"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Thursday, August 21, 2008,8:44 PM
Did China Rediscover Its Soul?
-By Tom Doctoroff

In my 2005 book, Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, I asked whether the Middle Kingdom would summon enough courage to show the best side of itself. "Will the opening ceremony be a rousing release of national passion or an Orwellian propaganda spectacular? Will an insecure government paranoid about losing face overshadow the awe-inspiring zip, zing and pizzazz of the Chinese people?

On Friday night, Aug. 8, as I sat among 100,000 spectators at the "Bird's Nest" stadium, an architectural masterpiece of epic proportion and sublime transcendence, the question resolved itself with an emphatic exclamation point: China would reveal to the world -- and itself -- its soul, shaped across thousands of years of triumph and tragedy.

As I waited for the show to begin, melting in Beijing's August "haze," not all signs were positive. Grade B local celebrities spent 30 minutes teaching spectators how to deploy cheaply produced patriotic paraphernalia. Hyper-friendly supporting cheerleaders, college students who were also Communist Party members, were deployed every 10 rows. Security clearance, an hour-long marathon, took place in a ramshackle lot two kilometers away from the main venue. The gargantuan Olympic Park, seven square kilometers of solidly constructed athletic infrastructure and commercial pavilions, lacked touches of humanity. And grim-faced security personnel were everywhere, reminding everyone that the government's twitchily defensive "Safety First!" rallying cry was no laughing matter.

And yet, despite the security apparatus' defensive crouch, the masses were warm. They were curious, eager to ask where a foreigner was from, what he thought of Beijing, why he had come and what he expected. When different countries' athletes entered the stadium, applause was genuine -- particularly for Brazilians, Argentineans, Australians and, yes, Americans.

No one doubted the production, helmed by impresario Zhang Yimou, famed director of operatic films such as Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, would be world class. It was. The Chinese people were, literally, the heroes of the show. Within 70 minutes, 20,000 performers had graced the field and a huge screen on which the nation's artistic heritage was vividly brought to life enveloped the entire stadium. Larger-than-life scale, an obsession in a nation in which mobilization of resources is tantamount to survival, shocked and awed. When more than 600 Chinese athletes appeared, the crowd charismatically erupted with Maoist fervor. The lighting of the Olympic flame was nothing short of volcanic. When giant Olympic rings formed from stardust, many gasped, then cried.

I was struck by the combination of scale on one hand and depth and thoughtfulness, even intellectualism, on the other. The ceremony, surprisingly and touchingly, was about Chinese culture which Zhang and, yes, now the government believe to be the only force capable of resolving omnipresent conflicts percolating within the People's Republic of China: between growth and stability; progress and tradition; East and West; past, present and future. More ambitiously, the Olympic spirit was defined as synonymous with the very idea of China. Zhang interpreted the Games' tagline, "One World, One Dream," as China's life force: harmony -- harmony between individuals (Confucian sociology) and with the universe (Daoist cosmology).

The night had two audiences.

Most importantly, the ceremony was targeted to the Chinese. Zhang, a victim of Cultural Revolution abuses, was pleading with the nation to, finally, stand up with pride. Today's China, he believes, springs from a rich cultural heritage and a timeless worldview, one in which all elements of the universe are elegantly interconnected, always in motion. China's profound respect for analytic intelligence has created a country that reveres the scholar, emphasizes knowledge over might, defense over offense, skill over brute force, concentration over impulse. These qualities, he insists, must be venerated.

Domestically, Zhang and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games succeeded brilliantly. At the stadium, on the street and in hotel lobbies, many locals were moved -- sometimes to tears. They described the show as "perfect," "eleven on a scale of 10" and "meaningful." (That said, a few expressed concern that foreigners could never fully understand what they saw. And the singing seemed to fall flat.) People streamed out of the stadium beaming with pride.

China was also reassuring the rest of us its rise would not threaten geopolitical order as long as its olive branch is reciprocated with a respect for the Middle Kingdom's world view. In this respect, the show fell short of a grand slam. True, the staging was exquisite. And its message of geopolitical harmony was uninterrupted by political posturing, a rare coup in and of itself. However, many of the themes were probably too esoteric for Westerners to grasp, beyond the reach of even some of us "China hands." More important, everything was "one way." The entire night, while steeped in declarations of universal brotherhood, may have reinforced perceptions that China, so skilled in absorbing foreign influences and applying them in a Chinese context, is not yet capable of reaching out or understanding what makes other societies truly tick. The glories of the Middle Kingdom were not presented as part of a global tapestry. They were manifestations of absolute truth. Chinese culture was framed as the quintessence of human civilization and the Middle Kingdom, as always, its epicenter.

Yes, we heard African drums and Scottish bagpipes. We gazed upon costumes from every corner of the world. But Western civilization -- from renaissance art and modern American technology to rock music and "freestyle" soccer -- did not even score a courtesy mention. There was no celebration of "one plus one equals three," no yin-to-yang dynamism, no fusion of Chinese and the world's other centers of gravity. Foreigners remained, in the purest sense, spectators, on the outside looking in. That's why the parts of the show intended to represent the benefits of "mutual understanding" lapsed into propagandistic cliche. We ended up with limp, dime-store transcendence, e.g., astronauts floating in space, doves in flight, and many, many smiling children.

But let's not be small. The night belonged to the People's Republic. On 08/08/08, a nation articulated its spirit with brio. On 08/08/08, China proclaimed its strength, values and culture to be worthy of respect. After decades of trauma and self-doubt, China may finally be willing to, armed with confidence, embrace the world.

Let us hope that other nations, without forfeiting their own beliefs, also summon enough self-possession to help China try.


posted by R J Noriega
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