New York State Writers Institute - The Gate of Heavenly Peace

Classic Film Series, Fall 1996


November 22, 1996 (Friday), 7:00 p.m., Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue

Synopsis / Directors / Filmography / Reviews


During the spring of 1989, nightly news accounts filmed in Tiananmen Square alternately enthralled and horrified millions of viewers around the globe. THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, a three hour documentary film, revisits these events and explores the complex political process that eventually led to the Beijing Massacre of June 4th.

In April 1989, following the death of deposed Communist Party reformer Hu Yaobang, students occupied Tiananmen Square. They used the occasion of Hu's death to protest government corruption and call for political reform. The citizenry responded strongly to their demonstrations. At the height of this protest movement, more than a million people marched in the streets of Beijing to support the students. Mass demonstrations occurred in many cities around the country.

In May 1989, the international media converged on China to cover the visit of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. They came for a summit but walked into what looked like a revolution. It was clamorous, colorful, and highly photogenic. The media painted moving portraits of idealistic pro-Western students willing to die for democracy, pitted against aging Communist autocrats.

The reality was far more complex and disturbing. Student leaders were united by a sense of their own historical importance, but they did not always agree about goals, strategies, or tactics. Even while they protested some features of Communist rule, their own ideas and behavior showed heavy influence by Communist Party ideology. The government was divided as well. Some leaders saw all protest as counterrevolutionary, but others were anxious to avert repression and push China in the direction of gradual political reform.

THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE follows the history of the 1989 Protest Movement while weaving into its structure the pre-history of those events and commenting on the political habits and attitudes that have come to inform public life in China over the past century. It documents the development of the movement and reflects the drama, tension, humor, absurdity, heroism and many tragedies of the six weeks from April to June in 1989. Through this process, the film reveals how the hardline within the government marginalized moderates among the protesters (including students, workers and intellectuals); while the actions of radical protesters undermined moderates in the government. Moderate voices were gradually cowed and then silenced by extremism and emotionalism on both sides. This extremism was couched in terms of "plots," "conspiracies," and "sabotage," reflecting the kind of political scare tactics that had developed under Maoism. Thus zealots from both sides took center stage and enacted a tragedy of a kind that has been witnessed in many popular protest movements.

THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE presents a wide range of Chinese views concerning the struggle for a better society. The film follows the fate of the moderate "third way" of Chinese political debate and civic action, which has remained largely unnoticed by the Western media. It is a sobering tale, for faced with the binary opposition between Communist and anti-Communists, there has been little middle ground left for the rational and thoughtful proponents of positive reform in China. By giving these ignored voices their proper place in history, the film reveals an ongoing debate in China concerning the importance of personal responsibility and moral integrity, the need, as Vaclav Havel has put it, to "live in the truth."

THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE was directed by Carma Hinton, who was born and raised in China, and Richard Gordon, who has been involved with many films about China as a director, producer, or cinematographer. With an international group of scholars, as well as participants in the events of 1989, they have spent six years investigating this important and intriguing story. Over 250 hours of historical and contemporary archival footage have been collected and analyzed in order to construct the most complete and accurate picture to date of the 1989 events and their historical context. The archives from which the film draws include Western and Chinese newsreels and footage from the 1920s to the present, contemporary news coverage of the 1989 protests from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Canada, and the U.S., home video shot by local Chinese and foreigners who observed the movement, a vast collection of stills, posters, artwork, and music reflecting trends in Chinese popular culture, and official Chinese newscasts and documentaries.



The directors of THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, have made seven films about China, including the acclaimed trilogy ONE VILLAGE IN CHINA, which was broadcast nationally in the U.S. and abroad (including the BBC, France's Canal Plus and Germany's ARD). The series received more than twenty awards at international film festivals, including a George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award.

�Director, Producer, and Interviewer Carma Hinton was born in China to American parents and was raised and educated there until 1971. Chinese is her first language and culture. Since 1971 she has lived in the United States. She received a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1976, and is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Harvard University. She has taught at Swarthmore, Middlebury, and Wellesley Colleges. For her work in film, she was awarded a Rockefeller Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship in 1988.

�Director, Producer, and Cameraman Richard Gordon has been involved with numerous Projects in China as director of Photography or producer. His credits include work for National Geographic, the National Film Board of Canada, NOVA, the independent feature documentary DISTANT HARMONY: PAVAROTTI IN CHINA, and the PBS series CHINA IN REVOLUTION. For his previous work, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 and a Rockefeller Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship in 1988.


THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE (1995), a three-hour documentary exploring the 1989 protest movement in the context of the political habits and attitudes that have come to inform public life in China over the past century.

ABODE OF ILLUSION (1992), an hour-long film about Chang Dai-chien, a famous modern Chinese painter who is arguably the greatest forger of all time.

ONE VILLAGE IN CHINA (1987), a three-part series examining life in Long Bow, a rural community 400 miles southwest of Beijin (broadcast on PBS, BBC, Arts & Entertainment Cable and throughout Europe and Asia). ONE VILLAGE IN CHINA includes:

1. SMALL HAPPINESS, which explores sexual politics in rural China with segments on love and marriage, foot-binding, child-bearing and birth control. Completed in 1984.
2. TO TASTE A HUNDRED HERBS, which explores themes of religion and medicine by examining the life of Dr. Shen, a Catholic village doctor. Completed in 1986.
3. ALL UNDER HEAVEN, which chronicles the history of Long Bow over several decades - from the Revolution in 1949 and collectivization in the 1950's through the recent shift to private farming. Completed in 1985.

FIRST MOON (1987), a thirty-minute documentary about lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese countryside.

STILT DANCERS (1981), a thirty-minute film about stilt dancing.


Excerpts from reviews, October 1995 - January 1996

David Ansen, Newsweek, October 9, 1995:
"[T]his extraordinary three-hour a deep, powerful and rivetingly complex study of Tiananmen... THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE will prove controversial in the West as well, for it shows that the student movement was divided against itself, with some its most influential leaders hoping for carnage. The student leader Chai Ling, shortly before the crackdown, announces in an interview that 'only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes.' The film suggests that if the moderate elements had prevailed over the extremists, and strategically abandoned the square, the massacre might have been avoided. It shows as well how the more radical students played into the hands of the government hard-liners, who were then able to purge the reformers sympathetic to the students. The film in no way excuses the brutality of the Beijing regime, but it casts crucial new light on this watershed event."

Charles Taylor, The Boston Phoenix, January 5, 1996:
"THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE, Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton's magnificent and devastating three-hour documentary on the 1989 Chinese democracy movement..., has the richness, clarity, and complexity that only the best documentaries afford... THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE turns out to be the movie event of the season. It is certainly one of the great documentaries of the past 20 years... What's brilliant and upsetting is that the filmmakers have chosen to commemorate the democracy movement not by simplifying its meaning but by making it almost painfully complex."

Stephen Holden, The New York Times, October 14, 1995:
THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE is an "enthralling documentary film of those events [of 1989]... [It] is a meticulous day-by-day chronicle of the six-week period in the spring of 1989... The film probes much more deeply into the student democracy movement than one could have believed possible, given that the film makers are Americans. This unglamorous but absorbing film interweaves videotaped scenes of the demonstrations and conversations with leaders and participants with an explanatory narration into an account that is as clear-headed as it is thorough and well-organized."

"[W]hile THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE has its wrenching moments, it is neither an anti-Communist tract nor a romantic valentine to the movement's fallen heroes. Above all, it is a hard-headed critical analysis of a youthful protest movement that failed and why."

Ian Buruma, The New York Review of Books, December 21, 1995:
"The filmmakers [of THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE] have gathered extraordinary footage... The atmosphere of the Beijing Spring is conveyed beautifully in all its pathos, drama, hope, craziness, poetry, and violence."

Stephan Talty, Time Out New York, October 11-18, 1995:
"The full story of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement may never be told, but this remarkable and paralyzingly suspenseful documentary comes closer than any examination to date. With footage undreamed of in the time before camcorders, the film actually recreates the movement from the inside out." [p. 49]

"If there had been film cameras on the train that brought Lenin to the Finland Station or inside the Paris Commune, we would have more films like THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE. As it is, this riveting documentary gives us the first revolution captured almost fully on film: the 1989 student democracy movement in China that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Even before its debut screening this week at the New York Film Festival, the film elicited a sharp reaction from the Chinese government, which must know GATE will stand as the true history of the event for decades to come." [Preview, p. 46]

Jay Hoberman, The Village Voice, October 3, 1995:
"Two ethnographic filmmakers with extensive experience working in rural China have produced an epic, complex, and devastating account of the events that culminated in the June 1989 student occupation of Tiananmen Square. Three hours are not too long; ... it may be definitive."

Betsy Sherman, The Boston Globe, January 10, 1996:
"[B]rilliant, utterly absorbing... a meticulously researched, soberly presented walk through the events of April-June 1989. This examination is buttressed by an accessible primer on China's political and cultural events of the 20th century that informed the 1989 flashpoint... Their many small pictures fit together seamlessly to form a big picture of rare power."