On August 8, 2008, the world watched with awe the amazing spectacle of the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. We saw the electronic unrolling of Chinese scrolls replete with great historic symbols and were mesmerized by dancers creating “harmony,” using their bodies as ink brushes. 2008 martial arts students performed millennia-old moves with mechanical precision, while the flying celestials and the galloping torchbearer created a sense of heavenly abode on earth.
There was another time when China dazzled the world at its doorstep: the Tang dynasty (618-907), often thought of as China’s golden age, when it was truly the “middle kingdom” at the center of the universe. Its capital, Chang Àn (modern day Xìan) was a world-class city; visitors came from all over the world and were dazzled by its wealth, beauty, and power. Its emperors used silver from Persia, glass from Europe, precious stones from Central Asia, and gold implements from India. Open, confident, and cosmopolitan, China connected with the world with ease, adopting new ideas, and projecting its own indigenous creations. It’s no wonder that Chinese scholars sometimes refer to today’s China era as the new Tang Dynasty.
Indeed, when China was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001, the country’s official news agency, Xinhua called it a “milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” For seven years, Chinese officials and artists worked tirelessly to make this dream of a “renaissance” a glittering reality, and they exceeded all expectations. But how should we understand the broader implications of the opening ceremony, both for China and the outside world?
First, the good news. In keeping with China’s recent efforts to project its “soft” side, the opening ceremony produced the idea of a historic, but dynamic culture at its best. Other than the presence of a few People’s Liberation Army soldiers, you would have been hard pressed to find any visible evidence of the reigning communist regime or its founder, Mao Zedong.
Equally significant was the projection of China as a nascent leader of the new international cultural order. The “Bird’s Nest” stadium was the creation of the multinational design team of Herzog & de Meuron, with suggestions from the visual artist Ai Weiwei. Many artists involved in the creation of the spectacle, including the fireworks specialist Cai Guo Qiang, the dance star Shen Wei, and the composer Tan Dun, earned their fame primarily in the West. Even Zhang Yimou, the lead impresario for the event, gained fame in the West through his early films chronicling the hard life of a young modern China.
Chinese officials had clearly decided that these diaspora darlings of the international art scene should be now claimed as China’s own. These artists’ ability to the bridge traditions of East and West and to create a new space for creativity that can transcend the cultural specificities of the past in favor of a new blended future could be squarely associated with China’s own global aspirations. Like the artists and their art, the country could elevate itself from the dichotomies of old-new, past-present, and traditional-modern to project an image appropriate to our globalizing age.
Not surprisingly, Chinese leadership was keen to avoid any reference to the last two centuries of struggle and humiliation, or to its problematic political agendas and thorny trade issues. At the same time, it could be argued that the spectacle of the opening ceremony was intended to overcome China’s historic humiliation by the West and signal a new chapter. The “sleeping dragon,” as Napoleon described China in the early nineteenth century, was now fully awake, ready to charge into the new world. As in the Tang Dynasty, arts and culture were at center stage, reflecting the country’s economic prowess and political might.
But the extravaganza also left lingering doubts. Why such a drive to prove to the world that these had to be the very best Olympics ever? (Chinese authorities even pressed the International Olympic Committee to make such a declaration at the conclusion of the games.) Some have suggested that the effort suggests a hint of insecurity.
It should also be noted that while Mao was conspicuously absent in the Olympics, his communist legacy was present in subtle ways. The relentless emphasis on the “harmonious” presence of large groups of performers left no room for individual voices (even the young singer Lin Miaoke, as we now know, didn’t have her own voice). Ironically, while younger Chinese (products of China’s one-child policy) are obsessed with personal stylistic statements, the drama of the opening ceremony consisted in collective expression at the service of the state.
Chinese intellectuals have always been cognizant of this tension between individual creativity and collective will. How will the new China balance these two conflicting needs?
As we contemplate the potential arrival of the new Tang Dynasty in China, we should remember the message of the old Tang Dynasty poet, Po Chü-i (772-846 AD):
Sent as a present from Annam,
A red cockatoo.
Colored like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.