China: 24th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square!

Dear Commons Community,

Those of us old enough to remember the uprisings in Tiananmen Square in Beijing twenty-four years ago, recall that they signaled a significant change in how China interacted with the rest of the world.  On this anniversary, I draw your attention to a colleague of mine from The College of Staten Island, Ying Zhu.   We were together a week ago on Memorial Day, and she mentioned an op-ed piece that she was invited to write for the Wall Street Journal:

Essentially she compares China in the late 1980s and the late 2000s through two Chinese film documentaries.  The first was “River Elegy,” an iconic six-part TV documentary series denouncing Chinese tradition as the cause of a repressive party orthodoxy that ran on China Central Television in 1988. The second film was “iMirror,” a less well-known but still striking 30-minute experimental video produced at the height of China’s economic boom in 2007.

As she commented in the op-ed piece which was published yesterday:

“River Elegy” captured and indeed amplified a nation in crisis, transforming an intellectual debate into a public one. Sympathetic toward the 1986 student demonstrations, it called for the party to establish a regular dialogue with the public to address concerns about corruption, inflation and government mismanagement. Amidst the rising popularity of “River,” the party hard-liners quickly rallied to denounce it as unpatriotic and counterrevolutionary. Ironically, while bashing Chinese tradition, “River” actually registered an acute sense of Chinese patriotism. Director Xia Jun considered himself foremost a patriot—to assail China’s past, he argued, was to reshape and improve its future. The film embodied a cultural utilitarianism that aimed to jolt China into becoming a powerful nation…

Appropriately, the world of “iMirror” is parasitic, hatched on the back of the computer-generated environment of Second Life, which allows users act out their social fantasies through virtual avatars. In the film, the Beijing-based young Chinese artist Cao Fei plays herself and documents the virtual world her avatar inhabits. It is a lonely world devoid of originality and imagination, filled with dollar signs and luxurious resorts juxtaposed with landfills and industrial pollution. One segment documents her encounter with the avatar of a San Francisco-based hippy leftist in his mid-60s in real life.  In “iMirror,” stock art-film tropes involving money, sex and identity are accentuated by wistful music with numb, mechanic beats. The cyber-existence affords no genuine discovery, or escape. Unlike “River Elegy,” “iMirror” captures the crisis of individuals rather than a nation. The grand narrative of nation building is replaced here with introspective musing over personal loss and alienation. Trapped in its own narcissism symptomatic of a generation adrift, the existential crisis captured in “iMirror” is not specifically Chinese. The longing for a more fulfilling and meaningful existence is undoubtedly universal, albeit predicated on material comfort.”

Ying’s insights are must reading for anyone interested in China then and now.



One comment

  1. Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular article! It is the little changes that will make the biggest changes. Thanks for sharing!