River Elegy


River Elegy
[Heshang]
Television serial
River Elegy (Heshang) was a six-part television documentary series broadcast in 1988 that presented a damning critique of Chinese culture and led to heated social, intellectual and political debate about the relationship between China and the West. Reminiscent of intellectual debates of the May Fourth era earlier in the century and picking up on issues at the centre of China’s ‘Culture Fever’ of the 1980s, the programme criticized Chinese people’s submission to a feudalistic culture represented metonymically by the Yellow River and the Great Wall. The producers of the programme, a group of university intellectuals and television professionals led by scriptwriters Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, suggested through a lyrical narrative superimposed upon beautiful photography that China’s introversion over the millennia had left the country isolated and backward compared to the more ‘scientific’ West.
The programme indirectly hinted at the failure not only of Chinese culture to modernize but also of Chinese socialism to bring about such a modernization. The programme therefore inevitably drew a storm of criticism from Party traditionalists and hard-liners who questioned the historical and factual accuracy of the programme’s content as well as its negative, demeaning and unhelpful attitude. With large audiences nationwide and openly voiced support and criticism from various circles, the programme was notable in its own right. However, following the events of May and June 1989, the year after the programme was broadcast, when students led demonstrations against Party corruption and lack of democracy, it gathered an even greater significance both in China and overseas as a retrospectively identified precursor to these events.
(1992). Chinese Sociology and Anthropology 25.1 (Fall). Special issue on River Elegy.
Ma, Shu-yun (1996).
The Role of Power Struggle and Economic Changes in the “Heshang phenomenon” in China’. Modern Asian Studies 30.1 (Feb.): 29–50.
Su, X. and Wang, L. (1991). Deathsong of the River: A Reader’s Guide to the Chinese TV Series ‘Heshang’. Trans. R.W.Bodman and P.P.Wang. Ithaca: Cornell.
Wakeman, Frederic E., Jr (1989). ‘All the Rage in China’. New York Review of Books (March 2): 19–21.
Wang, Jing (1996). ‘Heshang and the Paradoxes of the Chinese Enlightenment’. In idem, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 118–36.
KEVIN LATHAM

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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