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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Making the Censored Public: The 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests in Chinese Fiction and Film

  • Author(s): Chen, Thomas Chen
  • Advisor(s): McClure, Kirstie M.
  • Chi, Robert Y.
  • et al.

Initiated by Beijing college students, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—"Tiananmen"—shook all of China with their calls for democratic and social reforms. They were violently repressed by the Chinese state on June 4, 1989. Since then, their memory has been subject within the country to two kinds of censorship. First, a government campaign promulgating the official narrative of Tiananmen, while simultaneously forbidding all others, lasted into 1991. What followed was the surcease of Tiananmen propaganda and an expansion of silencing to nearly all mentions that has persisted to this day. My dissertation examines fiction and film that evoke Tiananmen from within mainland China and Hong Kong. It focuses on materials that are particularly open to a self-reflexive reading, such as literature in which the protagonists are writers and films shot without authorization that in their editing indicate the precarious circumstances of their making. These works act out the contestation between the state censorship of Tiananmen-related discourse on the one hand and its alternative imagination on the other, thereby opening up a discursive space, however fragile, for a Chinese audience to reconfigure a historical memory whose physical space is off limits.

The dissertation is organized historically by time, place, and medium. Chapter 1 focuses on a Chinese state-sponsored collection of literary reportage published shortly after the June Fourth crackdown that, in my rereading today when the entire state literature on Tiananmen is itself marginalized, allows for an untimely commemoration of the protests. Chapter 2 looks at the same immediate post-June Fourth period in a Hong Kong approaching the 1997 reversion to Chinese sovereignty, analyzing the recoding of Tiananmen in two audiovisual works, in particular, that question the possibility of a Hong Kong public in the face of collusive pressure from Chinese and British authorities. Chapters 3 and 4 consider fiction and film, respectively, that illustrate the historicity and medium specificity of censorship and its contestation. The two mainland novels that I read in Chapter 3, one published in print and the other online, create sites both where the elided memory of 1989 can reenter and where a participatory readership can emerge. Chapter 4 concerns two fiction-features whose different trajectories of production and exhibition across the mainland-Hong Kong divide demonstrate the Chinese state's continual displacement of Tiananmen. As a whole, the four chapters reveal the dual aspect of censorship and its effects, both the authorized pronouncements that set its terms of engagement in making the _censored_ public (Chapter 1) as well as the unauthorized reworkings generated within its sphere of influence that make the censored _public_ (Chapters 2-4).

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