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2008 Olympics: Hidden Subtexts at the Opening Ceremony

August 9th, 2008

Photo: “Lang Lang plays for change” (Reuters)

No one does mass public spectacle better than the totalitarians. Zhang Yimou has given the Olympics think tank in London plenty to scratch their heads about. The entire ceremony was a marvel of synchronization: the movable type, the tai chi circles, the drummers doing the countdown, the glow-in-the-dark bird’s nest. I can’t imagine what rehearsals were like. How do you even order around so many bodies? You thousand go here, you thousand go there…oh, and make it look pretty.

Opening ceremonies are usually a pastiche of propaganda. Beijing, at least, had some cohesion, thanks to a few recurring motifs. Paper was big, as were fireworks, and why not? The Chinese invented both. I loved, for example, how the unraveling scroll (then a sea of movable type) was echoed by the scrim raveling around the entire arena into the Olympic torch. Speaking of which, Li Ning’s airborne victory lap around the nest was one of the most breathtaking torch-lightings ever (Barcelona still holds at Number One). Leave it to a rhythmic gymnast to carry off such a stamina draining feat with so much flow and finesse.

But even with so much beauty and creativity to be observed, there were also some rather disturbing moments. This year, NBC enlisted a “Cultural Commentator” to sit opposite Matt Lauer during the telecast. Lauer didn’t quite know what to make of the image of Chinese children passing flags to the goosestepping members of the Chinese military. The commentator calmly explained how “symbolically, this exhibits how the government is the guarantor of stability for these children.” Yes, that would be the diplomatic thing to say. But what does the text tell us?

In a less jarring moment, Chinese pianist Lang Lang took center stage at a grand as white and shiny as his suit. Sitting on the bench beside him was a Chinese girl who the announcers tell us had only been taking lessons for less than a year. She looked as if she wanted to push him off the bench to strut her own stuff because she kept placing her hands above the keyboard while Lang was playing. The commentary offered here was that classical musicians like Lang are the equivalent of rock stars in China. (Alex Ross could have told you that).

There was nothing insidious about the piano lesson (unless Lang had a bamboo stick on the stand that I somehow missed). The hope expressed here was that the adorable little girl grow up to be a pianist just like her idol. But the smiling children handing out flags to the grownup goose-steppers. Not a future children so young should be contemplating.

Entry Filed under: beijing,goose-stepping,lang lang,olympics,opening ceremony,torch


August 2008


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