Confucius says: let the Games begin | The Australian

09 Aug

Pretty observant, Rowan Callick. That the Opening Ceremony was a Mao-free zone did occur to me too. And as for Confucius, perhaps these quotations from Simon Leys’ excellent translation of the Analects are apt:

The Master said: “If a ruler could employ me, in one year I would make things work, and in three years the results would show.”

The Master said: “‘When good men have been running the country for a hundred years, cruelty can be overcome and murder extirpated.’ How true is this saying!”

The Master said: “Even with a true king, it would certainly take one generation for humanity to prevail.” — Analects 13.

That first, it occurs to me, would seem to indicate that NSW right now is in desperate need of Confucius. 😉

Sure, last night was about power; it was meant to be awesome. But it is also good to have been shaken a little from our sometimes Eurocentric idea of civilisation.


Yes, I am aware of human rights issues in China. I have after all met people who actually were in Tiananmen Square in 1989. I have met people who went through the Cultural Revolution. M’s own brother was in a re-education camp for two years post 1989… But I have spoken of such matters so many times already.


See Nagging questions amid ruins of Tiananmen by Nicholas Jose, a review of Beijing Coma by Ma Jian (Chatto & Windus). Nick was in China at the time and close to the action. He is also a long-term friend of M — longer than I have been.

ONE of the easiest ways to get into trouble in China is to go public about Tiananmen Square. The massive protests and bloody crackdown there in 1989 are still taboo subjects. The poet Shi Tao, for example, is in jail for revealing in an email the government’s plans for handling the anniversary of the event in 2004.

By putting Tiananmen Square at the heart of his ambitious new novel, Beijing Coma, Ma Jian takes on what is unspoken and unspeakable in China: the physical and psychological violence done to people in the name of the state.

China has changed almost beyond recognition since the 1980s. A new generation has grown up with little knowledge of the past. Even those who can remember are happy to look forward in the belief things keep getting better. But unfinished business remains, surfacing every time the giant square appears on television, filled with smiling faces, to remind authorities they cannot afford to loosen their grip. During the Olympics, reporting from Tiananmen Square will be the most closely watched of foreign media activity.

The protagonist of Ma Jian’s novel is a Peking University student who was involved in organising the 1989 demonstrations and who now, thanks to a stray bullet on the night of the June 4 massacre, lies in a vegetative state, replaying those calamitous events in his mind. In this brilliant image, memory and paralysis come together…

It is probably asking too much of a novel to provide a coherent analysis of Tiananmen Square at the same time as fictionalising a raw and unresolved moment in history. Ma’s protagonist remains disturbingly ambivalent about the questions at the heart of the novel, coming across as a picaresque traveller through the wreckage of 1989.

Could it have been different? Did the students act in vain? Is there another, hidden story? Is change for justice possible, in China or anywhere? Answers slip away as the novel’s remonstration grinds on. The sardonic hero, imprisoned in a needy ego and a body that refuses to die, is left with only the fading loops of memory.


Geremie Barme offers a fascinating cultural reading of the Opening Ceremony in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Olympics come to life as a painting by Beijing and athletes.

…Zhang Yimou, the renowned filmmaker and director of the show, used a quotation from Mao Zedong to describe the thinking behind the opening: “Using the past to serve the present and the foreign to serve China.”

Most observers noted that Mao Zedong, the party chairman who founded the People’s Republic in 1949 and led the country until his death in 1976 (launching the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the late-’50s and the decade of disruption of the Cultural Revolution from 1966) was entirely absent from this paean to China’s past civilisation. In reality, the Great Helmsman does get a look-in, if only obliquely.

On the unfurled paper scroll that featured early in the show, dancers traced out a painting of mountains and a river, to which is added a sun. It is an image that evokes the painting-mural that forms a backdrop to the statue of the chairman in the Mao Memorial Hall in the centre of Beijing. That picture is, in turn, inspired by a line from Mao’s most famous poem Snow (1936) that reads: “How splendid the rivers and mountains of China.” The poem lists the prominent rulers of dynastic China and ends by commenting on how all these great men fade in comparison to the true heroes of the modern world: the people. The poem is generally interpreted as being about Mao himself, the hero of the age…

But after the spectacular highlights of traditional China, powerful images jostle, appear momentarily and are crowded out as one mass scene after another presses in, or some vignette comes and goes in fleeting glitz. The Chinese voice-over speaks repeatedly about traditional aesthetics and the language of understatement and elegance, but as the show goes on, a certain failure of artistic coherence becomes increasingly obvious.

One Chinese web blogger commented immediately after the ceremony: “We’ve been waiting for this banquet for a long time. Instead what we got was hotpot in which all the flavours have ended up confused.”

People will debate the contents and significance of the visual banquet for some time. What does remain, however, is a Chinese painting which the whole world, through its athletes, has helped co-create.

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Posted by on August 9, 2008 in Chinese and China, Olympics 2008



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