Haiyan Lee: The Right to Party, en Masse

Haiyan Lee, Assistant Professor University of Colorado, writes on the ChinaBeat blog:

Everything about the Beijing Olympics was meant to sweep you off your feet. But above all, it was the number of performers—15,000—in the opening ceremony that probably caused many an eye to pop and jaw to drop. Given how much of the “Chineseness” in the program belonged to the category of “invented” or at least airbrushed tradition, the surreally synchronized movements of thousands of people was perhaps the most “signature” of the Chinese touches. The antecedents are much closer in history and more vivid in memory: we need only recall the images of mass formations dressed in regulation garb, chanting in unison, marching in lockstep, waving the little red book, or doing what George Orwell calls “physical jerks.” To date, only the North Koreans can rival the Chinese in staging such spectacles of sheer numbers. It is the totalitarian aesthetic at its most beguiling and frightening. It is the power of ritual.

A new book called Ritual and Its Consequences argues that ritual is a quintessential human activity because it creates an “as if” world in which identities are made, boundaries tested, and human potentialities stretched. It can be used by rulers to solidify the existing order, or by the malcontent to imagine alternative worlds. The Chinese Communist Party, since its days of fighting guerrilla warfare in the countryside, has tapped the powers of ritual with consummate skill: it famously invented the ritual of fanshen (turning over) to denounce the ancien regime and the social order it presided over; and it mandated (and to some extent still does) mass participation in a numbing array of state-orchestrated rituals (such as mass rallies) to cultivate loyalty and conformity.

… Beginning with Hero, Zhang seems enthralled by what Susan Sontag calls “fascinatin’ fascism,” or power dressed up as splendid spectacles. Repeatedly, he knocks us dead with glorious mise-en-scènes of ancient humanity, surprisingly agile in their quaintly cumbersome accoutrements not unlike those worn by portions of the opening ceremony performers, carrying out the will of a tyrant with unstoppable menace. These are the films that have at last turned a profit for Zhang and endeared him to the authorities. They are seductive in the same way that films about the Nazi aesthetics of pomp and violence have perversely held audiences’ attention worldwide for decades.

… It is no accident that a New York Times profile of Zhang Yimou calls him China’s Leni Riefenstahl. Whether or not the analogy is fair, Zhang’s success owes as much to an iron-fisted regime that loves grandeur as to our irrepressible fascination with aestheticized and ritualized politics, particularly its ability to galvanize people to achieve the seemingly impossible. In comparison, democratic politics (unless it resorts to imperialist, shock’n’awe-style violence against a “rogue” nation) is hopelessly drab and tedious—how on earth does one turn C-Span into a visually stunning and emotionally arousing spectacle? The same book on ritual mentioned earlier asserts that modern western societies cling to the virtue of sincerity and authenticity out of a profound distrust of ritual. Ritual appears to many as empty formality devoid of genuine feeling. But this doesn’t mean that we are immune to its allures of creativity, theatricality, and communality, or its promise to lift us out of our private, atomized existence.

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