THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE:
Reviews, Commentary, and Controversy
"A tremendous job. Obviously, a lot of people can't accept the complications & prefer easy black and white renderings of history."
Arthur Miller, playwright and essayist, in a letter to Long Bow, 11/18/96
THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE premiered in October 1995 at the New York Film Festival. Since then, it has been widely and positively reviewed in magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Village Voice.
But it has also elicited responses from both the Chinese government and leading members of the Chinese exiled dissident movement that are similar in colorful and strident tone of denunciation. In the spring of 1995, even before the film was finished, Chai Ling, the young woman student leader dubbed by some the "Goddess of Democracy," and who now lives in the U.S., railed against the film. In a piece published on April 27, 1995, in the World Journal, the leading North American Chinese daily, Chai wrote:
Certain individuals have racked their brains for ways and means to gain the approval of the Chinese authorities. And a person with a pro-Communist history [i.e., Carma Hinton] has been hawking her documentary film for crass commercial gain by taking things out of context and trying to reveal something new, unreasonably turning history on its head and calling black white.
Such criticisms, mostly published in Chinese, were generally couched in highly colored political language that brooked no opposition nor allowed room for discussion. It was the wooden language typical of ideological extremism and totalitarianism. When the Chinese government began making public statements about the film in mid-1996, their criticisms were expressed in similarly fanciful terms. In a letter to the Director of Filmfest DC 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 Filmfest DC found it both unnecessary and inappropriate to satisfy this request.
For an extensive account of the controversy, see the excerpt from "Totalitarian Nostalgia" in Geremie Barmé's In The Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). This chapter in part discusses elements of the language of denunciation used by political extremists (both pro- and anti-government) in reviewing GATE.
Other available readings include:
In May 2009, student leader Feng Congde wrote an "Open Letter" to the filmmakers, alleging "false reporting and editing" in regard to the film's coverage of Chai Ling. A detailed and point-by-point refutation of Feng's charges is available on this site (see also the Chinese version); this reply was sent to Feng in July 2009.
In Hong Kong, THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE generated intense interest and played to sell-out crowds. The film was first screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1996. Additional showings began in January 1997, and continued through the July handover of Hong Kong to China.
The following articles describe the Hong Kong screenings:
There were also references to the film in more general stories about the July 1997 handover:
- Hong Kong Students Learning the ABC's of Takeover, The Washington Post (May 19, 1997)
- China's Epic Exorcism, The Guardian (June 12, 1997)
In 1998, President Bill Clinton visited China. "Among the learned volumes and fat briefing books on China piled by President Clinton's bedside to prepare him for his trip ... is a videocassette of 'The Gate of Heavenly Peace,' a gripping three-hour documentary about the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of June 1989." [Preparation Builds for Clinton's Trip to China, The New York Times (June 20, 1998).]
A second article focused on the site of the welcoming ceremonies for President Clinton, Tiananmen Square, and also featured an interview with GATE's co-director, Carma Hinton: "Square's History Goes Beyond Killings," Chicago Tribune (June 27, 1998).