Barbarians at the Gate

Barbarians at the Gate

Elegy for the Eighties

June 06, 2021

In this episode (taped on the eve of June 4th), Jeremiah and David examine the zeitgeist of China in the 1980s through the lens of the historic 1988 documentary River Elegy《河殇》. The six-part documentary was a scathing critique of Chinese traditional culture and political philosophy, portraying hallowed icons such as the Great Wall and the Yellow River as morally repugnant symbols of barbarism and cultural self-deception. The TV series also touched upon previously taboo topics such as Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The documentary was highly controversial at the time yet was widely disseminated in State media such as the People's Daily, giving rise to an astonishingly frank public debate about the fate of China and the need for economic and political liberalization. The documentary was banned after 1989 but remains a cultural time capsule of the decade's relatively open political discourse. The podcast discussion examines the contentious intellectual currents of the 1980s and poses some counterfactual questions about how China's reforms might have progressed if the free-thinking trajectory of River Elegy had continued to exert an influence.

Link to a segment of River Elegy on YouTube

Moser, David, "Thoughts on River Elegy, June 1988-June 2011" (2011). The China Beat Blog Archive 2008-2012. 904.