Tiananmen Square | Chicago Reader

Tiananmen Square

Two episodes—parts one and seven—of a 1991 homage to Beijing shot by the video documentary team of Shi Jian and Chen Jue. The eight-part series supposedly angered Chinese censors, but one wonders what all the fuss was about. Like Yellow River Elegy and the BBC's Heart of Dragon, Tiananmen Square examines aspects of ordinary Chinese life, past and present, but these episodes fall short on critical insight while waxing grandiloquent over the mostly beneficial social change brought by communism. Part one, “The Old City,” opens and closes with clanging ceremonial bells and postcard shots of Beijing's five-century-old imperial palace; in between, a eunuch, siblings of the last emperor, and a renowned Peking Opera ventriloquist offer anecdotes of harsh feudal customs and express gratitude for the comforts of socialism. Part seven, “On the Way,” profiles an emerging class of urban entrepreneurs who come across as mouthpieces for market socialism, extolling hard work and reform. More remarkable is the middle-aged woman who runs an alternative bookstore and positions herself as a selfless provider of knowledge for the motherland: her enthusiastic endorsement was taped before the bloodshed on Tiananmen Square, but in the coda she appears sullen, shooing away customers at day's end. It's a symbolic gesture that matches the pessimism of Shi and Chen, who in 1990 helped found a collective to provide “truthful information” about China to the outside world.

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