I know I should have written about this a few days ago, but I find taking a few days to reflect usually leads to a more interesting post.
The Beijing Olympic opening ceremony was unimaginable. I think most would describe it as an awesome showing of man power, precision, and beauty. It employed thousands of drummers, dancers, and proudly displayed Chinese history and culture without touching anything from the last century or two. It was a celebration of perfection and Han identity (with a few token minorities in traditional dress).
This year’s London Olympics knew that it would be unable to match China point for point in the ceremony, and I think succeeded in demonstrating the kind of culture that flows effortlessly from a mature world power. From the destructive growth that belched out of the smokestacks during the industrial revolution, to a choir made up of disabled children, and even the occasional handicapped volunteer dancer, it was a celebration of England as it was and is, unafraid of what some might see as imperfection (Beijing famously opted for the cuter child to lip sync a song instead of allowing a single “blemish” and berated foreign teams that complained about pollution). As I watched the idyllic fields removed to make way for industry, I struggled to imagine China recreating such a dark moment from their own history. I also found it difficult to picture a handicapped person being included in such an important event without drawing special attention to the fact that they were being inclusive.
The London Olympic opener also opted for a parachuting queen, James Bond, and a lengthy routine from Mr. Bean, which no undoubtedly played well in China where Rowan Atkinson’s films can be found in every DVD shop, while Beijing’s opener was meant as a strictly serious event. Beijing opted to wow us into admiration, while London played off of it’s previous success and served as a reminder of how Britain’s culture continues to shape the world without the guidance of the Central gov’t.
It was London’s celebration of the common man that reminded me of another moment of the Beijing Olympics – the argument over who had “won”. China had earned the most golds, while the US had grabbed the most medals. When school restarted in the fall of 2008, my students were eager to find out which side of the debate I came down on, they unanimously agreed that getting the most golds was clearly the most important factor.
While their opinions were influenced by the result that favored China, I found it representative of many other conversations I’ve had with Chinese friends, and the Olympic coverage I watched when I was in China. China celebrates perfection, not near perfection or the joy of sports. The personal story, the effort expended, the finesse and power are all secondary to winning.
For further evidence of this theory, one only needs to turn on CCTV 5 (sports) a few weeks before any Olympic games, at which time, they begin to rebroadcast virtually every winning Chinese performance from the last 20 years (in 2008 this went on for weeks). As I sat in my hotel room in Shanghai before leaving last week, I realized that a women’s weightlifting competition was on (I had failed to bring enough books). A few minutes later I noticed it was several years old and knew that meant only one thing, China was about to win.
While this might seem to be a cultural difference, I also believe that it is a hindrance to China’s rise. As most economists would agree, a successful country is one that makes the most of each individual’s talents, but in China there is little room for anything or anyone that fails to live up to the high expectations.
For further reading on China’s soft power limitations I suggest this great post on the lack of a Chinese Godzilla