Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Guide to the Opening Ceremony

-I thought the presentations on Chinese culture were wonderfully done. Allusions to the Communist Party were kept to a minimum, and past/future achievements of science, culture, and artistry were brought to the fore. Particularly, I enjoyed the performance of the Confucian disciples, dressed in grey robes and adorned with feathered tee-pee headdresses. The corresponding demonstration of a printing press showed the evolution of the Chinese character 'He', which means something like 'peace'. Granted, the whole proceedings, including a lavish display of fireworks, was underwritten by the governing CCP, so I suppose they can afford to minimize self-congratulation along with the many controversial episodes of Chinese history tied to their rule.

-'Da Shan', a popular foreigner who speaks fluent Mandarin, works for the government-owned media conglomerate, CCTV, and adorns various advertising campaigns, joined his fellow Canadian Olympians as they marched into the stadium. I suppose that this means the tongue contortions necessary to speak proper Chinese counts as an Olympic sport?

-I was surprised to see the Taiwan delegation show up. I wonder what manner of diplomatic fast talk resulted in the rather odd title bestowed on them, "Chinese Taipei" (Taipei is the main city), or their interesting banner?

-Speaking of delegations, I think some applause is in order for the delegations from Iraq (who narrowly avoided being kept from attending), Afghanistan, Sudan, and Palestine. I read that the Palestinian athletes had little or no resources, and little access to even sub-par training centers, so their arrival (along with delegations from those other war-torn nations) is a minor miracle. Ditto on the Sudanese.

-I'm sure, on the other hand, that the Chinese won't know what to make of the Georgians. It appears that this warlike Caucasian republic has initiated a small war with the Russians and their proxies, the breakaway republic of South Ossetia... during the Olympics!

-Fireworks in the shape of footprints, quite inventive. I suppose we'll all be looking over our shoulders in trepidation at the invisible giant this is supposed to represent. I also rather liked the initial fireworks, which created a shape and color much like the Chinese national flower, the peony.

-The American Olympians were headed by an athlete originally from Darfur. Thus far none of the Chinese I've talked to have picked up on this subtle slight, although one of my students did ask who the guy was.

-The many delegations of the nations of the earth marched into the stadium, demonstrating one pragmatic fact as they did: The Olympics is about money and prestige. Authoritarian countries, and overly-wealthy ones continue to dominate, at least in terms of numbers of athletes they send. How else to explain the imbalance between the rather small delegations fielded by India and Indonesia (second and fourth most populous countries in the world, I believe) when compared to large delegations by tiny, wealthy European countries such as the Netherlands? And although China and India are comparable in economic status, economic growth, and population, China's delegation could far surpass India's only because China's government is accountable to no one--thus able to afford intensive cradle-to-retirement athletic programs designed to increase its number of competitors in the sports that offer the highest number of gold medals--whereas India government is almost over-accountable and certainly too fractured and indecisive to support such efforts. Rich democracies such as America have ample private and (relatively small, when comparing percentage of GDP and tax revenues) public funds for this athletic prestige project, and poor democracies can barely support a token delegation.

-I wanted to eat a Chinese dish called xihongshi chaojidan (fried tomatoes and eggs) in honor of the controversial design choices for the costumes of the Chinese delegation, but had to settle for some nice homemade pasta instead. The red, at least, was still represented, if not the bright gold.

-A note on China's flagbearer and accompaniment: Yao Ming is an NBA giant. I'm not really a fan, as his basketball skills seem to come from the 'Shaq' school of thought. The little boy is perhaps more notable. He was apparently somehow involved in rescuing people in the recent Sichuan earthquakes.

-My students were unanimous in their criticism of the Olympic theme song, 'You and Me' (Chinese: Wo he Ni, lit: I and You). They thought that it was too slow and too soft to make a proper Olympic song. I have to agree--although I admit to having a bias against saccharine pop music duets which this seems to take its style from. The song was not rousing at all and would probably put a caffeinated chimp to sleep.

-All in all the event as pulled off well. I think we can attribute the talents of Chinese director, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern; Hero; House of Flying Daggers). His zest for bright, almost surreal coloring was certainly evident. We can also attribute the apparently bottomless pockets of the CCP. I doubt that any following Olympics host will dare appropriate as much money as they have to put on such a 'coming-out' party. I also doubt that any Olympic host will have such broad powers to shut down local traffic, factories, bars, clubs, street food vendors, etc. Although I'm not there myself (and happily so), I can well imagine that Beijing is currently enduring a kind of half-life, or undeath, until the Olympics are safely completed.

I'm also cautiously optimistic that there won't be a major incident of whatever kind during the midst of the Olympics. But in China, you never know. Despite rigid state control, chaos is still just a breath away.

No comments: