by Geremie R. Barmé*

Every policy shift in recent Chinese history has involved the rehabilitation, re-evaluation and revision of history and historical figures.

The early stages of the Cultural Revolution were preoccupied with questions of political rehabilitation, (1) and even in the years following the Cultural Revolution political rehabilitation similarly affected virtually every aspect of society. Not only were older cadres who had been purged or unaligned during the Cultural Revolution gradually restored to power or posthumously honoured, but entire historical epochs, figures, and even cultural forms, themes and styles were 'rehabilitated'.

From the late 1970s onward the Chinese leadership spoke of its work of righting past wrongs as 'bringing order out of chaos and returning to the rectitude (of the past)' ( boluan fanzheng ). (2) This was also described as 'giving things back their original appearance' or 'turning an inverted history on its head'. The rehabilitation process that began in the early 1970s and continued until the early 1980s (3) together with the 1981 Party resolution on history formed a theoretical and practical background to the reform policies of the 1980s.

From the start, however, Deng Xiaoping and his fellows were concerned that the nation 'unite as one and look to the future'. They wished to avoid entanglement in historical minutiae and the settling of old scores. The Party therefore attempted to define the parameters of rehabilitation and debate rather than let the momentum of public, intellectual and academic pressure lead where they might, as was to happen, for example, in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. In this context Deng Xiaoping's speech at the closing session of the month-long work meeting held in preparation for the Third Plenum of the 11th Congress of the CPC in December 1978 is of particular importance. The title of the speech itself was an indication of its basic tenor: 'Liberate Thinking, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite and Look to the Future'. (4)

Deng emphasized among other things that 'resolving questions left over from the past, clarifying the achievements and errors of certain people and correcting a number of major unfair, incorrect and false cases is essential for the liberation of thought as well as for stability and unity'. (5) Here the utilitarian dimension of the policy of rehabilitation is quite obvious. Deng also stole a march on his critics inside and outside the Party. He did this by emphasizing that the entire leadership and not Mao Zedong alone had to take responsibility for the errors of the 1950s and 1960s. (6)

One of the chief problems that the Chinese have had in coming to grips with the problem of Mao is that, unlike in the Soviet Union, there is no Stalin-Lenin dichotomy. Instead, a distinction is made between the early and late Mao. Deng's strategy, moreover, has been to create a collective body of 'Mao Zedong Thought' from which all unwanted theories can be excluded and into which any number of revisionist policies can be incorporated. As he stated in 1980, 'The banner of Mao Zedong Thought can never be discarded. To throw it away would be nothing less than to negate the glorious history of our Party... It would be ill-advised to say too much about Comrade Mao Zedong's errors. To say too much would be to blacken Comrade Mao, and that would blacken the country itself. That would go against history'. (7)

Since expediency and the immediate need for 'unity and stability' were the key motivations behind the late 1970s' Party revision of history, Deng stressed that 'it is impossible and unnecessary for [these questions] to be resolved to our complete satisfaction. We must consider the broader issues, we can afford to be sketchy; it's impossible to clear up every little detail, and unnecessary'.(8) Setting the basic line on the evaluation of both Mao and the Cultural Revolution, he made it quite clear that 'Mao Zedong Thought will eternally be our ... most precious spiritual heritage'. (9) With such words, he avoided a repetition of the kind of political and ideological suicide committed by Khruschev when he launched his denunciation of Stalin. (10)

Developments in the Soviet Union have had a crucial impact on Chinese attitudes towards history. As Wen Yuankai, a leading Chinese thinker, said in January 1989:

The bold measures which Gorbachev has taken since assuming office have had an extremely profound and subtle effect on China. Nearly all the reforming socialist nations are presently re-examining their own histories, including the great Stalinist purges. Every day new details are revealed, not only in the Soviet Union but in other countries as well, including China. This has made China reflect deeply on its own past. (11)

However, whereas Stalin and his henchmen are now readily used to personify evil in popular Soviet thought and culture, from the mid-1980s there has been a revival of the Mao Zedong cult in China. In addition to mass-released cassettes with fresh recordings of Cultural Revolution songs in praise of Mao and the mass-produced, laminated portraits that went on sale starting in 1991, the most substantial expression of the revival has been in publishing, with numerous books on Mao authored by everyone from his last concubine (Zhang Yufeng) to his bodyguard (Li Yinqiao). Liu Yazhou's book of 1990 The Square - Altar for an Idol , altogether is sympathetic to Mao, depicting a great leader who finds that his people have failed him as much as he has failed them. (12) So, too, have the controversial reportage writers Jia Lusheng and Su Ya produced a remarkably obsequious and purple prose-laden 'study' of the Mao cult. (13)

Rather than allow the momentum built up during the rehabilitation process of the late 1970s to get out of hand, in 1981 Party leaders had ordered the writing of a new and supposedly final verdict on post-1949 historical questions that, theoretically, would end all debate on contentious major issues and ensure 'unity for the future'. (For an alternative perspective on this, see Suzanne Weigelin-Schweidrzik's chapter.) Hu Qiaomu, who had played a major role in the composition of the 1945 resolution describing the history of the Party from 1921 onward as a 'history of Mao Zedong' (14) - a resolution crucial in forming the basis of the Mao-cult from the 1950s - was assigned to oversee the writing of the 1981 resolution. Thus one of the leading and earliest architects of the Party's ideological mythology was put in charge of historical interpretation once more. (In the late 1990s, Hu led a group assigned to write the official history of the Party, while Deng Liqun, Hu's chief assistant in this project and a man who came to prominence as an underling of Chen Boda during the purge of Wang Shiwei in 1942, oversaw the composition of the first history of the People's Republic.) (15) The 1981 Party document gave what was intended to be the final word on Mao Zedong's errors, the nature of the political purges of the 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution. It would provide the theoretical basis for the 1987 purge of 'bourgeois liberalization' as well as the Party's interpretation of the events of 1989 and the justification for the post-Massacre purge.

The official limits imposed on the discussion of post-1949 history ran into opposition from the very outset. One of the first public objections came from the Shanghai-based veteran writer Ba Jin, who, in essays written in 1978-79, had appealed repeatedly for the 'right to remember'. (16) Despite the care taken by the leadership and Party ideologues, the official view of the Cultural Revolution as an historical 'blank spot' ( kongbai ), the call to 'liberate thought', the official stress on practice being the sole criterion of truth and particularly the 1981 document, all contributed in varying degrees to the creation of new ideological spaces in which writers and historian could pursue their work. In the late 1970s, the historian Li Shu, as the new editor of the major specialist journal Historical Research (Lishi yanjiu), called for a re-evaluation of major historical questions, as did the Party theoretician Li Honglin, who in 1978 demanded a lifting of taboos on Party history.

However, while their work was highly significant, academic historians were not publicly prominent in the 1980s. They produced important revelations on such subjects as the Chinese Trotskyites, the Cultural Revolution, and the Anti-Rightist Movement as well as on numerous other periods and incidents in the Party's history, material which has continued to appear in specialist journals, even since the June 1989 purge. But novelists, journalists and a few academics writing for the press, television or commercial publishers - despite what is often a more sensationalist or less rigorous approach - have had a more marked effect on the changing historical consciousness of the general population.

By the early to mid-1980s, pressure for further political rehabilitations reaching back to the 1950s and even earlier (first of Hu Feng, then Yu Pingbo, and later of the film 'The Life of Wu Xun' and Hu Shi) was threatening the legitimacy of the Party's entire post-1949 political and cultural line. Hu Yaobang, then Party General Secretary, advocated new cultural and political policies, allowing a higher degree of historical re-assessment than any other leader at the time. His stance can be interpreted either as a direct challenge to the Party's line on history as outlined in 1981, or as the inevitable outcome of the extraordinarily contradictory elements of the Party's new 'liberal Maoist' ideology. In 1986, Hu Qili, on behalf of Hu Yaobang, suggested a re-assessment of all the Party's major intellectual and cultural purges beginning with the 1940s (the denunciation of Wang Shiwei in Yan'an being a case in point). (18) When Hu Yaobang was later attacked for being indulgent toward 'bourgeois liberalization' and removed from office, his attitudes towards Party history and culture were among his crimes. It was the intellectual atmosphere he had helped create that resulted in the appearance of many of the works discussed below.

Having noted this, it should not be forgotten that Hu Yaobang also had had a key part in drafting the 1981 resolution on Party history and that in 1980 he had overseen the first (albeit mild) purge of the cultural world of the reform era, which included criticism of several popular works dealing with the Cultural Revolution. And despite his willingness in 1985 to confront the cases of Wang Shiwei and others, in 1986 he issued a directive warning that the depiction of historical events and figures in literary works must accord with Party policy: 'These are not questions of artistic license, but issues of political import and rectitude'. (19)

The years 1985-88 were, nonetheless, something of a watershed in terms of media representations of history due in part to Hu Yaobang's pronouncements and the appointment in late 1985 of Zhu Houze as head of the Party's organs of propaganda. But if such political moves were opening up the past to political re-interpretation, economic reform opened up history to commercial exploitation as well.

One of the key catalysts of intellectual and cultural diversity in China from the early 1980s onwards was provided by the partial reform of the publishing industry. Encouraged to turn a profit, during each period of relative ideological relaxation publishers have learned that controversy and sensation sell books. Having been force-fed a unitary view of history for so long, many people had developed an insatiable appetite for alternative perspectives of any kind, no matter how ludicrous or fictional. This helped foster the boom in reportage and historical writing discussed below, as well as encouraging writers of serious literature to look into the hidden corners of pre-1949 history. Tabloids and monthly pulp magazines, meanwhile, have found the publication of historical revelations and scandal most profitable.
The ideological backlash of the post-Tiananmen period provided those who had been involved in prosecuting earlier purges with a convenient excuse to oppose further historiographical license. (20) The prospect of continued rehabilitations and re-evaluation of 1950s history posed a direct threat to leaders still in power who had participated in the past persecutions (including Deng himself, active in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957).

So long as publishers must show a profit, however, controversial publications get produced, and the impact of such books can be massive. The official indexes of books banned after June 4 were carefully guarded so they would not fall into the hands of publishing entrepreneurs, as the government well knew that the temptation to produce pirate editions would be tremendous. Reading banned books traditionally is a popular form of opposing authority: in traditional China one of the great pleasures for a scholar-gentleman was described as 'shutting one's door, turning away guests and reading banned books' ( bimen xieke du jinshu ). Whatever the wishes of Party elders, revisionist writings on history continue to see the light of day.


In the post-Mao era, the first popular vehicle for historical re-awakening was the short story. Starting in 1978 a series of stories appeared dealing with the sufferings of individuals during the Cultural Revolution. They were called 'scar literature' or 'literature of the wounded' ( shanghen wenxue ). (21) There were also fleeting attempts in poetry and theatre directly to address problems created by the Mao personality cult. The most noteworthy example of such poetry is Sichuan poet Sun Jingxuan's 1980 'A Spectre Prowls Our Land', which equates Mao and feudalism. (22) The harsh criticisms to which Sun was subjected may have discouraged others from producing further works on this theme. The army poet and playwright Bai Hua's early Eighties play about the ancient kings of Wu and Yoe is another example. (Bai Hua is best known for his screenplay 'Unrequited Love', which was denounced by Deng Xiaoping in March 1981. 'Unrequited Love' has, as a subtext, an attack on Mao, and pointedly ends with a symbolic setting sun.) (23) The suppression of attempts to deal, in fiction and other ways, with the historical problem of Mao set the stage in the late 1980s for a popular revival of the Mao cult.

In late 1985, following a seminar on new research options for modern literary studies, a group of Beijing University academics began re-evaluating 20th-century Chinese literature. (24) They were building on the considerable work done in collecting, collating and publishing research materials in literary history from the early 1980s.

Ironically, it was the Party's invalidation of previous 'ultra-leftist' policies that not only provided researchers and writers the leeway to rewrite history in favour of the new dispensation, but to create new histories and styles of historical narrative as well. Younger scholars trained from the late 1970s onwards as well as middle-aged academics were the chief beneficiaries of the nascent pluralism, but it was not until mid-1988 that a concerted broad-based re-assessment of modern literature and the Party's literary canon began.

The new historiographical movement was launched from Shanghai. Shanghai wenlun , the arts journal of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, published a series of articles beginning in August 1988, under the general title of 'Rewriting Literary History'. Edited by Mao Shian and the academics Chen Xihe and Wang Xiaoming, this series attempted a systematic critique of contemporary Chinese literature that questioned the cornerstones of the Party's literary canon. Chen remarked in the introduction to the series, which ran until late 1989:

The aim of this section is to enliven literary criticism and to make an assault on the virtually immutable conclusions of our literary history. In the process it is also our hope to whet the reader's appetite for reconsidering the past. Of course, our aim is to have an impact on the present. (25)

From the mid-Eighties, individual critics like Liu Xiaobo in Beijing and Li Jie in Shanghai undertook independent analyses of literary history and the predicament of contemporary culture. For a while, Liu became a significant public figure, his views widely disseminated among university students. Li Jie was less of a firebrand. (26) Another academic, Xia Zhongyi, kept a low profile but launched one of the most controversial attacks to date on Maoist literary theory, particularly as expressed at the Yan'an forum in 1942. (27)

In terms of elite literature, writers of the 'roots' ( xungen ) fiction of the mid-1980s can be seen as attempting to find an historical context and narrative for China's present state. From 1986 onwards many other novelists, including practitioners of the Chinese 'avant-garde' styles, also gradually developed an interest in historical themes. This has produced a rich body of works set in the Republican period, leading writers of such fiction being Su Tong, Ye Zhaoyan and Zhou Meisen. (28)

In early 1991, the Henan writer Liu Zhenyun published a novel which depicted the national character and tradition in a far more directly negative light than anyone else had to date. Liu's Yellow Flowers (29) opens in the early Republican period. It follows the internecine strife of a village near Kaifeng all the way into the early 1980s. It is a tale of personal alliances, betrayals, violence and mayhem woven into a 'meta-discourse' of early Republican politics, the anti-Japanese war, the strife between the Nationalists (KMT) and Communists and then the political struggles of post-1949 China. Published in the Nanjing literary journal Zhongshan as a prime example of 'new realism', Yellow Flowers goes beyond the pedestrian paradigms of the Anti-Japanese War, land reform and Cultural Revolution literature and deals instead with the group psychology of one village throughout seven decades of its history. (30) The result is both mordant and 'hyper-real'; it presents a historical landscape encompassing both gloom and humour that goes beyond the obstinately harrowing fictions of writers like Zhang Xianliang and Cong Weixi.

In terms of popular literature, however, the greatest commodification of history occurs in the pages of weekly tabloids and best-selling books about Cultural Revolution and Republican period scandals.

'Faction' and Mass Media Historians

The term 'mass media historian' is used by Stephen Wheatcroft to denote the journalist-historians, film-maker-historians and ideologues who helped awaken popular awareness of historical issues and whose works also gave an important thrust to the development of independent historiography in the Soviet Union in the mid- to late-1980s. (31)

Similarly, 'mass media historians' have played a crucially important role in China since the late 1970s. From the mid- to late-1980s, writers like Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang, Dai Qing, Zhao Yu, Li Rui, Ye Yonglie, Quan Yanchi, Liu Yazhou, Yan Jiaqi, Gao Gao and many others have had a considerable popular impact. The works of many of these writers were subsequently banned, but this was more because of their activities in 1989 than inherent problems in their earlier writings.

These 'mass media historians' created a semi-official and at times even unofficial forum for the airing of controversial questions. While some have merely added footnotes to official history, or created wildly colourful fictional accounts of certain figures, periods and incidents, others have been involved in the creation of a 'parallel history' to that presented by the Party.

Here the term faction [factual fiction] is used as an equivalent of the Chinese term jishi wenxue which includes reportage (a generally heavily value-laden genre), biography, memoirs, special reports as well as new journalism. (32) The 'scar literature' and 'in memoriam literature' ( aisi wenxue ) of the late 1970s was, to a great extent, the precursor of certain styles of faction. (33) From 1985 onwards, faction, especially what was known as 'problem literature' ( wenti baogao wenxue ) and 'factual literature,' ( jishi wenxue ), was increasingly directed at the mass audience. As the Shanghai critic Wu Liang Put it, it satisfied the readers' natural curiosity and voyeurism in a way that serious literature or even pap novels never could. (34)

From the mid-1980s, of the two traditional strands of reportage in China - the social critique and the paean to socialism - the critical achieved a new popularity. (35) This was widely seen as an outcome of the increasing pressure within the society as a whole and among professionals in particular for greater freedom of the press: a desire for more untainted information about both historical and contemporary social questions. The repeated attacks on reportage writer Liu Binyan, and particularly his expulsion from the Party in early 1987 and subsequent attacks on his work, certainly would have encouraged more cautious writers to look for material which was topical yet sufficiently removed from sensitive political issues to ensure safe passage to publication. Younger writers, ranging in age from their twenties to forties, had fewer concerns for political propriety. They were less hesitant to reopen old debates or to discuss historical events and personalities from new angles, They have been motivated by a temptation to achieve fame through sensation as well as a desire to learn more about the past in order to come to grips with contemporary social and political reality.

Throughout 1986, the twentieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, numerous works on the 'ten years of chaos' were published, ushering in the first solid wave of Cultural Revolution nostalgia and also adumbrating the popularity of a new style of faction, historical journalism ( lishi jishi ).

During the Spring Festival of 1986, the official televised Spring Festival variety extravaganza featured arias from Beijing Revolutionary Operas of the Cultural Revolution era. Tapes of disco versions of the operas first produced in 1985, were sold nationwide. Similarly, fictionalized accounts of Cultural Revolution events became a minor industry. In 1985, Suo Guoxin, an army writer, published a popular trend-setter of this type, Seventy-eight Days in 1967 - A Record of the 'February Countercurrent'. (36) (Not a re-assessment of history, Suo's book followed closely the official evaluation of the 'February Countercurrent'.) (37)

'Yibairende shinian' (One Hundred Peoples' Ten Years), edited by Feng Jicai and published in major literary journals such as Shiyue and Wenhui yuekan , belongs to the so-called 'veritable record of oral statements' ( koushu shilu or jishi ) type of reportage popularized in China by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye in 1984 in their Studs Terkel-style 'Beijing ren' (Chinese Lives). (38) This form of oral history has been known in China for many years, and was used to record histories of families, factories, army units, and so on after 1949, with the purpose of illuminating the pain and suffering of the 'bad old days' before the revolution. In his work, Feng Jicai kept well within this tradition by adding at the conclusion of every account a moral aphorism, transforming them into a series of cautionary tales. (39)

Further publication of Feng's series was effectively stalled until 1989 by a Central Committee document issued by the Shanghai Publication Bureau on 18 October 1986, in compliance with a directive from the State Publication Bureau in Beijing which stated that all manuscripts dealing with the Cultural Revolution, sex and the Anti-Rightist Movement had to be submitted to the Bureau for approval before publication. This was taken to be equivalent to a ban, for it was understood that any manuscripts submitted would be confiscated. Naturally, none were sent to Beijing; and none were published for a time. (40)

Mud-raking vis-à-vis the past is not always a controversial task, though, and many clever writers have exploited Cultural Revolution materials for their own political and economic profit. For example during the summer months of 1986, before the above ban was supposed to take effect (not that it ever really did) Hu Yuewei and Ye Yonglie, two of the most prominent writers of such pulp history, published new works. (41) Their writings, while often quite sensational in tone, and allowing considerable license when it comes to reproducing the conversations and private thoughts of their protagonists, nonetheless keep well within the parameters of the politically acceptable.

This loose style of pop history is not limited to unabashed hacks like Hu and Ye: even the much-vaunted history of the period, Gao Gao and Yan Jiaqi's The Ten Year 'Cultural Revolution' suffers from such flaws. (42) It should be noted, however, that this book is not merely another pop history. It served definite functions within the context of the contemporary debates concerning political reform. Many similar works that 'used the past to serve the present' were produced by liberal- or reform-minded intellectuals around this time. An example is Ten Years of Unjust Cases published in December 1986, a volume of essays covering cases of unjust imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution produced by the Ministry of Public Security publishing house with a foreword by Yu Haocheng, a leading advocate of legal reform. (43) The editors explained that the volume was produced to show the need for the rule of law and the protection of individual rights.

One of the first notable examples of a new strain of writing about the past, historical reportage ( lishi jishi ), was the Liberation Daily reporter Qian Gang's 'The Great Tangshan Earthquake' (Tangshan da dizhen), written for the tenth anniversary of the disaster in 1986. Using masses of documentary material and interviews, it attempted to go beyond superficial reporting to inform the reader not only what had happened and its political shock waves but also to point out its contemporary relevance. Also important and highly influential was Hu Ping and Zhang Shengyou's account of the tragic Red Guard link-up on Jinggang Mountain. (44)

Similarly significant was Ta Ying's 'Report on the War Prisoners of the Volunteer Army' (Zhiyuanjun zhanfu jishi), which revealed the previously unknown fates of Chinese soldiers on special missions who were taken prisoner in the Korean War and re-evaluated those involved. Such writing 'used history to see people afresh, to establish a new standard for judging people'. By discussing the fate of the prisoners it allowed readers to use the information to make their own assessment not only of the incidents depicted but the nature of China's socialist revolution and the relevance of the past to the present. (45) Zhao Yu's 'Dreams of Greatness' (Qiangguo meng) and Li Rui's 'The Deep Earth' (Houtu) (46) are both examples of works that dealt with unchanging traditions, the historical roots of present problems, and the national character.

Such themes are particularly evident in the work of the journalist Dai Qing. Her research into the cases of Wang Shiwei and Chu Anping became part of a personal quest not only to investigate major historical incidents, but also to reveal how the Party systematically wiped out alternative schools of thought through its purges of intellectuals. (47)

Faction is generally regarded as having reached something of an apogee in 1988-89. (48) Zhang Shengyou, a leading writer of reportage for the Guangming Daily , remarked in March 1989 that Su Xiaokang's historical works (in particular his On the Altar of 'Utopia' - Lushan in the Summer of 1959) (49) comprised only a start: 'There is no way we can build a modern structure on the ruins of old ideology. We have to be like Gorbachev and engage in a large-scale reconsideration of history'. (50) He noted that the success of 'River Elegy' had prompted television stations to employ reportage writers to script new series. He thought this new mass medium held out great promise for historical investigations. In 1992, Zhang himself showed how reportage writers could also turn their talents to showing up the old ideology by scripting the sycophantic pro-Reform TV series 'Ten-year Tide' (Shinian chao). (51)

The Soviet writer Anatoli Rybakov's novel Children of the Arbat (published in 1987), about the Stalin era, was quickly introduced into China with excerpts, reviews and commentaries appearing in the literary press from early 1989. (52) In a comment on Children of the Arbat , Natalya Rubenshtein had remarked:

The revision of the past is a diverting pastime, but it has left the leaders and heroes of Soviet society naked. Ever since Herzen and Chernyshevsky the Russian novel has eagerly absorbed the social pamphlet and the sociological tract, bearing on its covers the evergreen questions 'Who is guilty?' and 'What is to be done?' These questions are still on the agenda today. But another question has been added to them: 'Was there another way?' In other words, was it inevitable that the dictatorship of the proletariat should have turned into a dictatorship of murderers? Was there, in history, another path which remained unused? The answer to this theoretical question has a practical significance. For on it depends the moral force - and staying power - of the present leaders' mandate. (53)

This is precisely the direction the writings of Dai Qing, Su Xiaokang and other relatively independent authors of 'historical investigative journalism' were taking in the late 1980s. As to the reason for the popularity of such writing, perhaps Rubenshtein's observation on Rybakov's marked success in the Soviet Union is relevant: 'he does give his readers a feeling of self-importance, by conducting serious conversations with them on society and history'. It can be argued that this is one of the reasons why Chinese writers like Liu Binyan, Su Xiaokang and even Cong Weixi, an author of 'prison reportage', and Zhang Zhenglong more recently (54) have achieved such extraordinary popularity. They have used the medium of popular - even purple - historical prose or investigative journalism to discuss issues of general interest and relevance in a language and style that can be tolerated, even sanctioned by the Party. They go a long way toward satisfying a popular appetite that remains unsatisfied by official communiqués.

Movies and Television Documentaries

Cinema was increasingly used in the last years of the Cultural Revolution to reflect the political policies of the day with considerable speed. In the mid-Seventies, films like Chunmiao (Spring Seedlings) and Fanji (Counterattack) had been prominent examples of radical Cultural Revolution policy and the fictional justification of it, while others, like Chuangye (Pioneering), had been identified with the Zhou Enlai-Deng Xiaoping camp.

A hiatus in film production after Mao's death was soon followed by the production of cinematic works reflecting the new policies, including that of political rehabilitation itself. The most obvious examples include Xie Jin's 1979 Tianyunshan chuanqi (The Tale of Tianyun Mountain) and Yang Yanjin's Kunaorende xiao (Troubled Laughter). Another sub-genre of rehabilitation cinema that received massive state funding were the films extolling 'revolutionary historical themes' ( geming lishi ticai ), consisting predominantly of tedious studies of the valour and achievements of Dead Revolutionary Males (DREMS) such as He Long, Chen Yi and other victims of the Cultural Revolution. (55) Even such products of a relatively strict Party line, however, revealed the contradictions, follies and tragedies created in the past by Party excesses and errors. While the aim of such cinema was, in the words of one critic, to 'revive the tradition of revolutionary realism and give history back its original mien', (56) it tended to further undermine the Party's monopoly over the past. The focus of such films remained educational and propagandistic but the tales they told, no matter how overwritten in favour of the status quo, could not help but warn audiences against putting too much faith in the Party and its evanescent policies. The more recent spate of revolutionary historical epics made between 1989-92 - ranging from the pro-Deng hagio-pic Bose qiyi (The Bo'se Rebellion) to a plethora of Mao movies - reflect a more deliberate policy of simply extolling leaders past and present, expurgating from the record as far as possible the irksome inconsistencies of historical fact.

A number of the earliest films of the 'fifth generation' directors who ushered in a new trend in Chinese cinema cast their stories in the historical past of the Party. This is true, for example, of Zhang Junzhao's Yige he bage (One and Eight) and Chen Kaige's Huang tudi (Yellow Earth), films that caused considerable controversy by reinterpreting elements of what can be called the Party's 'creation myth' of the Anti-Japanese War period and the Communist base in Yan'an. But they were not the only ones to engage in this project. At times changes in official policy have necessitated a recasting of history in ways that have had a mass impact.

Following the increasingly conciliatory line towards the KMT government in Taiwan during the mid-80s, films and publications were produced that gave a fuller picture of the Anti-Japanese War . Taierzhuang zhi zhan (The Battle of Taierzhuang) made in 1986 is an example. One of the most costly war epics made in China to date, it cast the KMT army in a positive, even heroic light in its battle with the Japanese. Prior to this, although specialist historical materials had gradually acknowledged that the Communists did not prosecute and win the war against Japan single-handedly, this was a watershed in terms of the mass media. Thus, although the film was part of a new propaganda strategy towards Taiwan it led the public to reconsider central elements of the party's history, and one of the cornerstones of the Party's claim to historical legitimacy, in a new light - with unpredictable consequences.

The fate of films that attempted a re-evaluation of history before the party was ready for it can be seen in the 1985 ban against Wu Ziniu's Gezishu (The Dove Tree). An anti-war film based on the Sino-Vietnam conflict of 1979, it reportedly deals sympathetically with the enemy. Production was stopped during filming. By the early 1990s, China's renewed friendship with Vietnam, on the other hand, forced one aspiring film-maker to cancel plans for an epic film portraying the Vietnamese in a negative light.

Many other films, particularly those dealing with the Japanese, have suffered from similar shifts in foreign policy. This is also true of documentary films; TV documentaries in 1985 of Japanese war atrocities, in particular the Nanjing Massacre, to some extent fired the first anti-government student protests of that time (the protests were initially aimed at Japan's 'new [economic] invasion' of China).

A number of Soviet films played a considerable role in popularizing historical debate from the mid-80s. Of these, the most often mentioned is Tengiz Abuladze's Repentance . A thinly veiled critique of Stalin, it had created a sensation in the Soviet Union. Chinese commentators were particularly interested in the fact that the film went beyond earlier works to delve 'deeply into the psychological make-up of the national culture so as to reveal the causes of the historical phenomenon of the personality cult.' (57)

The discussion of historical themes and the nature of the Chinese national character ( guominxing ) became a central feature of TV documentaries in the late 1980s. In 1988, 'Heshang' (River Elegy), a six-part documentary, exploited the medium of television to present its own highly controversial view of Chinese history and its contemporary relevance. Seen by a number of critics as a natural corollary to the style of reportage and faction that had become increasingly popular since 1985, (58) 'River Elegy' also introduced to a mass audience some of the most unorthodox debates of the cloistered academy. This marriage of mass media and pop scholarship had an immense impact throughout China. Although the series was virulently denounced after June 4 1989, and its writers variously purged, detained or forced into exile, it has led to many imitations which in turn reflect a number of political and intellectual agendas.

The two most noteworthy post-1989 TV history documentaries are 'On the Road', screened in August 1990 and the final episode of 'Tiananmen', banned in early 1991. 'On the Road' (Shijixing - sixiang jiben yuanze zonghengtan) was produced by the Ministry of Propaganda as an obvious riposte to 'River Elegy'. The ideologue Deng Liqun acted as the series' general adviser. (59) One of the chief script writers was Qin Xiaoying, an historian and sometime 'liberal intellectual' formerly employed by the Academy of Social Sciences. Each of the four half-hour episodes highlights one of the Party's Four Basic Principles, with a commentary and images that interpret the history of the past 150 years as a process leading to inevitable socialist victory in China. The opening sequence uses a pop song over images of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping, affirming the apostolic succession within the historical enterprise of revolution. The pop star Liu Huan sings:

You are a seed of fire, igniting this slumbering land [image of Marx]
You are a prophesy, describing the path for all human ideals [cut to a picture of Lenin]
You are a banner, fluttering in the wind to face all on-coming storms [portrait of Mao]
You spoke a truth, you are a banner, having fallen and risen, but emerging victorious [Deng Xiaoping, shown bobbing up and down in the water as he does the breast stroke]. (60)

The opening sequence of the eight-part documentary 'Tiananmen', which was completed in May 1991, is radically different in both style and significance. It shows an artist retouching parts of the massive portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs on Tiananmen: a stroke to the eye, a brush to the nose, and then a caressing limning of the tell-tale mole on the chin. (Before 1 May and 1 October each year, the portrait is changed for a cleaned and retouched replica.) [See Media Library for a clip of this mole-painting scene.]

'Tiananmen' was produced and directed by the young film-makers Shi Jian and Chen Jue who work for Chinese Central Television. Using the production name of 'The Structure, Wave, Youth, Cinema Experimental Group' (61) and availing themselves of the privileges and opportunities provided by their high-profile station, Shi and Chen spent some three years working on the project. 'Remembering Things Past' (Wangshi), the eighth and final episode of the series with a narration written by an academic, Guang Yi, is the most important in the context of 'using the past to serve the present'.

The episode is a meditation on the history of Beijing in the 20th Century, the subtext of which is a 'reflexive comment' on the events of 1989 by indirect reference to earlier historical events, dates and personalities. Following the official rewriting of the 1989 Protest Movement and the production of a plethora of books, articles and telespecials on 'the true mien' ( zhenxiang ) of what happened, it is easy for any alternative historical work to draw disquieting parallels between the past and the present, The narrator notes:

This is a city that has inherited numerous written documents and oral tales from its past, No matter how people today wish to judge it all, the moment the gates of memory are opened, life, history and personal fate flow forth, demanding attention... History, like life itself, can be savoured.

When he lived in Beijing, Lu Xun commented on the Twenty Four Dynastic Histories: 'History records the soul of China, pointing out the future. Yet because it is overwritten and laden with rubbish, it is hard to see what is actually there. Like the moonlight seen reflected on moss through the leaves of a tree, all you can make out are shifting shadows'. (62)

The episode plays on the symbol and significance of May Fourth, the seventieth anniversary of which came in 1989. Images of the original patriotic movement are followed immediately by a commentary on its legacy and the December 9 Movement of 1935. (It should be recalled here that the first patriotic anti-government student demonstrations in the People's Republic occurred in 1985 as a commemoration of this movement). Film and photographic images of the police crushing the 1935 movement have a particularly strong resonance for those who experienced 4 June 1989:

May 4, 1919: This is a date that has left a mark on modern Chinese history.

December 9, 1935: This is another. Yu Xiu, a participant in the 9 December demonstrations recalled many years later: 'It was the middle of winter, and the streets were particularly cold that morning. The trams rattled past, as if to emphasize how empty the streets were... Suddenly from an alley near Gangwashi, a phalanx of students appeared. Waving their arms they shouted: 'Down with Japanese Imperialism! ' 'Oppose Special Treatment for North China!' 'Stop the civil war, unite against Japan!' Then they sang the 'Song of the Volunteers'. This broke the morning silence of Xidan'.

There are detailed written records, but the pictorial images we have are incomplete, making it hard to reconstruct the actual events of the day. The students proceeded to Xinhua Gate to present a petition. The authorities' response was unconvincing. Yu Xiu records: 'The leaders of the Beiping Student Union declared an end to the petitioning and called for demonstration to begin. The students joined ranks behind their school flags. With written slogans leading the way they marched away from Xinhua Gate along the Avenue of Eternal Peace. They were blocked by armed police near Liubukou. When they forced their way through some students were beaten or hacked to death by bayonets. There was an uproar and the shouting of slogans could be heard from all quarters. A fire engine appeared and water cannon were aimed at the amassed students. They were dispersed for a time, but they soon regrouped and proceeded. Although their ranks had been broken, the demonstrators continued, arms linked'. It is a grim recollection, and the images are unclear. Yet the sensations and the details they present are undeniable... A new tradition was born, one that belongs to the young. Theirs is the voice of China's modern history.

This episode is studded with self-important yet powerful comments
on the role of history. For example, a little further on comes the remark:

Recollection is painful. But for the living, forgetfulness is more fearsome. These images and comments are all true. They are a harsh reality, one that lives on through the scattered remnants of passing time.

The episode ends with a few words about Tiananmen Square, the camera moving slowly over the heavily-scuffed paving stones ... stones also marked by the frantic wheeling of the tanks when they occupied the area and crushed tents on the morning of 4 June. The sequence following this shows a woman walking out of Tiananmen amidst a crowd of people. The commentary scrolls slowly over the last sepia-tinted shots:

Sometimes the pace of history is rapid, at other times it is painfully slow. Regardless of this, with time the meaning of the past gradually gains clarity.

It is impossible to say just how many people have walked over the stones of the square since they were first laid. If you have walked here, or if you return, stop and meditate for a moment. Many things from years past will gradually take shape in your mind's eye...

Perhaps you will hear the events of a distant past recount to you some hope, long-born, and now clearly calling out to be heard. As life needs to be heard, as the months and days need to be heard. As time itself needs to be heard, in all of its detail...

Today continues, every moment so very real.

Our present travails will also be remembered and commented on. Today too is life, a witness...

Attempts to have the series screened at the 1992 Hong Kong International Film Festival were stymied by Beijing. As mentioned, an official TV version of the events of April-June 1989, with a contrary message, was produced for repeated screening in China and also for international consumption, the Chinese authorities even attempting to get this 'documentary' aired on foreign television. This too was a form of media history, a product that would be more familiar to Winston Smith and his colleagues in 1984's Ministry of Truth than any other produced in China in recent years.

Soap Operas

The recasting of history for mass consumption is not limited to propagandistic or art-cinema documentaries. TV soap operas also weave a mythology of the past for present-day audiences, influencing historical consciousness in many ways.

The fifty-part soap opera 'Aspirations' (Kewang), televised in late 1990, follows the fate of two families from the Cultural Revolution up to the 1980s. One of the most popular series of its kind, 'Aspirations' featured the loves and tragedies of a working-class urban family. Most Chinese commentators saw its immense success as due to nostalgia for the perceived simplicity and honesty of relationships in China before the introduction of mercantile competition and money-grubbing. (63) In terms of mass perceptions of history, there are a number of other noteworthy elements in the scenario.

The Party and its intrusive organizations are virtually absent, although the series' creators are careful to make one of their positive characters a workshop supervisor (Song Dacheng) and solid Party member. In the early episodes set during the Cultural Revolution, politics is kept in the background with the merest hint coming from the (background) 'red noise' of radio editorials, street broadcasts and tattered dazibao . Political language is only used in an ironic or sarcastic fashion; no street committees or their old ladies pry into the lives of a family that literally picks up a child on the street and fails to inform any authorities that they are keeping her. Nor are there any personnel files, Party committees or security offices; and there is no mention of the endless political campaigns that, if nothing else, would have impinged on lives through propaganda blackboards, meetings and study sessions. The intellectuals suffer as a result of vaguely defined Cultural Revolution policies, but none of the massive social and political prejudice aimed against them is ever verbalized. When the intellectual father is rehabilitated it is in vague terms. While this deprives the series of veracity, it makes it politically acceptable in these sensitive days and to an extent timeless as well.

One critic noted that the creators of the series had relinquished an ideal opportunity to attempt a mass media historical reflection on history from the 1960s to the 1980s. Instead they chose to play on emotion, abandoning all but the bare bones of historical detail in favour of a sentimental plot. (64)


In June 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev said that 'if we start trying to deal with the past, we will dissipate our energy'. (65) However, by early 1987 his stance had changed, possibly as a result of the new historical consciousness fostered by the Soviet media. In February 1987, at a meeting with Soviet journalists, Gorbachev made the oft-quoted statement that 'there should be no forgotten names and blank pages [white spots] in Soviet history'. (66) Over the years the most extraordinary and wide-ranging re-evaluations of Soviet history have taken place. In China a similar process began in the late 1970s, and despite numerous political upheavals, it continues today.

The opposition to exposing and re-evaluating the past in both the former Soviet Union and China was summed up in the sentiments of the one-time Politburo member Igor Ligachev who cautioned against the past as a 'chain of errors', (67) as well as historians who saw a crucial function of history as being to inculcate 'among the younger people a sense of historical responsibility for and pride in their homeland, in its heroic history and the present day'. (68)

In China, the elders in the post-1976 Party leadership belong to the original generation of revolutionaries who founded the People's Republic. Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, Li Xiannian, Bo Yibo, Yang Shangkun, Wang Zhen, and many others were participants in the major incidents and decisions in the Party's history, both before and after 1949. The interpretation of these incidents and decisions therefore often touches on questions related to the legitimacy of Party rule today. Even when their direct personal interests are not involved in an issue of 'classical Party history' (1920s, '30s or '40s), the Party leaders often have 'filial connections' or loyalties to deceased Party elders, former superiors or friends, and these hidden connections can still hinder a more frank and complete re-evaluation.

Against these factors stand the influence of the economic reforms on the publishing and media industry, as well as the work of foreign, emigré or dissident writers and historians. Available to specialists in journals or libraries, or translated and printed in tabloids and books for the general public, the introduction of independent views has continued to spread historical pluralism.

Moreover, as observed, the need to 'woo' Taiwan has helped spur a re-evaluation of Chiang Kaishek and the Nationalist Party, in particular with regard to their role in the war against the Japanese. Some of the Communist Party's most important claims to being the sole representative of nationalism are linked to that war. Until the mid-1980s the Nationalist war effort, which was considerable, was ignored or distorted. Since then books and films in which the Nationalists are portrayed as patriotic heroes have abounded. (69) This has led to radical changes in popular perceptions of the past and therefore helped clear the way to creating a positive view of Taiwan today, and of everything the island represents: democratization, a market economy, and so on. What essentially originated in the early 1980s as a political ploy to bring the Nationalists to the negotiating table has had an unexpected and unsettling effect on the Mainland.

In preparation for the reunification of Hong Kong with the Mainland in 1997, there are indications that the Chinese authorities are going to launch a propaganda offensive that will justify in historical terms the steps they want to take with Hong Kong. In late 1990, for example, the British authorities in the territory were cautioned to be careful as to how they commemorated the ceding of Hong Kong in the 19th century, and much was made in the Mainland media of the 150th anniversary of the Opium War.

During the 1989 Protest Movement, one group of writers in Shanghai called directly for an independent right to history. In a petition in support of the students in Beijing signed on 13 May, they said:

Writers must have the freedom to analyse, explain and publish their views on all aspects of Chinese reality both historical and present, in particular political incidents. For a Party official to use his position or administrative powers to restrict or interfere with writers or deprive them of their freedom of expression or of publication is not only an abuse of power, but illegal. (70)

While the sprouts of independent historiography have appeared in China, both in specialized and public forums, the approach of most writers is still influenced by the dictum of 'using the past to serve the present'. Various schools of thought, factions and lobbies tend to see their writings in terms of how it can reflect and influence their contemporaries. It may still be some time before we see the emergence of a school of historiography - either academic or popular - devoted to 'history for history's sake'. In the meantime, most writers of popular history are consoling themselves with making a fast buck.

(from Jonathan Unger, ed., Using the Past to Serve the Present , M.E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, NY, 1993. Reproduced with permission from the author.)

*My thanks to Linda Jaivin and Jonathan Unger for their comments on this chapter.

[For full notes, see Jonathan Unger, ed., Using the Past to Serve the Present , M.E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, NY, 1993.]

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