I said I wasn’t going to do it, and I honestly thought I could resist. But in the end, like most of the rest of the world, I caved. I watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Not once, but three times.
I have had a fascination with Asian history and culture for the better part of my adult life. I’ve formally studied Japanese and Mandarin (though not in the quantities or with the success I would prefer). I have practiced Vajrayana Buddhism for more than five years, which in the early days included a lot of reading about the intersection of classical Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist thought, teachings, history and culture in ancient China.
I have sought to understand the actions of today’s Chinese government against the backdrop of the same government of 30 years and 50 years ago, trying to recognize the complexities of something that is so far outside of my normal experience that I cannot help but to react to it through a lens of what is, on many levels, based on ignorance.
With all of that in mind, I can honestly say that the Opening Ceremony was the most visually and emotionally stunning production I have ever seen. Like many of the talking-head analysts who have picked apart China and these Games for the last few months, and like many of my own friends who aren’t nearly as vested in the issue, I have but one conclusion to reach: China’s bainian guochi, the 100-year humiliation of a people, society and culture that that has spent the better part of four millennia as a world powerhouse, is officially over.
Like the awe-inspiring pyrotechnic Footprints of History that marched through the skies between Tian’anmen Square to the National Stadium and directly into the minds of 4 billion television viewers across the globe, I have to believe that the Chinese Century has now made its way from concept to reality.
Perhaps underscoring my naïveté, I was surprised to see the gap between the ancient-history portion of the program, which concluded at some point toward the end of the Qing dynasty, and the start of the modern-history section, which the commentator placed at 1978, when China began implementing economic reforms after Mao Zedong’s death. Frankly, I found it strangely optimistic that this sterilized production of modern Communist history seemed to group the turbulence created under Mao, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, as part of the guochi, almost attempting to purge it from the world’s collective memory via the Opening Ceremony.
(I couldn’t help but to think back to the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, which sought to reconcile both the city’s and the entire geographic region’s egregious treatment of African-Americans before and after the Civil War through acknowledgment of past sins and celebration of black America’s individual and collective accomplishments.)
The Chinese government and its people put a face of overwhelming optimism on China’s role on the world stage in the next century via what will likely go down as one of the most expensive displays of propaganda in history (in fairness, every Opening Ceremony I’ve ever seen – including the one in Atlanta – is propaganda on a grand, prime-time scale). It is now incumbent on the rest of the world to hold the People’s Republic accountable for the responsibility that comes with the new, post-bainian guochi role.
As that happens, I’ll continue to try and find my own balance when it comes to the tenuous relationship between the Chinese government, her people, their collective culture and experience, and my own effort to practice the Middle Way.