A mere 14 months after China dazzled the world with spectacular opening and closing ceremonies for the XXIX Olympiad it threw a comparably stupendous birthday party for itself. Official festivities lasted eight days and although it was not an invitation-only affair it drew very little attention in our dominant media. I am writing to share the thrill of seeing what I filched from the Internet and from television’s fringe channels.
Two years of teaching English in the hinterlands (Wuhu in Anhui Province, 1982-3, and Liaocheng in Shandong Province, 1986-7) put me in close proximity with China’s culture and customs. For many of my college students I was the first “round eyed, long nosed, devil” they’d ever seen.
Chinese customs are to some extent the inverse of ours, e.g. surnames before given names, dinner guests in Anhui show respect for their host by arriving early. Chinese culture intersects with ours in strange, some might say, irrational ways, e.g. the government mandated that schools abandon Russian and teach American in preference to British English, every educated Chinese loves western classical music. In Liaocheng a teacher who lived across the road from me played Beethoven’s Fur Elise every morning, week after week for an entire semester.
The whole world knows about China’s astonishing economic growth; annual GDP running between 6 and 10 percent year after year. In 1982 my students accepted China’s place in the third world; students today will have none of it. My personal experience with this “great leap forward” is highlighted by the fact that the Grand Canal, the oldest—begun in the 5th century B.C.—and longest—about 1,100 miles—man-made waterway in the world, connecting Beijing to Hangzhou, a dust-dry ditch 27 years ago as it passed through Liaocheng had become a fast flowing river carrying boat traffic when I visited in the spring of 2004.
I took the train from Jinan to Beijing for National Day, the 37th anniversary, and walked a very long block to Tiananmen. Instead of an organized celebration I mingled shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of people.
Tiananmen is the biggest city square in the world, so big that it is not possible to appreciate its size standing anywhere on it. If you walk from one side to the other at strolling speed it will take over thirty minutes. If properly marked off with chalk lines Tiananmen could accommodate 80 simultaneous football games each with adequate space for coaches and benched players.
For the 60th birthday spectacular spectacle Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, was indeed marked off—for a parade route with viewing accommodations on the north, Forbidden City side. The parade included elements to delight eyes and ears, formatted and presented in a manner that stirred the imagination into the realm of stupefying disbelief.
Voice over commentary said that a hundred thousand people had practiced for weeks and would participate, marching, chanting and singing, in the parade. They passed by in gender segregated groups, 10 by 10, 20 by 20, 20 by 40, 10 by 60 etc., each fitted out in colorful uniforms, red, blue, yellow, orange, green and earth-hued military camouflage.
From the side line, position yourself above the heads of the marchers and see a row of 20. In ordinary walking one’s head bobs up and down with each step but in parade-military marching there’s no head-bobbing; drill sergeants make sure the formation bobs as one. So, see white caps and white belts in lines as straight as two laser beams moving smoothly as if on wheels or undulating on a calm lake. See 20 right legs move as one, 20 right arms perfectly synchronized; everyone the same height—caps forming perfectly spaced dots in a plane rectangle or square. See a stack of 20 identical profiles, equal arm length, arm swing, chin angle, hair cut. Don’t be surprised to hear the voice-over say that eyebrows and fingernails had to meet exact specifications. “Sorry son. You picked up 10 pounds since we selected you. Turn in your uniform and go home.” So identical is the movement of each marcher to all others that computer graphics popped into my head—I was, after all, looking at TV. The 20 by 40 block I see is actually a single beautiful person in gorgeous uniform duplicated and formatted in rows and columns by a computer program 799 times.
What I saw on television and the Internet and what I am trying to convey is necessarily affected by what I saw at the same place over two decades earlier: back then a sea of people in ordinary dress milling about contrasted today with wave after wave of uniformed, disciplined, perfectly synchronized performers, on the small screen.
Of course, I only saw what producers put on the Internet and TV. My wife was told of a relative who took her 10 year-old son to Beijing to see the parade. The kid was not just disappointed and frustrated, he was downright angry. He never wanted to go to Beijing again. He couldn’t see the parade, he said. All he could see was people.
I do not know how long the parade lasted. How long does it take for nearly a hundred thousand marchers at two measured step per second to pass a given point? Add to that a dozen or so floats and the customary display of awesome military hardware, tanks, missile launchers, airplanes.
A major highlight of China’s birthday festivities took place on the penultimate day. A lavish production of Turandot—estimated cost $17.57 million—took place at the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, the site that housed track and field competitions and where the stunning XXIX Olympiad opening and closing ceremonies took place.
For the opera the stage occupied an arc on the circumference; it reached a height of thirty feet and the width of the sloping stage-floor looked to be three times that. It was still not big enough because the voice-over told me there were a thousand singers in the chorus and I could see many of them singing from ground level.
The choice of Turandot epitomizes China’s strange cultural intersects with the west. Puccini never visited China. He adapted the story from an ancient Persian fable. The title character is a beautiful princess and China has never in millennia of recorded history, dynasty after dynasty, designated Emperors’ daughters as princesses. Finally, the orchestra in this over-the-top production was conducted by an Italian. On the occasion of its 60th birthday China seemed to be showing the world that great music transcends parochial niceties and suffers no diminution because of factual miscues.
Afterthought. I wonder what’s happening to those tens of thousands of colorful uniforms. Surely, the men and women students in the parade did not take them home. I cannot imagine anyone wearing such eye-catching costumes on the streets of Shanghai, Wuhu or Liaocheng. Be on the lookout for them on sale in costume shops in New Orleans next Mardi Gras or in Rio for Carnaval.
Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.