2008 Beijing Olympic Games

Let the Spiel Begin
by Geremie R. Barmé

Zhang Yimou prepares for the biggest show on earth

This article was originally published in the Review supplement of The Australian Financial Review, 14 July 2006, and is reproduced here with the author's permission.

Let the Spiel Begin

by Geremie R. Barmé

Zhang Yimou, the internationally popular Chinese film director, will lead the group designing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang first came to fame overseas with his 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, a work that cloaked a tale of patriarchal oppression in the beguiling garb of folk culture. Zhang’s career is one of the success stories of China’s authoritarian cultural scene, but in April this year, when the announcement of his role in the Olympics was made he declared that there’s more to Chinese culture than lanterns and opera.

Zhang is taking leave of film-making for two years to concentrate on the biggest show on earth. In this enterprise he will be joined by a consortium of non-Chinese ‘imagineers’ from LA (Steven Spielberg), Paris (Yves Pepin) and Sydney (Ric Birch). All of them have created successful public entertainments in recent years, but there is little doubt that Hollywood is Beijing’s greatest inspiration.

China and its Communist Party rulers have been enmeshed with Hollywood and its culture of spectacle for decades. Since the 1980s, there has been something of a trans-Pacific Apache Dance between the mass media of the last regnant socialist empire and the Hollywood behemoth. It is a relationship that has its more benign and mutually profitable mien, as witnessed in the collaboration leading to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and the more recent M:i:III, directed by J.J. Abrams, which uses Shanghai as a backdrop. At other times things have been more acrimonious, especially in relation to the vexatious issue of copyright and the booming Chinese market in pirated films and TV programs. However, just as Taylorism in the US and the idea of ‘scientific management’ gave V.I. Lenin ideas about assembly-line production, time-management and the power of statistics in the Soviet Union, so too has Hollywood long been giving China cues about staging public events.

Early Hollywood mega-flicks and cinematic versions of the Ziegfeld Follies fed into both Soviet and Chinese designs for mass rallies and proletarian tableaux vivant. Hollywood turned choreography and synchronized gymnastics into mesmerizing cinema. The socialist world adapted such cog-in-the-machine balletics to celebrate the state and its unrivalled power.

Anyone who has seen the 1964 Maoist song and dance extravaganza The East is Red, for example, will recognize that communist choreographers had carefully studied the best the West could offer (Please see footnote *1). That show employed the talents of the most outstanding singers and dancers in the country to extol the history of the Chinese revolution and the role of its leader, Mao Zedong. The staged celebration appeared just as China detonated its first A-bomb. Both carried the same message: that a new China was on the rise. That rise was frustrated by the long decade of the Cultural Revolution, so for many the 2008 Olympics is a much-delayed opportunity for China to announce its arrival.

To be sure, the new Olympic Stadium in north Beijing promises to be impressive, but nearly fifty years ago Tiananmen Square in the heart of the city was purpose built for grandiose (and, given the ugly politics of the day, chilling) displays of upwards of a million participants. A recent example of such self-congratulatory socialist pageantry was the big parade of 1 October 1999 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. Every province and interest group had a float and a group of marchers in the show. As recently as last year a scaled-down celebration was held in Lhasa to mark the 40th anniversary of the imposed Tibetan Autonomous Region. The new Potala Square in which the parade was held features lakes festooned with swirling swastikas, a lugubrious ‘Peaceful Liberation Plinth’ and a parade ground embedded with sunken fountains and lights that, when they leap to life, spray and shimmer in time to party (Communist Party, that is) show tunes. It is little wonder that local artists I met when traveling there now call the once holy city Lhasa-Vegas.

By contrast, Olympic ceremonies are geared towards a world audience. Host nations use the occasion to promote buoyant versions of their history, whitewashing the blemishes and scars of the past. They highlight achievements, laudable aspects of the made-to-order national character, and they project their country’s dreams (or at least those of the design committee) to an audience of billions worldwide. These opening and closing pageants are like national son et lumière tourist brochures with a touch of Cirque du Soleil existentialism thrown in.

It is all done with big bold strokes, the kind that make the spectacle visible at the furthest reaches of the planet. In commenting on why Baywatch storylines never moved above bimbo-level, the American essayist Sandra Tsing Loh cannily observed that the show employed ‘old, old-fashioned’ storytelling. ‘We’re talking Ancient Greece,’ she wrote in Depth Takes a Holiday, ‘when actors donned huge masks and clogs and yelled at thousands of drunken revelers on a hill with not-so-keen attention spans. Baywatch plot turns have that same yelled quality, because now the village is global’ *2.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Zhang Yimou is stage-managing the Chinese production. After all, in a sense Yimou started out by staging spectacle as a cinematographer. I remember the director Chen Kaige telling me in 1986, shortly after his and Zhang’s break-through film Yellow Earth first screened in Hong Kong, that they had edited the exuberant Shaanxi peasant ‘rain dance’ finale by pacing it in time to a recent Michael Jackson hit song. Now, with the upcoming Olympics, Zhang Yimou is taking centre stage. As Chinese and Hollywood hyperbole mingle, therefore, we can be sure that the world is going to get a great big ‘holla bak’ from Beijing.

Nor is there any reason why innovative cultural creators like Zhang should shy from offering their services to the party-state. Since the economic boom of the 1990s, the success of many Chinese avant-garde cultural figures—in particular film, art and music makers—has affirmed the country’s particular mix of authoritarianism and laissez faire economics. It is a paradox that some observers find unsettling; but the fact of the matter is that a host of China’s outwardly mobile cultural mavens have struck a Faustian deal with their authoritarian government: they gain a lot of mileage on the international stage by a measure of cultural repression, and a booming economy, back home.

The 2008 Olympics will also provide a unique opportunity for China to show the world a vision of itself, and what it has to offer as a nascent global power. Zheng Bijian is one of the country’s official thinkers who extemporizes on the nature of China’s ‘peaceful rise’ and the contours of the ‘harmonious society’ that is now enshrined in Communist Party policy. In June this year, Zheng opined that the nation’s economic might marked a ‘grand renaissance of Chinese civilization’ and the realization of its long-held dream to be a great power *3.

Zheng’s articulation of China’s vision skillfully blends the polished rhetoric of today’s officialdom with recast Maoist nostrums. His talk of China’s unique developmental model, for instance, is a rephrasing of Mao Zedong’s call for the nation to pursue a policy of independence and self-reliance (duli zizhu, zili geng sheng). And when he says that economic, cultural and social change must combine international best practice with the decocted essence of Chinese tradition, he is really updating Mao’s famous line that ‘the foreign must serve China, the past must serve the present’ (yang wei Zhong yong, gu wei jin yong). But this time around the world is ready for the message, especially because economic reality puts substance behind the patter. Thinkers like Zheng are also anxious that China’s old bellicosity and xenophobia are kept in check. He hopes that the cultural rebirth being fostered by his country’s state-sponsored capitalism will present the world with a civilization that is both ‘accessible and charismatic’.

Given the fact that, for over a century, many of China’s leading thinkers and cultural activists did their best to rid China of a culture that frustrated modernization, it is interesting that things long held in contempt are now touted as being germane to the revenant cultural landscape. China’s own version of the black armband is being hidden away as an acceptable narrative of the nation presents the world with a story of 5000 years of civilized harmony.

Nonetheless, the ‘imagineers’, both Chinese and foreign, will have to wend a sprightly way through a lot of history and culture that is, well, pretty much unpalatable. Okay, so those once-hallowed ancient customs of concubinage, foot binding for young girls, or the castration of boys being sent into imperial service, lack a modern feel-good factor, but inevitably there will be a phalanx or two of entombed warriors from the Qin dynasty (the real ones were only discovered during the last years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution). Don’t forget, Zhang Yimou played one in the 1989 film Terracotta Warrior, and he extolled their creator, the tyrannical First Emperor of the Qin, in his 2002 blockbuster Hero.

The Great Wall of China—a popular icon again since Deng Xiaoping’s 1981 call to ‘love and rebuild’ the wall—is now a symbol of national unity and ethnic amity. And there is no room for the countless bloody conflicts and relentless violence surrounding the Wall that date from well before the Christian era, and which continued up to the time of the Manchu invasion of the 1640s. The dragon, denounced for decades as being emblematic of the capricious imperial power of the Qing, has been domesticated ever since the 1988 Year of Tourism. Similarly, the murderous expansion of Qing emperors into Mongolia and Xinjiang is now cast in the language of peaceful diplomacy. Muslim rebellions, the Tibetan uprising, ethnic warfare in the southwest, and even the mass slaughter of Manchus in the 1910s following the collapse of their dynasty, are simply not part of the grand narrative spun by thinkers like Zheng Bijian. According to their take, China has always been non-aggressive.

Zhang Yimou has already declared that he is determined to showcase recherché elements of regional culture in his show. So formerly subjugated peoples—what some Han Chinese derisively call the ‘singing and dancing minorities’—that is Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Dai, Zhuang, to name but a few, will be prevailed upon to add exotic colour, and a sense of rhythm, to the proceedings.

As they take their meetings with the Beijing impresarios, Steven Spielberg, Ric Birch and Yves Pepin probably think they are bringing more to this mélange than mere international pop cultural cred, and pyrotechnical virtuosity. Maybe. But just over a hundred years ago China’s literati formulated a policy of using foreign know-how to serve the country’s cultural and political power-holders. This time around with China finally in the ascendant it will be delicious to watch the one-party state celebrate its remarkable survival, and achievements, with the help of Team America.

Geremie R. Barmé is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow at The Australian National University, Canberra. His latest book is The Great Wall of China, edited with Claire Roberts, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing/ Canberra, ANU: China Heritage Project, 2006, to be published in September.


*1 For an online version of the song and dance epic The East is Red, go to Morning Sun (blocked in China).

*2 Sandra Tsing Loh, Depth Takes a Holiday: Essays from Lesser Los Angeles (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), pp.211-212

*3 See "Zheng Bijian quanshi Zhongguo heping jueqi: Shixian wenming fuxing he qiangguomeng (Zheng Bijian explains China's peaceful rise: the reanaissance of a civilization and the realization of the dream of being a great power), 14 June 2006 at this webpage on the People's Daily

Image from Honghong Blog.

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