however, that in the days leading up to 4 June 1989, many of this group had indeed agitated for the overthrowing of the Communist Party and hoping to carry out a totalistic, albeit 'democratic', revolution.

The conflation of time and space into a realm of the permanent ideologically correct present is also central to the canker of totalitarian habit. In responding to Hsüeh's article and in many of the vociferous attacks on 'Gate' critics readily passed over the actual circumstances of the interview that Chai Ling had given on that day in May. It came about shortly after the Joint Liaison Committee of groups concerned with the movement voted in favour of leaving the Square on 30 May. The Committee was a body of people set up in an attempt to coordinate the protests. It consisted of leading figures among the student protesters, the intellectuals of Beijing and the workers. On that day the Committee was told that the situation in the Square was confused and unhygienic. It was argued that it was better to declare the movement victorious, end the occupation of the Square on 30 May and encourage the students to return to their schools to continue agitating for change there. The Liaison Committee included the student representatives Chai Ling, Wang Dan and Wuer Kaixi. Chai voted in favour of the motion along with everyone else (there was only one abstention: Wang Juntao declined to cast a vote).

The decision of the Liaison Committee was subsequently announced at Tiananmen by Wang Dan. It was only then that Chai Ling, having been advised by her lieutenant Li Lu (who was not at the meeting that voted to persuade the students to leave) and others, unilaterally overturned the decision and called on the students to remain in the Square indefinitely. She and her circle then made plans to leave Beijing themselves. It was then that Chai Ling approached Philip Cunningham and offered him an interview that was nothing less than a political testament. That she later changed her mind regarding her tactics may have been for the most laudable reasons, but her support for the decision to leave the Square, her sudden volte face, and then her comments on the need for bloodshed, talk of conspirators and capitulationists and the other revelations about her view of her sacrifice for 'the Chinese people' that she made to Cunningham are part of the historical, and now public, record.

If one reads all of Chai's article and the numerous other attacks on 'Gate' and Hinton published in the Chinese media from April 1995 by the extremist Chinese dissident exiles (they constitute, it should be noted, only one faction in a large and complex community), a veritable mini-mountain of material that comprises many dozens of pages, one finds many curious things. In these articles there are dark hints of 'international plots' to discredit the Chinese dissidents—one author claims that Patrick Tyler (The New York Times Beijing correspondent) and The New York Times which also ran a controversial story on 'Gate' in late April 1995 were part of a conspiracy to discredit the dissident exiles and help China's Communist reformers.[27]

The Unity of Opposites

Over the years, the factional opponents of ideological extremism in China have been all too ready to use the language of their enemies when writing their denunciations and attacking their foes at various fora.[28] On one hand, they have done so as an ironic inversion of Party language, but on the other such writing also betrays the fact that even many of the self-styled free thinkers of China were infected by the same type of sectarian narrowness and virulence that they so abhorred in their adversaries.[29]

It is not surprising, therefore, that a writer for Mainstay, the Mainland 'retro-Maoist' journal founded after 4 June to propagate the cultural line of right-thinking ideologues, published a critique of Cultural Revolution-style diction as used by supposedly liberal journalists. In what is a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black, the writer of the piece noted that the rabid (yaoya qiechi 咬牙切齿—literally, 'teeth gnashing' or vituperative) style of language reflected an abiding CultRev psychology. The writer also noted that the so-called enemies of such linguistic reaction—in particular liberals who took advantage of Deng Xiaoping's Tour of the South to denounce extreme 'leftists'—readily indulged themselves in such histrionics.[30] An example of this 'liberal' demagoguery, the article said, was to be found in the Zhao Shilin's 'Preamble' to Aide-memoire on Preventing 'Leftism', a popular collection of essays produced in 1992 in response to Deng's critique of post-1989 ideological extremism. The best-selling volume featured work by Wang Meng, Liu Xinwu, Li Zehou and Yuan Hongbing, among others. As Zhao, the anti-leftist liberal editor noted, wrote:

At the crucial moment when the powers of extreme 'leftism' and their in-house theoreticians, swollen with arrogance, had set their sights on striking out wantonly against Reform, Comrade Deng Xiaoping resolutely toured the South. He issued speeches in which he stated categorically: 'We must guard against rightism, but more importantly we must prevent "leftism"!' One simple sentence but each word bears the weight of greatness; an uncompromising statement, one that resounds with authority. Finally, Comrade Deng Xiaoping has turned around the ship of state, guiding us with his eye of wisdom, his genius and daring. Although an octogenarian he has thought nothing of thus exerting himself, and at this key moment he has repulsed the evil current of leftism. Oh, how fortunate the Reforms! How blessed are our People![31]

Turning once more to the debate over 'Gate' in 1995, we find in the overblown rhetoric of the supporters of Chai Ling the habits of mind bred of the relativistic logic of Communist ideology. Bai Meng, the student in charge of the public address system at the Monument to the People's Heroes when Chai Ling was Commander-in-Chief of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters, an a co-author of the Student Hunger Strike Declaration, wrote a long critique of Carma Hinton and 'Gate' in the inaugural issue of the journal Tiananmen entitled 'Tiananmen Trials'. It is so characteristic of the style of democratic denunciation used by extremist dissidents to attack their enemies—both to the left and the right—that it deserves lengthy quotation:

I feel compelled to point out that I have lost faith in the fairness of the media in the 'Free World'. Ever since Dai Qing, a woman who poses as a 'political dissident', first clamoured about wanting to 'put Chai Ling on trial' two years ago, this tune has been echoed a number of times both in- and outside China. Now we are finally hearing a chorus of support. It comes with the emergence of the film 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace'. It is produced by Carma Hinton, an American who grew up in China like a privileged aristocrat, a person who maintains deep ties with the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party. She has gathered around herself a group of people with dubious political pedigrees and selectively used materials taken out of context to scrape this film together...

Carma Hinton is the daughter of William Hinton, the author of Fanshen, a renowned account of the Communist land reforms of the 1940s and 50s, and a man known for his long-term support of the Chinese revolution. On the strength of these blood-ties Chai, Bai and their cohorts labeled Carma a pro-Communist (although as a youth in China she never joined any Communist Party youth organization or the Chinese Communist Party itself). It was an intriguing accusation since virtually all of the famous exiled dissidents shared a far more venerable 'pro-Communist' history than Hinton, who moved to the U.S. in 1970. Indeed, most of them grew up as members of the Communist Party's Young Pioneers, Youth League or even joined the Communist Party itself. In 1982, at the age of 16, Chai herself was named one of the Communist Youth Leagues' top one hundred students.[32]

Bai Meng continued in this vein of geneological investigation and examined the personal histories of each of the dubious characters involved in 'Gate' and the resultant controversy: Dai Qing, Hsüeh Hsiao-kuang, Liu Xiaobo, Zhou Duo and Gong Xiaoxia. The upshot of his inquisition is that all were found to be tainted by serious political problems. Bai then declares that these heinous individuals through their words and deed had 'aimed weapons which are even more lethal than those used by the Chinese government at us, the children of Tiananmen.' He goes on to say:

Although they are opportunists, the filmmakers have shown considerable foresight. The ideas they've come up with to aid and abet those in power are even more crafty than those the authorities could concoct for themselves. That's because they [the film-makers] know that by posing as "intellectuals" and "dissidents" they can deceive more people...

As long as they call themselves intellectuals, their flagrant distortion of history is nothing less than criminal. Although the actual trials of Tiananmen are yet to take place, the trial of souls is already underway. The verdict is: they [the film-makers] are not independent intellectuals exercising independent value judgments. They are nothing more than a bunch of flies. They are the scourge of our age.[33]

As Ye Ren, a Mainland resident in the U.S., observed in a more phlegmatic mood:

Chai Ling, who is at the center of the controversy, displayed an even more acute insight than her former deputies. In an interview published in the World Journal just before the sixth anniversary of 4 June, she pointed out, 'Recently, a small number of people in the Western media have tried to divide the students from Tiananmen into radicals and moderates. By using the tactic of currying favor with some, and attacking others, they intend to transfer the blame for the bloodshed onto the so-called hard-line students. Following this attempt, the Chinese Communist news agency Xinhua clamored about opposing radicalism. We must be vigilant and pay close attention to this well-planned and well-organized attempt to divide the forces for democracy.' Is Chai Ling suggesting that through their plotting the Chinese Communists have joined up with Chinese-language newspapers abroad, The New York Times, and American filmmakers in a coordinated effort with its own official media to transfer the blame for the Massacre onto people like herself? I find it hard to believe that even in its wildest dreams the Communist Party could ever create such a united front.

What we see here is a very peculiar phenomenon. Those who promote themselves as having devoted their lives to the cause of democracy are unwilling even to use democratic methods to discuss an issue. Their treatment of people who hold different opinions is to immediately check their family background, investigate the history of their political attitudes, and try to uncover an 'evil master-mind' behind them. The language they use, such as 'characters with dubious political background', 'a small number of people in the media', and 'curry favor with some and attack others', reminds one of the terms used in the days of political persecution in China. Their behavior resembles that of the Communist Party, and the way they go about advocating democracy resembles nothing so much as McCarthyism.

Zheng Yi, a prominent exiled writer, also went on the defensive on Chai Ling's behalf. Quoted by the World Journal he said that Carma Hinton was a person with well-known Communist sympathies. Zheng, a former classmate of Hinton, ex-Red Guard, Mainland novelist and 1989 dissident who achieved a measure of media prominence for his book on cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution, published a further article on the subject in Tiananmen entitled 'In Defence of Chai Ling'. He wrote:

The journalist Patrick Tyler and the film-maker Carma Hinton, both of you have wantonly manipulated history and fabricated crimes that you interpolate onto the Democracy Movement concocting in the process a story about there being some sort of 'hidden strategy' [among student leaders]. Don't you think you have violated professional ethics and acted unconscionably? The United States is a Christian country which regards lying as a sin. I do not know whether you are Christians. But would you honestly be able to put your hand on the Bible and swear that you are not telling lies for some unspeakable motive?

Zheng went on to claim that 'Gate' would have the most deleterious effect on China:

Whether you [Hinton and Tyler] were involved with a premeditated political plot or not, you have already created a massive obstacle to the overturning of the official verdict on 4 June. This is an important issue which affects the fate of 1.2 billion people. But you have acted as though this is but a ploy in your pursuit of personal fame and financial gain![36]

Speaking on behalf of the '1.2 billion people' of China is a favourite pastime of propagandists from both ends of the political spectrum. Although the official Mainland response to the film was slow, when it came it proved to be as equally unimaginative and cliché-prone as that of the extremist exiles. After the New York Film Festival announced that 'Gate' was to première at the festival in October 1995, the Chinese authorities demanded that it be withdrawn. When the organizers failed to comply the Chinese attempted to ban Zhang Yimou's new film, 'Shanghai Triad', from opening the festival. After this too was frustrated, Zhang himself was forbidden to go near New York. In their subsequent efforts the Chinese authorities were sometimes more successful in their intimidation, and a number of high-profile festivals either dropped plans to screen 'Gate' or sidelined the film.

Approximately one year after the original debate about 'Gate' unfolded in the U.S. press, the Chinese finally felt compelled to put their protest in writing. In a letter to the Director of Filmfest DC, who was preparing to screen 'Gate', dated 19 April 1996, the Press Counsel of the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Washington wrote:

As is well known, a very small number of people engaged themselves in anti-government violence in Beijing in June 1989 but failed. The film 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace' sings praise of these people in total disregard of the facts. If this film is shown... it will mislead the audience and hurt the feelings of 1.2 billion Chinese people. Therefore, it is necessary and appropriate to withdraw this film from the festival.

The Director of the Filmfest DC found it both unnecessary and inappropriate to satisfy this request.

In reviewing this contretemps one is reminded of a controversy over an earlier controversial documentary on China: the Italian director Antonioni's 1973 film 'Zhongguo'. The People's Daily and Red Flag, the official Communist propaganda organ of the time, published lengthy denunciations of Antonioni and the Party called on the nation to engage in the frenzied vilification of his film, one that tried to depict, with a goodly dose of irony, some of the sodden realities of revolutionary New China. Antonioni was vilified for 'being possessed of an inimical attitude towards the Chinese people.' He 'had ulterior motives and employed extremely despicable methods taking unfair advantage of an opportunity to visit China with the sole aim of raking up material so as to vilify China in order to achieve his unspeakable political ends.'[37] Numerous articles and speeches attacking the film in this vein appeared were published. Needless to say, to vouchsafe the ideological health and protect the 'feelings of the Chinese people', the authorities never let China's outraged critics actually see the object of their outrage.


[1] Svetlana Boym, Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994, p.247. Boym, who acknowledges herself to be a product of the epoch of totalitarian decadence, the skeptical age of late Brezhnevism, remarks in her disquisition on totalitarian nostalgia that 'I can only develop a genre of nostalgia mediate by irony, which combines estrangement with the longing for the familiar--in my case this happens to be a familiar collective oppression. It offers a good balance between homesickness and the sickness of being home that is necessary for a cultural mythologist.' (p.290.)

[2] Yangguang canlande rizi (1995), based on Wang Shuo's 1991 novella 'Wild Beasts'.

[3] See Johannes Hofer, 'Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia', first published in Latin in 1688 and translated into English by Carolyn K. Anspach, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 2 (1934), pp.376-91. See Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia, New York: The Free Press, 1979, pp.1-2.

[4] See Barmé, 'History for the Masses', in Jonathan Unger, ed., Using the Past to Serve the Present: Historiography and Politics in Contemporary China, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1993, pp.260-286, at p.260.

[5] Dai Qing, 'Zhonghua yinglie yu 1986', Dushu, 1987:2, pp.122-124, at p.124, quoted in Barmé, 'Using the Past to Save the Present: Dai Qing's Historiographical Dissent', East Asian History, no.1 (June 1991), p.174.

[6] The Chinese Premier Li Peng spoke in such terms at the emergency meeting of civil, Party and military officials on the night of 19 May 1989, as the People's Liberation Army attempted to enter Beijing and bring an end to the student protests. Again, such language was commonly used in official government propaganda regarding the troops and police who died from 3 June 1989.

[7] Davis, Yearning for Yesterday, pp.18, 21 & 24.

[8] See Frederic Jameson, 'Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia', in Salmagundi, no.10-11 (Fall and Winter, 1969-70), p.68 for a comment on nostalgia, fascism and revolution.

[9] An early example of this codified body of materials is Feng Lianhui, Sun Zhen, Zhao Tunfang, Guan Zhemin and Yang Qiao, eds, Jingshen wenming cishu, Beijing: Zhongguo zhanwang chubanshe, 1986.

[10] For more on this, see Barmé, Shades of Mao, pp.14-15 and p.191 n.3.

[11] See Epstein, After the Future, pp.5-7, 159.

[12] Ibid., p.102.

[13] Ibid., p.119.

[14] Ibid., p.153.

[15] Ibid., p.155.

[16] Ibid., p.156.

[17] Epstein, After the Future, pp.158-159.

[18] 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace was directed by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon of the Long Bow Group in Boston. It premièred at the New York Film Festival in October 1995.

[19] Lianhebao 聯合報.

[20] The Xue material was carried on the Mainland [China] News page of the World Journal. It was in two parts entitled respectively, '"Tiananmen" jilupian 89 nian xieleipian: Bieren liuxie huanqi tuanjie ziji qiusheng!—qidai Tiananmen liuxie chenghe, Chai Lingde gaobai beican qili,' and 'Liusi beiju: liji yingxiong wudao qunzhong; Wenge yidu: daode jiazhi dangran wucun', Shijie ribao, 26 April 1995.

[21] Ibid. The full text of the Chai interview had not been published in Chinese before. Excerpts had been used in both English and Chinese, but generally these were only partial quotations that were often given in the wrong order. Hsüeh's quotations are taken from the video tape of the interview Philip Cunningham gave the Long Bow Archive. Considerable controversy has raged around this interview and it's use in 'Gate'. For our response to the willful distortions of commentators on this subject, see '2009: The Long Bow Appeal' in the Features section of this journal.

[22] The layout of the first issue of the journal Tiananmen is itself highly instructive in the context of this discussion. Produced by a number of the less self-reflective 1989 activists, possibly as a result of the denunciations of 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace', Tiananmen is itself a good example of what could be termed 'high-Communist propaganda style', reflecting Party-style typesetting conventions. The cover features an image of the statue of the 'Goddess of Democracy' with the caption 'Deeply mourn the victims of 4 June'. The inside cover features a full-page picture of Wei Jingsheng holding a cigarette in what could be mistaken for a Mao-esque pose with the line: 'The Pioneer of the Chinese Democracy Movement: Wei Jingsheng.' The editorial occupies the next page and in tone and style is reminiscent of similar publication statements in Mainland propaganda. On the copyright page there is a calligraphic inscription in ballpoint pen by a token authority figure, in this case the historian Professor Ying-shih Yü 余英時, a sympathizer of the exiles. It reads: 'Preserving the Most Accurate Account of the History of Tiananmen'. It is dated 25 May 1995, Princeton. The back page features a photograph of the Tiananmen student leaders taken at their July 1991 Paris plenum and the inside back cover shows a number of them speaking at that gathering. The contents of the magazine are arranged very much in the style of Communist publications. The lead articles are by the 'leaders' Chai Ling, Bai Meng and Zhang Boli, followed by 'think pieces' by Ruan Ming and Zheng Yi, which in reality are emotive denunciations of 'Gate'. While Wang Dan's 1995 public re-evaluation of the movement which was critical of the student extremists is not reproduced, an emotive hunger strike declaration written in December 1994 is included. Hsüeh Hsiao-kuang's 'negative text' (fanmian jiaocai 反面教材) is placed at the end of the magazine. As it is a reduced copy of Hsüeh's original, it is all but illegible. This is followed by two further rebuttals of Hsüeh which are all too clear.

[23] Chai Ling, 'Qing zunzhong lishi', reprinted in Tiananmen, June 1995, inaugural issue, p.4.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] This translation is based on the Long Bow transcript of the Cunningham interview. This quotation also appears in 'Gate'.

[27] For more details on this controversy, see Richard B. Woodward, 'Anatomy of a Massacre', The Village Voice, vol.XLI, no.23 (4 June 1996), pp. 29-35; reproduced online at:

[28] See, for example, Bai Jieming (G. Barmé), 'Juantu chonglaide zuofeng', Dangdai (Taipei), 1990:10, p.114.

[29] See Barmé in '"Liusi" guanghuanhoude yinying', Dangdai, 1990:9, pp.86, 87, 89.

[30] See Chi Shizi, 'Cong "wenge yuyan" tanqi', Zhongliu, 1993:5, p.30. Chi Shizi refers in particular to the introduction, see Zhao Shilin, ed., Fang 'zuo' beiwanglu, Taiyuan: Shuhai chubanshe, 1992, pp.1-3, an essay by Zhou Da, 'Yan mei ze xiang mei, yan e ze xiang e', pp.291-293, and another piece by Yin Shixian, 'Wenhua: yao "geming", haishi jianshe', pp.373-379.

[31] Zhao Shilin, Fang 'zuo' beiwanglu, p.1.

[32] See Chai's remarks in Jose Martinez, 'China's most-wanted female criminal is living quietly in Boston', The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 July 1995.

[33] Bai Meng, 'Tiananmen shenpan', Tiananmen, 1995:1, June, pp.7, 10 & 11.

[34] Ye Ren, 'Haiwai minyun tiaobuchu gongchan moshi', Jiushi niandai yuekan, 1995:7, p.88; translated by Carma Hinton.

[37] Zheng Yi, 'Wei Chai Ling bianhu', Tiananmen, 1995:1, June, p.30.

[36] Ibid., p.37.

[37] From the lead denunciation of the film by a commentator for the People's Daily. See 'Edude yongxin, beiliede shoufa—pipan Andongniaoni paishede tiwei "Zhongguo" de fanhua yingpian', Hongqi zazhi, 1974:2, p.76.