[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

Where does China fit in the West’s global narrative?

Mainlanders often feel exasperated by constant Western criticism, as if no matter what China does and no matter how much China accomplishes, it’s never good enough in the eyes of Western nations. The poem “Chinese Grievances” (aka “What do you want from us?”) expresses this feeling well.

Every society, including Mainland China, has an over-arching public narrative through which the society describes itself and its place in the world. The author I’m quoting here describes and then critiques the global narrative shared by Western societies, that is, the Big Public Story that modern, liberal, democratic Western nations and peoples use to understand the world and the role of their nations in the world. Although the author isn’t writing with China in mind, I think it’s worthwhile to read the quote below and consider where and how China fits into the West’s understanding of the world. Discovering the roles that China is currently playing in the West’s “Big Public Story” helps explain why the West never seems happy with China.

The excerpt below comes from Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996), an award-winning book on forgiveness and reconciliation. The author, Dr. Miroslav Volf, is a Croatian writing here in reference to the 1990’s Balkan ethnic bloodshed. I’ve quoted from a section titled, “The Dubious Triumph of Inclusion”:

The desire to distance “Europe” — “the West” and “modernity” — from the practice of ethnic cleansing is, however, driven by more than just the simple displacement mechanism by which we locate evil and barbarity with others so as to ascribe goodness and civilization to ourselves. It has as much to do with certain aspects of our philosophy of history as with our moral perception of ourselves. What makes ethnic cleansing seem so “nonmodern” and “nonWestern” is that is it starkly at odds with the major public story we like to tell about the modern democratic West — a story of progressive “inclusion.” Here is a version of such a narrative of modern liberal democracies as described by Alan Wolfe:

Once upon a time, it is said, such societies were ruled by privileged elites. Governing circles were restricted to those of the correct gender, breeding, education, and social exclusiveness. All this changes as a result of those multiple forces usually identified by the term democracy. First the middle classes, then working men, then women, then racial minorities all won not only economic rights but political and social rights as well. (Wolfe 1992, 309)

To put it slightly differently, once “hierarchically segmented” societies gave way to what sociologists call “functionally differentiated” societies, inclusion became the general norm: every person must have access to all functions and therefore all persons must have equal access to education, to all available jobs, to political decision-making, and the like (see Luhmann 1977, 234ff). The history of modern democracies is about progressive and ever expanding inclusion, about “taking in rather than … keeping out” (Wolfe 1992, 309). By contrast, stories of ethnic cleansing are about the most brutal forms of exclusion, about driving out rather than taking in. Hence, they strike us and “nonmodern,” “nonEuropean,” nonWestern.”

But how adequate is the modern story of inclusion’s triumph? I pose this question as an insider who wants to help build and improve rather than as an outsider who wants to destroy and completely replace. To a person, such as myself, who experienced “all the blessings” of communist rule, the suggestion that there is no truth to the liberal narrative of inclusion and the claim that its consequences are mainly unfortunate sounds not only unpersuasive but dangerous. Similarly, most women and minorities would not want to give up the rights they now have; and most critics of liberal democracies would rather live in a democracy than in any of the available alternatives. The progress of “inclusion” is one important thing to celebrate about modernity.

Yet, though the narrative of inclusion is in an important sense true, like some magic mirror which gives the beholder’s image an instant face-lift, it was also crafted in part to “make us feel history has a purpose that in some way corresponds with a more positive understanding of human potential,” as Alan Wolfe rightly underlines (309). but how would the face look if the mirror were to lose its magic? How would the face look in a mirror that was not made by us in order to court out vanity? In the mirrors made in the sweatshops of “submodernity” (Moltmann 1995b) and held by the exploited and emaciated hand of “the other” a mean streak appears on the face of modernity, acquired through the protracted practice of evil. Those who are conveniently left out of the modern narrative of inclusion because they disturb the integrity of its “happy ending” plot demand a long and gruesome counter-narrative of exclusion.


Luhmann, Niklas. Funktion der Religion. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977.
Moltmann, Jurgen. Public Theology and the Future of the Modern World. Pittsburgh: ATS, 1995b.
Wolfe, Alan. “Democracy verses Sociology: Boundaries and Their Political Consequences.” In Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, edited by Michele Lamont and Marcel Fournier, 309-325. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

I see two roles that China currently plays in the West’s global narrative, and both of them make Western nations and peoples feel very uncomfortable. Within the confines of the Western Big Public Story, (1) China’s presence as an authoritarian state with a hierarchical society directly opposes the Western Story’s ‘happy ending.’ Obviously, this is a bad thing in the eyes of modern, liberal, democratic Western nations; it’s a direct contradiction of their core values. But, (2) the presence of millions of China’s poor, exploited workers making products for the West exposes a dark sub-plot in the Western Story (what Volf calls a “counter-narrative”). This exposes the West’s selfish hypocrisy and makes the West look bad in its own eyes. Either way, China’s presence messes up the happy story that the West wants to tell about itself.

Of course China has its own self-centered global narrative. China also has a Big Public Story, an over-arching narrative that Mainlanders use to understand the world and the place of China and the Chinese people in the world. Much of the conflict between China and the West happens because each culture is working out of a different Story. China interprets foreign nation’s and foreign people’s actions according to whatever roles are available to foreigners within China’s Big Public Story, just like the West does to China. I think identifying and understanding the differences between these different narratives is one big step on the long road toward getting along better, and perhaps even a more just world.

I’m curious what you other Westerners think about the public narrative we’ve inherited.

For some creative, active responses to the damning Western counter-narrative of exploitation and economic oppression, see the conversations and activities of some our friends who hang out at Toward Simplicity. You can also check out Where Am I Wearing? and meet the author who traveled the globe trying to locate the specific factories that made his clothes.

For more from Dr. Miroslav Volf (but less academic), try:

  • To Embrace the Enemy.” A post-9/11 interview from that September in which Dr. Volf discusses his ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in light of the 9/11 attacks.
  • A Religion & Ethics PBS interview in whicn Dr. Volf discusses violence, forgiveness, reconciliation, Christian-Muslim relations, and related topics.

I adapted this post for Fool’s Mountain, and asked their Chinese readers two questions:

  1. How does the Western “Big Public Story,” as described here, sound to you? Or, how do you think it would sound to most Mainlanders?
  2. How would you describe China’s “Big Public Story”? In the big picture, how does China understand its place in the world, and its place in world history up to this point? If China achieved its ‘happy ending,’ what would that look like?

You can see what becomes of that discussion here.

Tianjin’s “Old Hundred Names” on the Olympics

Here’s what some of our neighbours, and others from our daily routines in the city, think about the Olympics. [Warning: Do NOT attempt to improve your Chinese by paying close attention to subtitles done by a 2nd-year Mandarin student! ;) ]:

Everyone’s names, ages, and vocations are listed at the end.

Things to notice in the responses:

  • 了解 (liÇŽo jiÄ›). This literally means “to understand,” “to realize,” “to find out,” and I translated it “get to know” in the subtitles. Foreigners 了解-ing China is probably the most frequently expressed idea in the video.
  • The hospitality perspective. Many Mainlanders understand the Olympics in terms of Chinese hospitality, like inviting honoured guests over for a banquet, and this shapes their expectations of themselves as the hosts and all the rest of us as the honoured guests.
  • China’s place in the world hierarchy. People see the Olympics as raising China’s position on the world stage, gaining face in relationship to other nations, being esteemed more highly by other nations.
  • “Our China.” This is a common way of talking about China here: our China, our China’s culture, your America, etc.

You can see how friendly and accommodating Tianjiners are, though the accents indicate that some of these folks moved here from other provinces.

Of course there is much more to be said about what the Olympics mean to China, but I thought it’d be fun to just let the local “Old Hundred Names” (老百姓 / lÇŽo bÇŽi xìng / ‘regular Joe’) speak for themselves.

[UPDATE JULY 20: Fool’s Mountain, a site dedicated to publishing and discussing Chinese views in English, has published a second version of this post in which I asked their Chinese readers for their reactions. See Tianjin’s LaoBaiXing on the Olympics.]

China’s “raging youth” (and don’t worry, we’re all fine here)

I don’t know what they’re showing in the news back home, so we just wanted to post a quick note saying we’re fine and Tianjin is real relaxed and there’s no danger, etc.

In case you’re wondering what on earth we’re talking about, there’re lots of stirred-up, angry folks in China right now. The Chinese term is “angry youth” (愤怒青年); fènqÄ«ng for short. In English they’re just called fenqing.

Carrefour (the French Walmart) is being boycotted/protested in cities across the country (because it’s French), and CNN is bearing the brunt of the (vitriolic) anti-Western-media sentiment for misreporting on certain recent events and for airing certain comments from an outspoken commentator. One American in an inland city was punched around a bit hasseled on Sunday by a mob when he tried to exit a Carrefour.

Our teachers and language helpers are talking about it in class. One of them forwarded me one of the many patriotic/anti-Carrefour text messages going around people’s cell phones. It says:

Carrefour showed its hand, buy 500 get ‘250’ [“250” means “idiot”]. One supermarket and one lofty and unyielding character face one another in confrontation, in the end who wins?! All who don’t go, in order for the world to look up to China. Now must all in one heart please pass this on

家乐福出手了,买五百送二百五。一个超市和一把 傲骨 的对垒,到底谁赢?!谁都别去,为了世界看得起 中国。这次一定要齐心请转发

Some of our teachers are “boycotting” Carrefour, but one complains that Tianjiners are so cheap that that Tianjin can’t pull off a real boycott like other Chinese cities because Tianjiners will shop where it’s cheapest no matter what (ha! – so Tianjin). Because Tianjin is a special economic zone on the coast, it’s a little more cosmopolitan than many inland cities (…I can’t believe I just called Tianjin cosmopolitan! :D ) We aren’t expecting any trouble.

Anyway, we don’t know how this is all being reported back home, and just didn’t want people to worry in case the coverage of overly sensational.

If you’re interested about the situation, here are some interesting, pertinent links in suggested reading order:

If you’re wondering why Mainlanders are apparently so hypersensitive, I suggest starting here:

[Updated 08-05-02]: Text messages are playing an interesting role in Chinese society, from calling the patriotic masses to rise up (quoted above) to funny social satire, as seen here: “The text message as satire.”

No politically-oriented comments allowed – thanks.

Why Mainlanders are taking it personally, racially, and facially – the short answer

If you have friends who are Mainlanders or you’ve been watching the news, then you’ve probably noticed that a lot of Mainland individuals are having remarkably strong emotional reactions to the less-than-glorious reception that people in some nations gave to the Olympic T0rch relay. Accusations of racism are among the milder responses.

(NOTE: This is about culture – specifically how certain aspects of Mainland culture and history affect Mainlanders’ relationships to non-Chinese – not politics. If you want to discuss politics or current events, go elsewhere. If you want to discuss the cultural factors highlighted by recent events, then welcome!)

It’s only a small minority writing death threats or comparing misquoted Western media personalities to Nazis or forcing the parents of “race-traitors” (汉奸 – specifically a traitor to the Hàn race) into hiding like some sort of sick re-run of the 1970s. (But what else is the internet for, anyway?) We don’t personally know anyone doing this kind of stuff. But individual Mainlanders here and around the world, including our friends and teachers, are taking it as a personal, racial insult that a few thousand foreigners dared sully the Olympic T0rch relay with public criticisms of particular government policies. Mainlanders living North America have expressed how they now feel unwelcome; as if Canadians don’t want them, and maybe they should just go back and serve their motherland. Obviously, these protesters have pushed a large, sensitive cultural button.

This doesn’t make sense to a lot of Westerners. North Americans, and I’m assuming Western Europeans as well, generally draw a sharp distinction between our government’s actions and ourselves as individuals. We don’t necessarily take it personally that someone might not like a particular policy of the our nation’s government. We routinely publicly criticize each other’s government policies whenever we’re not already busy publicly protesting our own government’s policies. Sure, people might get worked up, but the idea of it being racist doesn’t even enter our minds. When our governments get publicly embarrassed it’s more entertaining than anything else.

Not so for Mainlanders. That crucial distinction doesn’t exist. But why is it so personal? And why so extreme? Why is the CNN office in Beijing requesting all it’s non-essential personnel to stay away due to threats of violence? It makes us want to say, “Hey, welcome to the world, now stop being so touchy. If you can’t handle criticism, then you can’t play in the big leagues.” What’s the deal?

There are reasons. And I think being aware of them goes a long way to helping Westerners learn to better understand and communicate with Mainlanders. Of course there’s tons more to say, but here are three of the biggies, as far as I can tell anyway.

The Short Answer: Wounded Nationalized Face
The short answer explaining Mainlanders’ reactions to recent events has three parts that go together.

1. Culture
First, China is a ‘face’-oriented culture. You can think of ‘face’ as “one’s degree of standing (and amount of power) in the social hierarchy” (too simplistic, but good enough for now). The way that ‘face’ expectations work in Chinese culture – the nature of ‘face’ culture – leaves them unable to ‘handle’ certain kinds of public criticism; their only recourse is to fly into a rage and demand that ‘face’ be returned to them. What’s happening now internationally with Mainlanders’ reactions to the less-than-perfectly-glorious torch relay is a national-scale version of what happens on the sidewalk somewhere in China every day: someone feels they weren’t given the ‘face’ owed them and a public shouting match/fistfight ensues. We saw one on our first day in Tianjin, on the way in from the airport.

There are Chinese scholars who argue that the current state of Chinese ‘face’ culture is a major hindrance to Chinese individuals’ personal happiness, and to China’s constructive participation as a nation in the global community. Mainlanders’ current reactions to public criticism from outsiders is a perfect example.

2. Identity
Second, individual Mainlanders feel criticism of their government as criticism of themselves as a people, a race, a culture, a nation. Their individual, racial, cultural, and political identities are emotionally fused; individual identity is nationalized. The national identity/face has a closer relationship and bigger impact on Mainlanders’ individual self-conceptions than national identity, honour, and pride do for Westerners – even Americans and the French.

This is part of a Confucian cultural framework, and it’s thousands of years old. And although Confucius himself has fallen in and out of favour many times over the last several decades, this particular deeply-seeded cultural aspect is quite useful when those in charge need to rally the people around the flag, and it’s been deliberately cultivated over the last several decades.

3. History
Third – and foreigners have to be aware of this if they want to have any hope of understanding China – Mainlanders are still pained by the humiliating wounds inflicted by Western powers in the 19th century. When foreign powers took economic advantage of China by force, it was a devastating blow to national face. China is in the long process of regaining the ‘face’ lost in those historical episodes, but they have a long way to go and success is still uncertain. Mainlanders as a nation are desperate to prove to themselves and the world that they’re a great, superior nation/race/civilization, but they know they haven’t arrived yet, and are therefore still insecure about it. But the Mainland is absolutely determined to never take crap from Western powers ever again.

So when foreigners publicly and rudely tell China’s rulers how they should conduct their national affairs, these foreigners are pushing the “Remember the Opium Wars! The Century of Humiliation! The Unequal Treaties! Remember what THEY did to US! NEVER AGAIN!”-button. That’s a very sensitive and powerful button. It operates on face-principles, and the individual ‘faces’ of a billion-plus Chinese are directly connected to it.

If we take these three factors and put them together backward, we have a wounded, nationalized face . And that’s a big part of why individual Mainlanders are so touchy right now.

P.S. – This is the short answer. Of course the short definitions I’ve given above are inadequate, and there are thoughtful dissenting Chinese voices out there, and there is so much more to say. I have thousands and thousands of words in drafted posts on these topics of face and foreigners and nationalism, but it’s such a complicated situation that I don’t know when they’ll see the light of day. We’ll see.

(Remember: this is about culture, not politics. If you want to talk politics, don’t do it here.)

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.