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). )

11 thoughts on “National ‘Face’ & Local Sensitivity (Part 1): Not fit to print in Tianjin”

  1. Culture shock/rude awakening … this sort of thing happens to every foreigner sooner or later. Let’s be honest–editing is a part of the world of journalism. But when you are told your writing has been edited for political sensitivities, it’s hard to swallow. Just boils down to the age-old adage: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. As in this case, we just have to come to terms with the fact that in China, media is “fed” by the government instead of sensation-hungry readers. Thank God there’s still the Internet–to some degree–where you can post the “red parts”.

  2. You bring up an interesting problem: how foreigners in China personally respond (attitudes and actions) to the tighter restrictions.

    Getting edited for political restrictions makes me roll my eyes, but it’s not that big a deal because I’ve been expecting that situation since before we came to China. I wasn’t surprised at all when they said I had to remove the bit about Mao. But feeling like you have to walk on eggshells sometimes because of peoples’ hypersensitive patriotism is a little more annoying, esp. since it’s been more intense and constant during the Olympic year.

    I thought that I was already doing a lot of self-censorship (with the writing), and being careful to go out of my way (in relationships) not to offend peoples’ patriotic sensitivities. So it surprised me to get it from the magazine and my teachers all in one week.

    I don’t blame them for editing my stuff; it needs it! I’m no journalist; I just wrote lots of papers in grad school, and local expat magazines are great for practice! :)

  3. Great piece Joel! I remember reading this a while ago, but now the ‘red’ highlights bring a new perspective. Not surprised observations Mao and Jiang et al. didn’t get past the Chinese editor, but I’m curious why you had a Chinese editor for an expat publication.

    I can’t believe you picked up on the edited lyrics in ‘ode to my country’! I thought I was the only who noticed a change; I asked around and nobody believed me. Hope you do find out and solve the mystery! Any clues/theories so far?

    Finally, loved the line, “Yeah, and I hear his Mandarin is probably even better than yours!” Yes, quite… Sheer class, that is! Keep up the good work and best wishes!

  4. I find it curious that the writer was not aware of restrictions placed beforehand on publications in China. Writing a negative story (and it was a negative story) about the opening ceremony of the Olympics was bound to get censored. Duh!

  5. Shanghai’s media is even more conservative. All the newspapers and magazines here are full of straight propaganda. The truth is a stranger in Shanghai.

  6. Joel, I read the piece in the magazine and found it a bit too cheery so I’m glad to see the whole piece. I can understand editing out some of your snarkier parts, but it’s a shame that parts that might be categorized as reportage got the cut.

  7. Just a little bit too cheery? I felt like I was submitting a tourism advertisement.

    Does the original really come across that snarky? That’s not what I was going for at all. As for being aware of restrictions beforehand… I was aware that restrictions existed, but I thought I was more or less within them, and that they were mostly political, not patriotic. We have no detailed explicit instruction on what not to write. Like many rules and laws here, the restrictions are deliberately left vague (as this gives those enforcing them a greater amount of discretion). I sort of expected them to remove the reference to Mao, that’s fine with me, and I’ve always tried to be a little extra nice with all my stuff for them, but what surprised me was just how much ‘extra nice’ is required. I didn’t think it was that strict/sensitive.

    Just met with the American editor today (he’s new, it was our first face-to-face meeting). I didn’t get the impression that things will get any less tight any time soon. In fact, the competing magazine got it much (much) worse than my little edits here, but I’ll let someone else tell that story. ;)

  8. Here are the Chinese lyrics for “Ode to the Stepmotherland”




  9. Were you really surprised at all they edited it? I think your original story makes some insightful and interesting points, but that’s not the kind of stuff that gets printed in China. Sarcasm (regardless of how accurate it is) does not go over well in the Middle Kingdom. The fact that China censors negative or sensitive views really shouldn’t shock anybody. It’s just their way of doing things.

  10. Just to clarify: I’m not posting this as a big complaint or expose or anything. It’s just meant as an example of where ‘the line’ is in Tianjin these days.

    Not surprised that there were edits or that the Chinese editors are a little sensitive… there are always edits and we’ve been navigating people’s sensitivity for a while. I misjudged the editor’s degree of sensitivity. Since it was an English publication to a small audience, and it’s not hard to find critical or more embarrassing stuff in Chinese, I didn’t think they’d care about most of this stuff.

    But what part of the deleted text sounds sarcastic/snarky?

    (Spelunker… i finally looked at those lyrics… wow.)

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