Professor discuses process of finding truth in creation of Tiananmen documentary

By IDOIA DIZON | April 18, 2019

Carma Hinton, professor of Art History at George Mason University, discussed the process of creating The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. Hinton, co-directed the film with her husband and it was released in 1995. The Program in East Asian Studies hosted Monday’s event.

To begin, Hinton set the stage of her journey in creating this documentary. She described the many challenges of presenting the protests in an organized narrative because there were so many details. The Tiananmen Square Protests occurred when student-led demonstrators revolted against the Chinese government. 

“It was very difficult to piece together a story that we felt would be accurate, fair, include multiple perspectives, and have a somewhat in-depth analysis. And a film, as a conveyor of that, is even more difficult in some ways. To share history in words versus pictures are different practices,” she said.

Hinton explained that she and her husband initially struggled to find a way to retell the story, especially when trying to find the truth amongst inconsistent narratives. 

“Right from the start, your data has been preselected by whoever wrote it or photographed it. You can’t assume that those are the facts. So you have to interrogate whatever material you’re dealing with to find its limitations and the motivation behind it. After you interrogate your raw material, the first scripts of history, then when you write your own and piece those scripts together, there are always difficult choices,” she said. 

The couple also found it difficult to fit the large timescale of the event into only a few hours.

“The event lasted from April 15 to when it was suppressed on June 4. How do we compress it into three hours? Certainly, we cannot include everything — we have to make choices,” Hinton said.

For Hinton, the most important part of finding the truth amongst all the voices involved clearly distinguishing the motives and actions of the two parties involved — the protestors and the Chinese government. Hinton also wanted to go beyond what she saw as the two-dimensional reporting of Western media at the time. 

“When they report on news here, they correctly assume that our society has different interests, voices and perspectives on the world. But when they report on the Chinese, they call any differences ‘squabble’ and report on conflict negatively. Why must it be negative? The Chinese have differences, too, but the Western media wants them all to be the same,” Hinton said.

Tobie Meyer-Fong, a professor of History at Hopkins, felt that Hinton was the perfect person to challenge this two-dimensional reporting. 

“[Hinton] was born in Beijing but moved to the United States at the age of 21, so she is a 北京人(a person from Beijing) in every sense of the word. But she also studied in the West, so she understands both sides,” she said.

Meyer-Fong explained that it was easy for Western media to portray the revolution as a battle between young students, inspired by their education and wanting to spread democracy in the east, and the authoritative rule of Chairman Mao. 

Not only did the students interviewed by news outlets use words such as “freedom” and “liberty” in describing the fight, but they also erected a monument dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy,” a symbol of democracy designed in the image of the Statue of Liberty. This statue sat in the center of Tiananmen Square, directly facing Chairman Mao’s portrait. 

However, Hinton argued that the protests weren’t so black and white. 

For example, Hinton said that the role of the workers in the revolution is often overlooked because the students provided a more appealing visual for international news. She said that the student hunger strike may have lit the revolutionary fuse, but the bomb exploded when independent unions went on strike.

In addition, although the protestors were able to unite under the banner of the fight for the “common good,” there was not extensive dialogue on what the “common good” entailed. Hinton said that even after growing up under an authoritarian regime, it is difficult for some citizens to envision the ideals of democracy as a rallying cry of the revolution.

“They were really Chairman Mao’s children. They have not really gotten out of the political culture under which they were raised. The idea of standing up and protesting something is of course very noble and very moving and needs affirmation. It’s just that the story is much more complex,” she said.

Erin Chung, a professor of East Asian Politics at Hopkins, expressed her gratitude that such a comprehensive account of this event exists. 

“I am truly grateful for this documentary. I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that this is an introductory text for me and many of my friends about an incident that was rarely talked about in the textbooks of me and my parents,” she said. 

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