What do the Olympics mean to “their China”?

This is the nation where there are already thousands of infants named after the Olympics. Why does hosting the Olympics mean so much to Mainlanders? Two keys to unlocking the answers are reflected in this rather cool Olympic-themed ad (1 min.):

When it comes to understanding what hosting the 2008 Olympics means to Mainlanders, (1) nationalized “face,” and (2) Mainlanders’ thick, bright dividing line between “them” from “us” are two crucial pieces of a still bigger puzzle. This post is just my guesses/hunches/wonderings about nationalized “face” right now in China. Soon I’ll post some experiences, half-baked current understanding, and maybe a little venting about the Mainland’s “them” vs. “us” mentality.

Regaining Face at the National/Cultural/Racial Level
That video could have shown equality-enjoying multi-cultural masses working in harmony to help athletes achieve new heights – you know, Olympic ideals and all that. But it doesn’t, because for Mainlanders the Olympics aren’t so much about that. It’s more about Mainlanders as a national/cultural/racial entity getting face. The one possible role left open to us non-Chinese is that of competitors to be rallied against, foils against which bigger face can be realized. I guarantee you the 2010 Vancouver games (which have their own cultural identity issues) will not be showing an all-white version of this video. This kind of “face” makes no sense in Canadian culture, and it’s a cultural sin to publicly strengthen racial and cultural divisions like that.

Maybe you think that’s a little harsh, a little over-interpreted. I don’t think it is. Maybe it’s just my culture stress talking. Or maybe I’m just stating the obvious: that at a very deep level, hosting the Olympics is a huge step toward China recovering the “face” lost to the West at a national/cultural/racial level during the modern era, and that since recovering this face requires a demonstrated superiority over the West, it necessitates the strengthening of an already-thick dividing line between “insiders” (Mainlanders) and “outsiders” (foreigners). For the Mainland, non-Chinese are the national/cultural/racial identity-galvanizing Other.

Nationalized “Face” is Crucial and Powerful
It might be hard to accept that something as ambiguous and foreign as “face” could be this important. If the West has never really needed it and it’s so hard to explain, does it really matter? Yes. I’m not making (most of) this up. Why is China putting men in space and hosting Olympic games when millions live in poverty and the environment is hemorrhaging? From 林语堂 (Lín YÇ”táng)’s My Country, My People:

Abstract and intangible, [face] is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.
Face cannot be translated or defined. It is like honor and is not honor. It cannot be purchased with money, and gives a man or woman a material pride. It is hollow and is what men fight for and many women die for. It is invisible and yet by definition exists by being shown to the public. It exists in the ether and yet can be heard, and sounds eminently respectable and solid. It is amenable, not to reason but to social convention. It protracts lawsuits, breaks up family fortunes, causes murders and suicides, and yet it often makes a man out of a renegade who has been insulted by his fellow townsmen, and it is prized above all earthly possessions. It is more powerful than fate or favor, and more respected than the constitution. It often decides a military victory or defeat, and can demolish a whole government ministry. It is that hollow thing which men in China live by. (195-196)

There is a fascinating, first-person account of China’s last 30 years of change here, which gives us glimpses of the intersection between the Olympics, nationalized face, and today’s China:

… he insisted, saying he just wanted to be there—”one of only a few million Chinese to see the moment.” He was eager for China to get back the land taken from the spineless Manchu dynasty more than half a century before Mao took power. “As a kid, I had the history of the Opium Wars drummed into me,” he said. “It was the biggest humiliation in history. We hated the British for that.” And for what came after. He recalled seeing burly cops—turbaned Sikhs from British India—beating Chinese beggars and prostitutes in Shanghai’s International Concession in the 1930s.

Papa came to Hong Kong to watch the handover ceremonies in the company of old friends. I remember Prince Charles delivering a stiff-lipped farewell speech while a summer downpour dripped from his cheeks and chin. One flaglowering event featured a team of three motley Brits, mismatched in height and gait, and each in a different outfit. One wore a kilt. They made a sad contrast to China’s towering honor guards, perfectly synchronized in their movements and wearing impeccably tailored uniforms. A PLA soldier unfurled a gigantic Chinese national flag with a single fluid motion and a snap so loud and clear you could practically feel it. A burst of pride and vindication swept through millions of Chinese—my father included.

How powerful and crucial is nationalized face? It’s the key to public confidence:

China’s leaders needed the Games the same way they needed Hong Kong. They had to keep earning the public’s confidence—what used to be called the Mandate of Heaven—with ever bigger and better achievements: joining the World Trade Organization, putting their own man in space, building the world’s biggest dam, the highest railway, even the tallest Ferris wheel. At some level all Chinese are driven by the dream of reclaiming their ancient imperial glory.

“Our China” and “Your America”
Mainlanders generally perceive a greater relationship between the status of the nation and its people than Westerners typically do. (This becomes rather ironic if we contrast the role played by the American people with that of the Mainland Chinese public in each nation’s respective political system.) “Our China” and “Your America” are standard ways of talking about countries here; personal and national identities are more intertwined. You can see Mainlanders use these phrases in some of the comments under the article quoted above.

We don’t care much about “face” in the West, not as much or in the same way as Mainland Chinese do, and over here it’s bred on a national level. Mainlanders are highly motivated (and able-to-be-motivated) to regain the national face they lost to the West in the modern era. The national disgrace of the Opium Wars in the mid-1800’s and the perceived continued belligerence of the USA burns hotter and closer to the surface of public consciousness than any of the more recent self-inflicted tragedies from the last half of the 20th century.

And unlike North America’s nations of immigrants, or increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse Western Europe, the line between “insider” (Mainland Chinese people and national interests) and “outsider” (foreigners, foreign nations and interests) is much clearer and thicker. The more powerful China becomes – the more “face” China perceives itself to have – the more the West will need to understand it.

6 thoughts on “What do the Olympics mean to “their China”?”

  1. Wow, that video blows my mind…as I was reading your blog I was thinking, “Yep, uh-huh, I agree…” The U.S. would never make a video like that…and we would be considered “class racists” if we ever referred to people as outsiders the way we are called here. I’ve got to hand it to the people who made the video though…it was very cool.

  2. Very interesting link between the current move toward “bigger and better” and the old Mandate of Heaven. I certainly agree that old ideas die slowly (if ever).

  3. I thought the Tianjin Museum really gave a good feel for the way the Mandate of Heaven is experienced today (I imagine, anyway). If you go through the presentation from beginning to end, you experience a message regarding who the leaders are and why that is so powerful and well-orchestrated that it makes questioning it seem silly.

    Hey, are you in the States now?

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