Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen
Movement in Chinese Literature and Film

By Thomas Chen

Reviewed by Jeremy Brown

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2023)

Thomas Chen, Made in Censorship: The Tiananmen Movement in Chinese Literature and Film New York: Columbia University Press, 2022, xii + 248 pp. ISBN: 9780231204019 (Paperback). ISBN: 9780231204002 (Hardcover).

Censorship and restricted research access can spark creativity and open up new paths, as Thomas Chen’s Made in Censorship shows. I first experienced this myself during the 2000s, when I went to the flea market in search of documents after archive staff denied me access to what I wanted to read. That denial of access shaped my project in fruitful and beneficial ways. And when I encountered state-enforced amnesia about June Fourth, I was so bothered by the lies and erasures that I chose to write a book about the topic. So did Thomas Chen. Like so many other artistic and scholarly projects related to China, our works were sparked by censorship and, as Chen argues, made in censorship.

Chinese censorship literally shaped Made in Censorship. Chen received Chinese government funding that contributed to the publication of his thought-provoking book. Think about that.  The Chinese party-state funded a project that resulted in a book with the words “Tiananmen Movement” in the title, although Chen wisely framed his project in safe and innocuous terms while researching in China. Chen also participated in what he calls a “collaborative” and “collegial” (133) process of censoring a Chinese translation of one of his articles, a revised version of which appears in this book, revealing what censors excised. These backstories, which Chen recounts with thoughtful reflexivity, enliven and enrich the book. They support Chen’s point that cinematic, literary, and scholarly output about June Fourth is not only possible, but has been occurring continuously in China since 1989.

As Chen’s experience winning Chinese funding to study censorship and then collaboratively censoring his own work shows, censorship is a participatory and creative process. It is less about deletion than it is about production. This is Chen’s main argument, which he supports by deftly analyzing literature and films that confront or dance around one of the most sensitive topics in China studies today, the protest movement of 1989 that culminated in the People’s Liberation Army’s massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in Beijing on June 3 and 4, 1989.

In the aftermath of the Beijing massacre, Communist Party authorities did not silence or prohibit discussion of what they called a “counterrevolutionary riot” (反革命暴乱). Far from it. Instead, publishers and filmmakers initiated a loud propaganda campaign meant to shape public opinion about the events of April, May, and June 1989. As Chen argues in Chapter 1, setting the boundaries of acceptable discourse is a central part of censorship. Officially produced books and films about June Fourth flooded the public sphere in 1989 and 1990 before stopping in 1991. Because they are full of distortions and falsehoods, and because they stridently celebrate perpetrators while smearing innocent victims of the massacre as “rioters” (暴徒), they are difficult and painful to read and watch. When I was researching 1989, I found the post-massacre propaganda so reprehensible that I was unable to break through my disgust to draw any scholarly conclusions from it.

Thomas Chen does much better than I did in this regard. In chapter 1 of Made in Censorship, he shows that it is a mistake to ignore or dismiss such works as Flutter, Flags of the Republic (飘扬, 共和国的旗帜), a television documentary produced by the People’s Liberation Army in July 1989, and Songs of the Republic’s Guardians (共和国卫士之歌), a collection of reportage literature published in October 1989 by the PLA Publishing House. He identifies a compelling typography of five narrative modes in propaganda related to the Tiananmen protests and Beijing massacre: imperative (commanding readers what to do and how to think), pedagogical, retrospective, documentary (creating a distorted “truth”), and artistic. Chen also convincingly shows how official propaganda about 1989 is anti-rural and misogynistic (women appear as “sick mothers, dumped daughters, and spurned lovers,” 32). The regime’s post-massacre victory lap further marginalized already-sidelined groups.

In chapter 2, Chen moves away from over-the-top propaganda to analyze underground, unofficial, or allegorical works created in China. He describes and analyzes Wang Guangli’s 王光利 documentary film I Graduated (我毕业了, 1992), Tang Xiaobai’s 唐晓白 feature film Conjugation (动词变位, 2001), and Sheng Keyi’s 盛可以 novel Death Fugue (死亡赋格, 2011). These works are not well known and have been seen and read by small audiences, but according to Chen their very existence is a “testament to the audacity of will” (97). They still circulate and those in the know recommend them to friends and students. In contrast to Wang, Tang, and Sheng’s quietly powerful treatment of Tiananmen, the films analyzed in chapter 3—Stanley Kwan’s 關錦鵬 Lan Yu (藍宇, 2001) and Lou Ye’s 娄烨 Summer Palace (頤和園, 2006)—go out of their way to spark controversy and invite censorship. Kwan and Lou’s big productions are full of sex, aimed at foreign audiences, and critique not only the Beijing massacre but also the crass hedonism that followed in the 1990s and early 2000s. Leaning into sensitive topics and then exposing and decrying the censorship that followed was one way to grapple with the legacy of June Fourth during the early 2000s.

Chapter 4, “The Orthography of Censorship, Participatory Reading from Print to the Internet,” covers multiple versions of Jia Pingwa’s 贾平凹 1993 novel Ruined City (废都) and Hu Fayun’s 胡发云 Such Is This World@sars.come (如焉@sars.come, completed in 2004 and published in 2006). Foreshadowing the “white paper revolution” of late 2022, Jia Pingwa’s book uses blank squares (□□□□) to indicate unacceptable or dangerous words, phrases, and sentences, inviting readers to use their imaginations fill in the blanks with erotic or politically edgy content, including references to 1989. According to Chen, the blank squares “perform censorship; they enact it and display it. They constitute both a system of signification as well as ruptures in the system” (134). Layered on top of Chen’s analysis of Jia’s book are {bracketed sentences} denoting his own words that censors excised from the Chinese-language version of his earlier article, which also included references to 1989. Sometimes censorship erases and silences, but in other instances it draws attention to the illicit subject.

Chen turns his attention to the internet in his discussion of Hu Fayun’s Such Is This World, which depicts the early years of Chinese cyberspace and which itself also circulated electronically before being published in abridged form. Online euphemisms, code words, newly invented characters, and constant reposting of forbidden content support Chen’s point that “censorship makes as much as it breaks” (173). Chen’s book concludes by drawing links between censorship of the SARS outbreak of 2002–2003 (a central part of Hu Fayun’s book) and Li Wenliang’s 李文亮 efforts to publicize the early 2020 cover-up of what would eventually become known as COVID-19 in Wuhan.

By examining how Chinese authors and filmmakers have grappled with censorship in creating works about a politically sensitive event, and by thinking through his own engagement with a taboo topic, Chen’s findings have major implications for any scholar working on contemporary Chinese culture and society. One implication is that there is no such thing as a non-sensitive topic. By simply considering the potential sensitivity of a research question related to China, the researcher is participating in the censorship process, which is itself a politically sensitive matter. In addition, what seemed like a politically safe topic yesterday could become highly sensitive tomorrow based on factors outside of the researcher’s control. Trying to protect oneself or to preserve access to China by choosing a seemingly innocuous research topic is understandable, but may ultimately be futile because by the time an article is ready for publication, the list of prohibited keywords will have changed.

Another significant implication of Chen’s work is that even such highly sensitive topics as June Fourth can be discussed and depicted in Chinese films, short stories, and novels, as well as in scholarly works. This point has liberatory potential, because it means that artists and authors can choose topics based on their importance rather than being shut down by fear of repression. Working with, around, and against censorship is an unavoidable part of China studies research, no matter the topic.

Jeremy Brown
Simon Fraser University