Let the Spiel Begin – Geremie R. Barmé

Many thanks to Geremie R. Barmé for contributing the following essay to CDT:

Let the Spiel Begin

Zhang Yimou, the avant-garde film director turned populist will lead the group designing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It has also recently been announced that Zhang’s team will be joined by a consortium of international ‘imagineers’ from LA (Steven Spielberg), Paris (Yves Pepin) and Sydney (Ric Birch).

Hollywood and its culture of spectacle have been enmeshed with China and its Communist Party rulers for decades. Since the Cultural Revolution the Apache Dance has revolved around epic and action films (from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in 1987 to J.J. Abrams’ recent M:i:III), as well as the more vexatious issue of copyright. But more importantly, just as Henry Ford’s Taylorism gave Lenin ideas about assembly-line production, Hollywood has long been giving China cues about staging spectacles.

Everything from Hollywood epics to the Ziegfeld Follies fed into both Soviet and Chinese designs for mass rallies and proletarian tableaux vivant. Anyone who has seen the 1964 Maoist song and dance extravaganza The East is Red, for example, will suspect that the communist choreographers studied the best the West could offer. Furthermore, China has been producing lavish opening ceremonies and celebrations on a grand scale since the inauguration of the People’s Republic in 1949. While today North Korea is known for synchronized mass callisthenic performances produced for the pleasure of the Dear Leader, it was by way of China that directors from the Eastern Bloc started working there decades ago.

The new Olympic Stadium in Beijing promises to be impressive, but Tiananmen Square was purpose built for grandiose and chilling displays of a million participants. A recent example of self-congratulatory socialist pageantry was the big parade of 1 October 1999, the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Republic. Last year, a scaled-down version was held in Lhasa to mark the 40th anniversary of the imposed Autonomous Region. The new Potala Square in which it was held features lakes festooned with swirling swastikas, a large ‘Peaceful Liberation Plinth’ and a parade ground embedded with fountains and lights that, when they leap to life, spray and shimmer in time with party (Communist Party that is) show tunes. It is little wonder that locals call the once holy city Lhasa-Vegas.

Olympic ceremonies have become a global village affair. Host nations use the occasion to rehearse feel-good versions of their history. They highlight past achievements, laudable aspects of what is claimed to be their national character, and they project their country’s dreams (or at least those of the design committee and their political overlords) to an audience of billions worldwide. The opening and closing pageants are like son et lumière tourist brochures with a touch of Cirque du Soleil existentialism thrown in. Increasingly over the top, the ceremonies are absurdly elaborate and often cloying schmaltzy.

It is no surprise therefore, that Zhang Yimou is stage-managing the Chinese production (or that Spielberg is the big-name international ring-in). Since the 1990s economic boom, China’s avant-garde cultural figures in particular film, art and music makers”have increasingly helped affirm the country’s one-party state. Celebrated internationally for edgy individualism, back home the culturati have been cashing in on the state of the state for years. Now Zhang Yimou is centre stage.

In a sense Yimou started out staging spectacle. I remember Chen Kaige telling me in 1986, shortly after his and Zhang’s break-through film Yellow Earth first screened in Hong Kong, that they edited the exuberant Shaanxi peasant ‘rain dance’ finale by pacing it in time to a recent Michael Jackson hit. And now with Hollywood and Chinese hyperbole in cahoots, we can be sure that the world is going to get one great big holla bak from Beijing.

The 2008 Olympics will also provide a unique opportunity for China to show the world its vision of itself, and what it has to offer as a nascent global power. As for any spectacle made for the Communist rulers, however, the ‘imagineers’ both Chinese and foreign, are going to have to please the notorious ‘Two Olds’ (er lao): the old cadres (lao ganbu) and the ‘old hundred names’ (lao baixing, that is, the masses). They’ll also have to wend a sprightly way through a lot of Chinese history, much of which is pretty unpalatable.

Inevitably there’ll be a phalanx or two of Qin entombed warriors (the real ones were discovered in 1974). Don’t forget, Zhang Yimou played one in the 1989 film Terracotta Warrior, and he extolled their creator, the tyrannical Emperor of the Qin, in his more recent film Hero. Many other vaunted neo-national symbols that will be utilized in 2008 similarly boost political autocracy. There is the Great Wall, only prominent since Deng Xiaoping’s 1981 call to ‘love and restore’ it, and the imperial dragon, a capricious beast, that only became the familiar of the Chinese nation in 1988 during the Year of Tourism. However, these and much more will be served up as part of the story of 5000 years of ethnic harmony and civilization. Furthermore, the subjugated ethnic people’s of China”Tibetans, Uyghurs, Dai, Mongols, Zhuang, etc”what the Han Chinese call the country’s ‘singers and dangers’, will doubtlessly 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 techniques 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 a professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, Canberra. His latest book is Sang Ye’s oral history, China Candid: the People on the People’s Republic (University of California, 2006), edited with Miriam Lang.