By Barbara Bornet Stumph, M.S., East-West Center alumna and current chapter leader of the EWCA Northern California Chapter
Retired Teacher at Pittsburg and Mt. Diablo Unified School Districts of English Language Development (ESL) and Ancient World History
The opening of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was dazzling. But what did it mean?
If we can decode the symbolism of that extravaganza, we may glean more understanding of the culture and thinking of this blooming, controlled state.
Two days after Beijing’s performers bedazzled the world in their 2008 Olympics Opening show, Bill Kristol said on Fox News, “Well, the Olympics is just a giant opportunity for People’s Republic of China to deliver their propaganda.”
This is an outdated viewpoint, I believe. Yes, the State uses art for its own purposes.
I am much more intrigued by what three famous artists in China, Zhang Yimou (Film Director), Jang Ligang (Director of Dance), and Tan Dun (Musical Director), tried to convey to us in the Opening Ceremony from inside an economically blooming, controlled state. While Democracies loathe Communist arrests of dissidents, for example, I wonder, what we also can learn from China’s contemporary artists?
Here’s my attempt to humbly decode the Olympics opening show from my vantage point as a student of intensive Mandarin Chinese and Related Studies at the East West Center, University of Hawaii, in 1965-66 with a life-long specialty in Chinese brush painting.
Olympics Beijing needs to be viewed in the context of the past fifty years of Chinese international relations, and then re-viewed to include the past five thousand years of Chinese history.
The current generation of elderly people in China vividly remember their suffering when Japan invaded. All Chinese were proud to receive Hong Kong back after the ninety nine year lease from the British; Shanghai, their cultural center, is dotted with French buildings and other European architecture. Adult Chinese lived during the so-called Cultural Revolution, a time of Chinese anarchy, when fine arts and Western music were demolished by Maoist doctrine. During the most recent twenty years in the run-up to hosting the Olympics, modern Beijing Chinese are quite a bit freer than before and are feverously working to modernize—to show their strength and resilience—in order to launch a new Era in Chinese history.
How did artists like Misters Zhang, Jang, and Tan use the language of the arts in today’s China? Let’s look at Zhang’s efforts to bring Harmony to center stage in the world. The concept of Harmony in China comes from a balance of the forces of male (Yang), and female forces (Yin). How did these artists try to balance these forces in their show? With 100 million dollars at their fingertips, what language did Director Zhang use last Friday night in designing their show?
We recall hundreds of drummers playing on reconstructed model drums based on one which was excavated in one of China’s tombs. Regimental pounding and chanting had a militaristic aura. Zhang gave us a feeling of how the Emperor of old may have felt when his subjects filled his courtyard. This fierceness was balanced by the ethereal flying fairy goddess on a high wire with her flowing silk robes. Only if one connects these two events together, can one feel the Chinese notion of the balance of opposites.
I heard one American news commentator at the Opening say, “We will experience lots of contrasts tonight.” That is only part of the story.
Many people will recall a highlight of the show were silver pistons which moved up and down in massive, mechanical patterns. “How are they doing that on the stage floor?” we wondered. Look at the degree of group control. There is a “scary” aspect, my Jewish friend, confided to me later. It reminds me of May 5 parades for Mao.
“Impressive,” says my husband. “How are they doing that?”
Suddenly the cold looking pistons with power to mesmerize us, all transformed: pink and red paper flowers spurted out of the tops of every piston until into a warm field of flowers in Chinese lucky red, a traditional, New Year greeting. I laughed with the world audience. Next hundreds of young boys’ heads popped up out of the flower bed. “Yep, I guessed there had to be people inside,” my husband said. Young boys with scrubbed fresh faces, representing the future China, waving at us.
Did you see high wire dancers pretending to walk all around the latitude of the monstrous golden moon? A spaceman floated out of the sky probably to symbolize China’s dream for putting a man on the moon in the next two years: here Zhang reminded us of China’s growing technological expertise.
A lithe, young sweetheart came flying across the sky of the Bird’s Nest near the paper moon, while famous pianist Lang Lang emerged center stage surrounded by light. Director Zhang seated a young girl next to Lang Lang. Why is there a child next to Lang Lang? Traditionally, Chinese want children to learn from the masters, as well as their parents, like a young branch grows off of a mature stem of a tree.
Another Chinese dancer dressed in flying robes appeared elevated on top of moving shoulders of an army of hidden foot students. As she dances gracefully like a classical Chinese painting I have seen, somehow she keeps her footing. What is she standing on? The music changes to symphonic melodies of China, as directed by Tan Dun. Other dancers formed five perfect concentric rings on the stage floor. “There are no guidelines painted on this floor,” the NBC commentator said.
“The message was loud and clear to me,” my father said on the telephone. “One person can screw the whole thing up!” In fact, other commentators, like George Will, noted the group control demonstrated in the ceremony.
Every now and then, outside cameras showed us the grand view of “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium: the building glowed with 90,000 visitors, as the structure was lighted in wide bands of red and green. These two colors are used to indicate Yin/Yang principles: red is Yang, green is Yin. Together red and green are used on the Peach of Long Life in Chinese painting.
One moment, which did seem to me reminiscent of Mao’s China was when they paraded ethnic children in traditional costumes. Yet when cameras zoomed in on the faces, those kids looked thrilled.
Next, a hundred or so male students appeared dressed in Confucius-like gowns. White pheasant feathers, pierced the sky from their headdresses. Silver and black gowns, made a modern art pattern, as they prostrated themselves, as if to kow tow to the Emperor. They carried bamboo books, showing ancient love of learning. These scholars came out ahead of the Kung Fu martial artists about whom Zhang Yimou said in an interview with Beijing Review magazine: “I put them in because the world expects to see them from us.” Then the Yin performance to balance this spectacle came in the form of Tai Chi Chuan dancers whose slow movements are for breathing and bodily health.
Sarah Brightman and a popular, Chinese male singer, sang while holding hands on top of a sky scraper. Here, East and West are symbolically resolving their historical fear of one another, perhaps: part of my dream.
Where lighted dancers swarmed onto the stage like thousands of fireflies, Chinese explorer ships emerged. The ships contradicted the commentator who spoke of “Chinese historical isolationism.” It depends on what dynasty you’re talking about. The international community was treated to a vast collage of sights and patterns reminding us of China’s aggressive trade on the seas and on her ties over the Silk Road. I read in Beijing Review that Zhang had originally dressed the lighted dancers in black; but Zhang did not like the effect in dress rehearsal. One week later, two thousand dancers were wearing light green body suits instead.
One memorable performance was when other black clothed dancers appeared center stage to perform on a computer screen which represented the center of a Chinese scroll unfolding. (Note the theme here: value education and learning.) Their sleeves were long so they could touch the monster screen beneath them and thus were able to “paint” a traditional landscape; another dancer added a moon. A happy face was added to the moon by a child.
As the athletes of hundreds of countries parade, their feet walked across colored stamp pads, so their footprints made a rainbow across the high tech screen. Rainbows are a universal symbol of resolution after the storm. I felt the Harmony of the moment. This screen will tour the world after the Olympics are over.
The fireworks were a grand, fiery display: I saw white chrysanthemums march across the sky, a symbol on Chinese porcelain and in painting for Longevity.
California, where I live, sent more than one hundred athletes to Beijing. I hope the athletes, too, felt the Harmony that Zhang, Jang, and Tan strived to create in the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.
After all, the theme of the Beijing Olympics is, “One world, one dream.”
Meanwhile, I say a prayer for all Chinese artists, who live in a society which requires that art serve the State. As I think back, I find there was an emphasis on conformity and authoritarian rule. The uniformity of the drummers and the prostrate Confucian scholars, for example, were serving the one ruler. Was this a bit of protest art?
I guess I want the Olympics Opening Ceremony to be more than an opportunity for propaganda. For me, at least, it was a visual feast, and an impressive feat.