Geremie Barme: Olympic Art and Artifice


The year 2008 is a significant one for the People’s Republic of China. Of course, there will be the Beijing Olympic Games, scheduled to start on August 8—the auspicious eighth day of the eighth month (eight, ba/bat, is a near homophone for “success”, fa/fat, in both Mandarin and Cantonese). But another, little noticed date might actually tell us more about the true state of Chinese affairs: the 110th anniversary of the tumultuous Hundred Days’ Reform (Wuxu bianfa).

The Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898 marks a period when the young Guangxu Emperor of the last Chinese imperial dynasty (the Qing, 1644–1911) attempted to promulgate wide-ranging reforms of China’s political, educational and cultural life. In part inspired by the earlier Meiji reforms that transformed Japan into a modern (and eventually imperialist) polity, the Guangxu Emperor issued a series of edicts designed to set his country on a course of modernization and national renewal.

The forces of reaction, however, won the day. Conservative political and military leaders engineered a palace coup to abort the reforms, bringing the emperor’s aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, back into power for a disastrous further decade of imperial decline. The year 2008 will also mark the centenary of her eventual demise at the age of 73 in a palace on a site where China’s Communist leaders still hold high-level meetings—in Zhongnan Hai (the Lake Palaces), adjacent to the Forbidden City.


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