Susan Brownell: Why were Chinese People so Angry about the Attempts to Seize the Torch in the International Torch Relay?

Dr. Susan Brownell writes in The China Beat blog:

In China, the majority of public expressions take place in a vast field of rituals and symbols, while the protest zones that were recently announced for the Olympic Games are the small, circumscribed spaces where critical analytical thought is expressed. In the US, the majority of public expressions take place in a vast field of critical analytical thought, while ritual expression takes place in small, circumscribed places like churches and, arguably, sports events. I realized that at least part of the anger that many Chinese people felt at the disruptions of the international torch relay was the result of the (to them) appalling and uncivilized lack of respect for a nearly-sacred object.

In the West the Olympic Games have struggled with a loss of idealism due to challenges like commercialism and doping. The ChineseOlympic organizers and many Chinese people held an idealistic faith in the transformative power of the Olympic Games, believing that they could facilitate China’s integration with the world and benefit its future development. The West duly regarded this with skepticism. According to Turner, a balanced social process requires rituals. The global village needs its ritual and the Olympic Games are currently serving that function. But also according to Turner, ritual has the potential to either increase solidarity or initiate irreparable schisms.

In Deyang it was possible to foresee the closing of this cultural gap between China and the West. Everyone agreed that our final performance at the elite Foreign Languages Middle School in Deyang was the “most orderly” – and all but myself and the artist Sun Yiyong considered this a good thing. The children did not mob The Torch or me. They spoke very good English and they paid 40,000 yuan per year in tuition. Apparently for such privileged children The Torch and The International Person had already lost some of their lustre.

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