this is the story of a film that helped change the world. It was made 13 years ago. It had an audience of 600m and its bold message was part of a chain reaction which led to one of the most publicised human rights violations of our times, the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet few people outside China have heard of it. The recent book documenting the background to the violations, The Tiananmen Papers, doesn’t mention it.
Exactly one year before the events in Beijing of June 1989, a polemical documentary was aired on Chinese television that created the greatest controversy in China’s 30-year broadcasting history. The film, called Heshang, advocated a full-scale adoption of “western ideas.”
Heshang comprised six one-hour documentaries. Each episode, made by a different film-maker, looked at an aspect of the history of the 3,400 mile long Yellow River and its impact on Chinese culture and economics. Billed as a search for a modern China and according to one of its producers, Su Xiaokang, conceived of as contemporary political commentary, the film explored the reasons why China’s economy had not kept up with those of western countries. Heshang argued that the Yellow River, “cradle of civilisation” had long imposed on Chinese culture a land-locked conformism, a uniform Confucian ideology, which isolated the country from global economics. The fifth episode (“Anxiety and Misery”) contrasted the limitations of Yellow River civilisation with the multi-ethnicity and freedom of maritime culture (the “Azure Blue” of episode six). Construction of the Great Wall, argued the film, had further isolated China.
Heshang’s methods were not those of Panorama. Instead of current affairs voiceovers and reportage, it used popular narratives in the manner of Homer or Chaucer to speak to as broad an audience as possible. Its artistic interest, according to some critics, lay in how it contrasted two systems of imagery, yellow and blue, to represent respectively China’s past and future.
The impact was extraordinary. More than half of the Chinese population saw Heshang. The broadcaster received thousands of letters of congratulation. All the national newspapers serialised its script, some on the front page. The film was understood by intellectuals, workers, students and peasants alike. Seven books were instantly written about it. Peoples’ summer camps were organised to discuss it.
But soon signs emerged that the Heshang phenomenon was ruffling feathers. After its first broadcast, it was banned in Beijing. The Propaganda…