I’m walking under a beautiful blue sky, the temperature is pleasant and I breathe softly, deeply, I feel how the clean air enters. We’ve had only a few weeks like these and it feels like it could always have been like that, I wish it had always been like that.
The imposing buildings are still the frame of a grandeur that is not to come, but has already arrived, and that wants to stay long.
I’m living witness of a two week celebration, a celebration that was prepared by the governors of what will become the most powerful nation of my time. And today, once more, I dare discuss about it and, maybe, like all symbols of power, fear it.
China wanted to transform the perception the world had of her through the two weeks of the most important event (a sporting celebration) of our times, and in many ways she achieved it. The whole world became a spectator of her new Gran Teatro del Mundo that, like in the Baroque of the West, transformed the known landscape to give way to a symbolic idea of universal order on Earth (or of the new universal order).
Swamps became imposing gardens, country houses became gigantic palaces, small abbeys became gold-gilded monasteries; the king as the centre of the human universe, with everything revolving around him and, along with him, the rest of the characters of this great theatric play that god had imposed unto humanity. A philosophy of power.
Luxurious stagings, actors at their best, the presentation of an apparently new order with the pretext of an event like the Olympic Games, it was something we hadn’t seen since 1936 with Nazi Germany; a nation that presented itself as the upcoming imperial power and using the games to publicise it. I’m not confused, the differences between today’s China and the Germany of 1936 are extreme and evident, but the small similarities make me look at the blue sky and realise it’s the deceiving sky of an invented Beijing, like in a theatre play, planning the coming of a new game of lies that you must learn to decipher.
When, in college, I argued about the death or survival of theatre, I didn’t appreciate fully its usefulness in the life of nations and ideologies; I saw the propaganda, but not the setting on stage as an evident medium for assimilating it. Like in the Baroque, where it wasn’t the christian god who dictated the universal order but men, it’s not the omnipotence of the Chinese communist government (or that strange idea of the government of the people) who dictated the order, but a few men who hold power; those are the authors of a new play planned for two weeks, to tell the world “it’s us who’s coming, believe in us, enjoy with us, realise what we can and what we want!”. I’m tempted to say that their way of reacting to surprises like violence in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake and the protests and threats before the games, were part of that great planning. It’s not completely true, of course, but improvisation is also the art of planning.
James Reynolds, a BBC reporter, wondered about the strange way local Chinese leaders transmitted the news of upcoming events, with absolute preparation: at the last event of the olympic torch relay at the Great Wall, reporters received a communiqué at 6 am with a summary of the events, written in the past tense, related to things that would happen hours later; it talked not just about events, but also about the way the people reacted, their shouts and impulses; what’s most surprising is that hours later, when everything had happened, it had happened as it had been written: not just the order of events, but the assurance of the planning of the people’s spirit, their impulses, their passions. The fears of science fiction have always been present here.
The last day of the games I had the luck of having a ticket for the closing ceremony, a ceremony I had dreamt of going to since I was a child (it didn’t matter whether it was Beijing, Paris, London...); but once there, with all the lies weighing heavily after 3 years and 2 weeks of living the Olympic Beijing, it seemed too much, the last disgusting spectacle of an enormous amusement park which I should have never entered to.
Like a naive mortal in the Versailles of the 17th century, I wandered around that huge olympic dragon-shaped park, amongst lakes, walkways, singing fountains and immense and unique buildings; I entered the olympic stadium and readied myself for watching the spectacle prepared by the Chinese Vatel (or, worse, the Chinese Leni Riefenstahl, as some people call him), Zhang Yimou. Nothing new, performance-wise, everything had already been seen in Barcelona, Seoul, Atlanta, Athens, but here it was more fabulous, gigantic, immense; not five, not ten, but one thousand, two thousand performers per act; a thousand here, another thousand there; apotheotic images, like in a film for masses; the problem was not what to imagine, but how much to spend.
Gustavo Thomas (this blog’s author) at Beijing’s olympic stadium during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games (August 24th, 2008)
Me, like the other 90 thousand spectators there (including dozens of foreign dignitaries and people from the Chinese government), missed the true performance that was shown on TV; prepared with TV in mind, the closing ceremony was lacking in a theatric way (that is, live): it lacked a unifying structure, there was too much attention to changes and movement, but on TV there were no mistakes; me and thousands of spectators sitting on my side couldn’t see the flame extinguishing itself, but everyone on TV saw it; we were too busy lighting our torches at the right moment and ready to cry right there; this, like other details of that ceremony, were available for me to watch only two days after, at home.
Then, I started thinking again, and ire came: I was part of the show, a theatrical show created for the TV screen, to become an image through the media; I was another actor within that great theatre of the Chinese world, not a spectator like my ticket said, or, in any case, my role was that of a foreign spectator coming to praise in awe the new Chinese dream machine. Yes, when I got to the stadium, I got a bag, not with olympic souvenirs, but with props to be used during different parts of the show; a group of masters of ceremony appeared before the beginning of the TV transmission and gave us indications of what to do, when and how to do things with our props, all in a very Chinese way, smiling and inviting us to share. It was probably already written in the news bulletin, my shouts, my smiles, how I would react to the show and its surprises; someone had already told days or months before what we’d all do and what we’d all feel during the games, during the closing ceremony.
I enjoyed being there, no doubt, I enjoyed seeing proud Chinese singing their anthem, I enjoyed seeing a tower build itself and get filled with thousands of minute beings as in a Griffith film, creating a babel tower (a torch, in fact), I was moved thinking about the likeness of those masses on the stage-stadium with those of the first version of King Kong in the thirties of the 20th century, but it was (as it is now) extremely unpleasant to have been part, without being aware of it, of a repugnant propaganda theatre.
With this I finish my writing about the Olympic Beijing (the Baroque parties also had to finish, and were later forgotten). I still live in China, I still enjoy its culture and achievements, I keep spending all my money in this country eating, traveling and enjoying; therefore, I’ll keep sharing my personal creations, China’s performing arts, and what happens around these.
Video with my view within the stadium during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games.