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A very different Olympics

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


9 Comments

  1. Chopstik says:

    How much of that is driven by the failures of the past and the desire to achieve and be recognized for those achievements. To draw an analogy to children, children who are smaller or have been jealous of the success of older siblings are driven more to succeed and may not be so observant of things that are periphery to such success. It is more about the end goal as opposed to the journey itself. It’s more about perspective and perhaps nations that have been more “successful” (and yes, I use that term rather carefully) see more perspective in the aesthetic aspects of the games than just the winning. Not that one is more right than the others, merely a different perspective.

  2. Joe Lemien says:

    The difference between Britain being willing to acknowledge darker parts (with the smokestacks) of the past and Chinese ceremony ignoring them is certainly an interesting contrast. I think it also matter, though, that there is a lot of cultural romanticism about London’s and England’s darker days during industrialization (such as Steampunk culture and Jules Verne novels) whereas no-one romanticism the famines or the Cultural Revolution of China. The level of horror that was caused is quite different in both quality and quantity, I think.

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    The comment from Joe Lemien about no romanticism about the famines or Cultural Revolution of China is unfortunately untrue. I have seen on television restaurants in Beijing which are themed on the Cultural Revolution and people gather in the parks to sing songs from that era. I guess that all cultures are prone to viewing the past through “rose coloured glasses”.

    • jlemien says:

      Right you are. There certain are old folks that say they miss those days. Would you say that it is less prevalent or more “ignorant of the facts” than those that romanticism darker periods of English history, or that is similar? Older Chinese people may sing songs and miss the revolutionary operas, but any discussion or remembrance of people being killed due to being son of a landlord or is something that I can’t imagine. Do people remember (and relish in) the darkness of those times, too, or just the group spirit of it?

      Continuing the contrast, I vaguely recall images of starving children and debtors prisons from films and novels set in London’s darker days, but although films that depict such darkness of the Cultural Revolution exist, are they well known to Chinese people?

  4. Yaxue C. says:

    I tweeted that the most moving moment, for many Chinese anyway, is the Olympic torch running through the 500 construction workers. “The migrant workers who built the Bird Nest, who ate and slept outside in the open, have you been able to go inside to admire your own achievement? Have you been proud of the work you have done? Have you felt to be part of the Olympic family?”

    It was retweeted 45 times and RTed enough times to be registered by robot that tweets hot tweet.

  5. Tom, you’ve taken the words right out of my lips about the British mind vs. Chinese mind.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Joe, I guess the difference is that kids learn about the British Industrial Revolution at school in history lessons and also in English literature, studying authors like Dickens. It’s horrors are well known. But Chinese kids don’t learn about the Cultural Revolution in any detail and while much literature has been written about it, I think that most of it is not available in China.

  7. Thanks for this excellent post. I really appreciate this blog as a middle-aged chap trying to keep up with world affairs.

    As a fairly cynical Brit who suffers from NITS (Nerdular Indifference To Sport) I was wondering if I would get on board for the Games. The opening ceremony did the job for me. Re: disabilities, the lead percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, has been profoundly deaf since she was 11. Deafness is of course an ‘invisible’ disability, but her inclusion (she is fairly famous over here) sent a message, too.

    Re: history – it was full of British ‘in jokes’ more subtle than the Bond or Mr Bean things, but why not? In a age of pause, rewind, advance frame-by-frame, why not give people things to puzzle over? But I can’t see why people were baffled by most of the first bit, because it drew heavily on Tolkien’s fantasy metaphors for UK history, and of course ended with the forging of ‘one ring to bind them all’.

    Fascinating discussion of the tendency of Chinese TV to show past sporting triumphs. This was certainly the BBC way when I was a lad, not so much now. At one point the great Irish comic, Spike Milligan, made a point of repeatedly and irrelevantly showing a clip of a British boxer knocking down Mohammad Ali, just to emphasise how ridiculous and insecure it made us look. That was in the Seventies, when – what with strikes, frequent power cuts etc – people really thought the country was on its last legs.

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