I watched the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics last night, and I must admit they were visually stunning. The artistic theme celebrated the endless wonder that is Chinese culture, and it served notice on the world that China is a power on the world stage.
Some of the images were truly unforgettable. I was personally thrilled to see the celebration of Zheng He
, the Ming Dynasty eunuch admiral whose treasure fleets sailed as fair as South Africa, and quite possibly the New World, if Gavin Menzies
' theories stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, I agree with Menzies that Columbus' voyages used maps and data collected on Zheng He's journeys.
The lighting of the Olympic cauldron was over the top, and yet somehow remained equally impressive and almost tasteful. Sending a man hundreds of feet in the air, on wires, to run the circuit of the stadium like a bicycling Superman somehow worked.
Of course too there were fireworks. After all, this was China.
The ceremonies celebrated Chinese martial arts, music, art, architecture and all of the achievements of the only first-generation civilization of antiquity to survive, continuously, to this day. If you don't believe in the staying power of China, ask a Sumerian.
Yet for all the splendor of the ceremonies, there were elements that were disturbing, almost bloodcurdling. The display of 2008 drummers, playing in unison, was impressive, but despite the smiles ordered on the musicians' faces, calculated to intimidate.
Another image that I found beautiful in appearance but somewhat upsetting was the giant ball that turned into a globe. Acrobats, again on wires ran about the globe and eventually flew off spectacularly.
High atop atop Sara Brightman and Chinese singer Liu Huan, performing a duet. The images were incredible, and the song beautiful.
So what was wrong?
The people were completely overwhelmed Brightman and Liu were tiny figures on a stage so enormous that it diminished them. Similarly, the acrobats were little more than dark silhouettes against the Earth-shaped lantern.
That was symptomatic of recurring theme of the ceremonies: Masses of people dressed and made up to look identical, doing identical things, often subordinated to the mammoth stage sets around them. It was the victory of the collective over the individual at ever turn.
Or one might ask, what individual?
Finally, there was a military intrusion that was wholly inappropriate. No matter how sharp the creases in their pants or how shiny their boots might be, goose-stepping soldiers have no place in a celebration of international brotherhood. Especially jarring was the moment in which fifty-six children, each representing one of China's distinct ethnic groups, delivered the flag to the People's Liberation Army storm troopers. NBC
, in its apparent determination to either suck up or brown nose the Chinese Communists (the only difference is depth perception), parroted the official line that it was a symbol that the soldiers were the guardians of the children's future safety.
In this case don't ask a Sumerian, ask a Tibetan.
I was revolted by this militaristic intrusion, and images of 1936 came to mind. The goosestepping is best left to those who guard Chairman Mao's wretched corpse.
Thankfully, the best moment came courtesy of a Chinese. Yao Ming
carried the flag for his country's team, accompanied by a small boy who survived the collapse of his school in the Sichuan earthquake. This little boy lost twenty out of thirty classmates but, though injured himself, went back to the school to help dig out two of his friends. That kind of courage earns my respect any day of the week, and he is a little hero fully deserving of that honor.
Significantly, it was the only real acknowledgment of an individual over the collective throughout the ceremonies.
So I am left with distinctly mixed impressions. In visual terms, the ceremonies were a show that went beyond the mundane term of spectacular. They were also an effective statement of Chinese culture in all of its glory.
Yet there is a caution embodied in them as well. The disregard for the individual and the glorification of the group, all marching in the same direction, is antithetical to democratic ideals and those of freedom. Then again, the Chinese Communists reject the first, and use the second mainly to create a financially healthy environment and not much else. Liberty is a limited tool that regime, never an end to itself.
Additionally, one cannot shake the intimidation factor. The drummers were there to serve notice, and the honor guard was as obviously inappropriate as a swastika in a grade school Christmas pageant.
My admiration for Chinese history and culture certainly survived watching the ceremonies. Then again, so did my distrust and dislike of the tyrants who currently rule that country.