National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin

Below is the un-censored version of a story that I wrote for the Sept. issue of a local expat magazine about our Opening Ceremony experience. It was originally rejected by the Chinese editor, who deemed it “too negative and too sensitive.” The red text is what I deleted or completely reworked to make it patriotically palatable (other stuff was edited out for space).

There are two editors, and in this case the (apologetic) American editor passed on the Chinese editor’s objections to me, which were mostly about offending patriotic sensitivities (paints a “too negative” image of China) and less about being politically careful. The American editor suggested several edits, including that I “really butter it up” regarding people not singing the national anthem and not cheering as much as I thought they would (it was “too negative” to mention these things). In ‘protest’ (for fun), I submitted this over-the-top rewrite, which they printed:

As the flag was raised the entire park immediately stood up for the national anthem. At first I was surprised that most people chose to stand respectfully rather than sing. But in hindsight, the piqued crowd was more likely struck speechless by the sight of their flag and national anthem being honoured before the entire world.

In the local atmosphere surrounding the Olympics, China’s “image” in the eyes of foreigners was (and still is) an intense concern. The same week that the article was rejected I received an hour’s worth of similar complaints about my previous articles from one of my teachers.

I’m posting this to give you a local snap shot of what can be considered offensive in Tianjin these days. It’s an unavoidable part of our China experience; people’s (hyper)sensitivity — especially our friends, neighbours, and teachers — is something we’ve had to navigate carefully during the Olympic summer.

Some caveats: While a lot of people here have similar feelings to this particular editor, there are also lots of other magazines in China publishing deliberately edgy material. There’s plenty of variety of opinion in China. Also, the degree of censorship varies from city to city and is largely determined by the particular tolerance level of local authorities. Tianjin is more conservative than many other areas.

Just skim down to the red text to see the naughty bits.

Watching the Opening Ceremony… with a few thousand Tianjiners!

It’s the sticky, steamy, most auspicious night of 08-08-08, and six foreigners from four different continents have decided to join thousands of Tianjiners in Tianjin’s “Milky Way Square” (银河广场 / yínhé guǎngchǎng) on Yǒuyì Lù (友谊路). We’re convinced there’s only one way for non-ticket holders to truly experience the most anticipated Opening Ceremony in the history of the Olympics: immersed in a crowd of excited Mainlanders. We unfold our 8 kuài folding stools, let some friendly fellow spectators take our picture, and settle in for a night we won’t soon forget.

You can watch a video of the crowds’ reactions to different segments of the Ceremony online at Neither the video nor these accompanying photos do the scene justice. They only show part of one crowd, but because of how the park is designed there were actually three large separate crowds around the double-sided screen.

Spectating the Spectators
The last time I was with this many outdoor spectators I was on the beach in the next Olympic city: Vancouver, Canada. It was the Symphony of Fire, an annual international musical fireworks competition. But in Vancouver, large dense crowds often mean booze, marijuana, and some inevitable rowdiness. These few thousand Tianjiners behaved much more civilized than the Vancouverites; they were a giant Sunday school class by comparison. But it was still lots of fun watching them watch the dazzling and inexorably interminable Ode to Chinese Civilization-minus-the-20th-century that was the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony (开幕式 / kāimùshì).

The crowd applauded when the honour guard took the Chinese flag from the 56 minority children and marched smartly toward flag pole. As the flag was raised the entire park stood up for the national anthem like I expected, but hardly anyone sang! I thought they’d be going nuts. In Vancouver – where our meager patriotism mostly involves affirming that we’re not Americans – people would have been hollering O Canada half-drunk by that time. Maybe the outdoor sound system was too low, or maybe it was just too hot and humid. At that moment Tianjiners were piqued but respectfully restrained.

People ooh’d and aah’d at the artistic performances, yelling “hǎo!” (好 / good!) at especially impressive parts. Repeated shots of former president Jiāng Zémín (江泽民) and his wife Wáng Yěpíng (王冶坪) provoked a curious response from the crowd, as if they were laughing lightly in a good-natured sort of way.

Parade of Nations
The more exotic costumes and ethnicities provoked responses from the crowd. Particularly dark Africans and particularly fat women would cause scattered giggling or comments from a minority of the spectators near us. When one of the African flag carriers smiled big into the camera a guy sitting next to me said, “Wow, look at his teeth!” Close-ups of particularly glamourous female athletes got a reaction every time from some in the crowd. George Bush was given plenty of screen time, and he seemed to get a mild but positive response. Of the individual foreigners the biggest cheers probably went to LeBron James of the U.S. men’s basketball “Redeem Team.”

Taiwan’s athletes received big cheers from the crowd. Japan didn’t get booed much – just a handful of loud-mouths who were joking around, and they got disapproving looks from their neighbours.

Team Canada came out, and who did they have with them but the ubiquitous Dà Shān (大山) – “the most famous foreigner in China”! As a Canadian language student in China I have a special, complicated relationship with Dà Shān, whom I’ve never met. During my first few months of language study in Tianjin, it seemed every other sidewalk conversation went basically like this:

“Where are you from?”
“Oh, Canada! Dà Shān’s country! Do you know who Dà Shān is?”
“Your Mandarin isn’t as good as his.”

I took another couple months before I learned to say, “Yeah, and I hear his Mandarin is probably even better than your’s!” Dà Shān is the ultimate language and culture acquisition role model, with his flawless Mandarin and mastery of traditional Chinese stand-up comedy. As annoying as it is to be constantly compared to his virtually unattainable standard, he got a good rise out of our crowd that night, and I was proud to have him representing the Canucks.

Team China
By the time China’s athletes finally appeared we’d been there sweating for about three hours and the crowd had thinned a little. People’s newspaper seats were baked with sweat into the pavement. But when Yao Ming carried in the Chinese flag, flanked by a pint-sized earthquake hero from Sichuan, the fatigued but happy crowd loved it. People started cheering, clapping, waving flags and chanting “Zhōngguó jiāyóu!” (中国加油 / Go China!). People also loved seeing wider shots inside the Bird’s Nest that showed how big the Chinese team was.

During the final hour the cheering and enthusiasm really picked up, but only in pockets and for a minute or so at a time. I don’t know why but our self-appointed cheerleaders couldn’t get the whole crowd into it all at once. A couple times a small group around the TV crew would cheer with wild abandon while they were being filmed, but in general I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more enthusiastic than they were. I assume it was simply a matter of heat and fatigue – four hours is a long time! – although neither could stop people from celebrating as the cauldron was lit in epic fashion.

Reading the Chinese Tea Leaves

The Ceremony is a key part of the carefully crafted self-portrait that China’s rulers have anxiously placed before their own people and the people of the world (two very different audiences in some respects). Mainlanders, for their part, are seeing their nation being redefined. For better or for worse, China’s methods of trying to craft this gilded self-image for the rest of the world are making a bigger impression on the rest of the world than the projected image itself. There’s no doubt that the 2008 Opening Ceremony was intended to send some messages. I’m not qualified to interpret these particular tea leaves, but I still have some questions: There was plenty of Confucius, but where was Chairman Mao? For that matter, where were the 19th and 20th centuries? Why were the lyrics to “Song to the Motherland” (歌唱祖国), which were mimed by nine-year-old Lín Miàokě (林妙可), rewritten? And what do those edits mean? Some say the giant painting drawn throughout the performance makes oblique, politically-coded references to Mao, but the nations of the world colourfully trampled all over that painting.

I don’t know what it all was intended to mean, what the average Mainlander understands it to mean, or what it really does mean in the big picture. But I do know it meant a lot to a lot of people, and I appreciate our gracious Tianjin hosts for allowing us to experience it with them. Thanks Tianjin for a memorable night!

(P.S. — Expat magazines in third-tier Chinese cities are a good opportunity for nonprofessional writers to get some practice because the standards are relatively low. I use it as a no-pressure way to work on a style of writing that I’m not accustomed to, and practice oral Chinese (in the interviews). )

[Photo Gallery:] China’s Olympics, Our Experience

This photo gallery covers everything from the Tianjin Torch Relay to the Closing Ceremony, but it’s really only one slice of our Olympic experience. A fuller picture should include Tianjin’s massive urban face lift, transformation, and disruption (links go to related blog posts and photo galleries): propaganda slogans everywhere, the campaigns to change public behaviour, street markets and vendors cleared off and our favourite lunch windows being forced to temporarily close, roads paved, buildings painted, fake roofs constructed, ubiquitous migrant worker camps, homes bulldozed and whole blocks of residents relocated, parks and sidewalks getting torn up and replanted, the pollution, and the patriotism and nationalism. And, of course, the Fuwas.

The 2008 Olympics, of course, were about much more than sports, and we wrote on some of that, too:

This gallery covers, in order: the Tianjin Torch Relay, soccer matches in Tianjin, the Opening Ceremony, a day running around Olympic Beijing, watching matches on the big screen in the park, and the Closing Ceremony. Here’re the related blog posts:

Scroll down to read and write comments!

Click here to see all our Olympics-related posts.
August 2008

Watching the Closing Ceremony at Tianjin’s Milky Way Plaza

We needed closure. We returned to Tianjin’s “Milky Way Plaza” (银河广场 / yínhé guǎngchǎng) for the Closing Ceremonies. The Olympics was fun but finally over; maybe now China would started getting back to “normal.”

The crowd was larger than it was for the Olympic matches shown nightly on the big screen, but smaller and less keyed up than at the Opening Ceremony. We were a slightly bigger group of foreigners this time, plus we had Chinese flag, so we attracted more attention than last time. We didn’t take any of these photos. Click them to see them big size.

Getting famous
Local media was running around filming and interviewing people. I think our flag is what really drew them over. They asked Greg, the only blond one in our group, some standard questions about his impressions of China and Olympics. The thing is, he’s starting his first semester of Chinese next week and he’d only just arrived in town a few days ago for orientation. So he couldn’t do the interview in Chinese and hadn’t seen any of the Olympics. But that didn’t faze him (he’s a smooth cucumber); he gave them the stock answers to their stock questions (city’s beautiful, the people are wonderful, the Olympics impressive, etc.). The reporter either went away happy, or left asking himself a very important question (“Why do foreigners always feel they need to give us polite, stock answers?”) Before the Ceremony a handful of people came by to take our photo. Some had fancy cameras but they didn’t look like media types.

Afterward we all posed behind the flag for our own photos, and that’s when people really started taking pictures. Grandparents and parents would send their kids to run and pose with us and the flag. It was cute, funny, and friendly. People were nice about it. This few seconds of video shows Greg getting interviewed and gives you a sense of the crowd that night:

The Closing Ceremony… what was all that about?
When London started their 8 minutes with a video intro and we started pointing out all the cultural allusions, that’s when I suddenly realized I hadn’t understood anything from the preceding hour or so. Some of the satirical interpretations from the Chinese internet are pretty funny (see especially Wu Yan’s Why did I like the closing ceremony better?), but I have no idea what it was supposed to mean.

So I think this, along with our Olympics photo gallery, is finally the end of our Olympic stuff. It was fun and interesting, but it’ll be nice to talk about something else!