2008 Beijing Olympic Games
Posted by Lydia Wallace on Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 10:28 AM
Don't Ask. Photo from Peaceful Rise
This essay was contributed by Geremie Barmé, scholar, filmmaker and author of the new book The Forbidden City. It is published here by permission of author.
Talk About the Wind and the Moonby Geremie R. Barmé (30 July 2008)
Casual visitors to China, as well as non-Chinese residents, are familiar with a particular pattern of curiosity. After my first five years in the Chinese world, and as a columnist for the arts supplement of the Hong Kong Communist-controlled daily Ta Kung Pao 大公报, in the late 70s I wrote a piece about what I had come to think of as the ‘One Thousand Questions’ (qianzi wen 千字问, a play on the title of the old ‘One-thousand Character Classic’, 千字文).
You’re familiar with the general line of interrogation: ‘What country do you come from? How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? How much do you make? What do you think of China/Chinese food/the Chinese government/the Chinese people?’ (Naturally, things have changed in the last 35 years, but the opening gambit remains, even though money, business opportunities, car types, stock tips and so on also feature today.) It’s all pretty standard (and well-intentioned) fare and most visitors or residents work out a way to respond to what can be a fairly persistent, and monotonous, line of questioning over time. After the first few hundred such encounters you also realise that more often than not once the answers to the standard questions have been ascertained the conversation may come to an abrupt end. It is as though curiosity having been satisfied everyone can just get on with their lives. Also, depending on your own mood, or the number of times you’ve been grilled that day, your response may range from the ebullient to the sullen. While you may tire of the routine, sometimes it can actually lead to real conversations and even lively friendships. In some instances such boring verbal foreplay can lead to humorous and more voluble contact with people who really know how to ‘rant’ 侃.
The authorities are obviously aware of this kind of rote curiosity and, like everything these days, are anxious to offer solicitous guidance in limiting inappropriate, unapproved or possibly consequential cross-cultural contact. So, from today (30 June 2008) the Beijing Olympic nannies have decided to intervene even in this innocent and relatively innocuous form of Sino-International exchange. Therefore, the Beijing media has been instructed to publish an official list of ‘Eight Don’t Asks’ (bage buyao wen 八个不要问) that are supposed to limit contact between the citizens of the Chinese capital with foreign visitors to non controversial, socially acceptable and suitably courteous topics that will not offend presumably hyper-sensitive ‘Foreign Friends’ (waiguo youren 外国友人).
‘With an estimated 550,000 foreign visitors during the Olympic period this will be a time of unprecedented contact and exchange between Chinese and Foreigners’, states the communiqué published today. ‘Despite the three decades of openness and reform and the noteworthy improvement of public civility in recent years’, especially since Beijing’s successful bid to host the 29th Olympiad, the authors observe that, ‘It is nonetheless necessary to produce and display a “Courtesy Guide Relating to How We Should Engage in Conversation with Foreign Friends And Not Invade Personal Privacy or Offend Taboos”. The guidelines are to be promulgated as the ‘Eight Don’t Asks Courtesy Notice’ (bage buwen liyi pai 八个不问礼仪牌). They note that, ‘the majority of the questions you might wish to ask are part of common conversation [among Chinese], and there’s nothing particularly inappropriate about them. However, when talking to Foreign Friends it is possible unintentionally to invade a person’s privacy or offend against some taboo, thereby creating an untoward misunderstanding.’
Of course, this latest little extra bit of interdiction is being undertaken to accommodate visitors and demonstrate to them a measure of cultural sensitivity. We would note that international media outlets and others are finding out that there are other dimensions of ‘Western culture’ related to freedom of expression and the keeping of promises that are being given short shrift by the Olympic hosts. But from the post-Cultural Revolution movement to get people to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to the national campaign promoting the ‘five emphasizes, four beauties and three loves’ (wujiang simei sanre’ai 五讲四美三热爱) in the 80s, right up to the Hu-Wen era ‘Eight Glories and Eight Shames’ (barong bachi 八荣八耻), enumerating kindergarten-style lists of behaviour for Chinese citizens has maintained a considerable purchase on the nation’s life. In all of this earnest, tea-totalling good behaviour some historians discern the glum shadow of the 1930s’ ‘New Life Movement’. But, to be fair to the host city, as today’s notice says, ‘no matter how great the differences [between China and the world], we can all use the global celebration of the Olympics as a platform to enhance exchange, increase mutual understanding and advance the possibility of harmony.’
As of today, the ‘Eight Don’t Ask Courtesy Notices’ are to be displayed prominently in all 126 Community Zones of the city and are to be published in all local Beijing newspapers. This notice reads:
Citizens, please be mindful that in your exchanges with Foreign Friends during the Olympic period that you:
Should not ask about a person’s income or the way they spend their money;
So, just what should you ask, or indeed talk about? Visitors and locals might wish to recall a sentiment expressed by Lu Xun (d.1936), China’s most famous 20th-century writer. He too lived under a regime of intermittent censorship, and he often treated the cruel dystopia of his time with comic resignation. With his usual sparse eloquence he called two of his most famous collections of essays ‘The Book of Faux Freedom’ (wei ziyou shu 伪自由书, 1933) and ‘Permission to Talk About the Wind and the Moon’ (zhun fengyue tan 准风月谈, 1934).
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