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China's Flat Earth: History and 8 August 2008*

  • Geremie R. Barmé


The opening ceremony of the 29th Olympiad in Beijing was celebrated in China as an opportunity for the country to “tell its story to the world.” This article offers a forensic analysis of that story and how it was created under Party fiat with the active collaboration of local and international arts figures. In a scene-by-scene description of the ceremony, the article also reviews the symbiotic relationship of avant-garde cultural activists and the party-state, a relationship that has continuously evolved throughout the Reform era (since 1978). It also discusses contentious historical issues related to the revival of real and imagined national traditions in the era of China's re-emergence on the global stage.



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1 See Brownell, Susan, Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008); and my “Olympic art and artifice,” American Interest, Vol. 3, No. 6 (2008), pp. 72–78 at p. 76, online at

2 In Chinese the poem reads, “You shi Shenzhou caomu shen,/ tongshang guoji ju Jingcheng,/Mantang gonghua zhongxing shi,/ wanyu qianyan chizi qing.” See Benjamin Lim, “China's Jiang, the poet, calls for ‘revival’,” Reuter, 15 March 1999. I would note that “revival” (fuxing), a term commonly used in the last decade when discussing China's re-emergence as a world power, is different in connotation from the more nuanced “restoration” (zhongxing). One could argue that, through economic openness since the late 1970s, the Communist Party has been engaged in a restoration of its fortunes, as well as a revival of those of China as a whole. See also Wright, Mary C., The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism: the T’ung-Chih Restoration, 1862–1974 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957).

3 While eight, ba/bat, has auspicious connotations in southern China and diasporic communities, according to Beijing tradition the lucky numbers are six liu and nine jiu.

4 See Brady, Anne-Marie, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), pp. 135ff.

5 For more on this, see the chapter “The banquet of history” in my The Forbidden City (London: Profile Books/Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 185ff.

6 For my comment on the latter, see “Mirrors of history,” posted on the History News Network in 2005 at and in May 2008 in Beijing by at

7 The term “paranoid nationalism” comes from Hage, Ghassan, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (Sydney: Pluto Press; and London: The Merlin Press, 2003). Hage's expression refers to those who feel dispossessed by transcendental capitalism and neo-liberal governments, whereas I use it to refer to a range of patriotic sentiment resulting from a particular mix of education, guided media and actual grievance felt by Han Chinese, both in and outside China.

8 The highly invasive policing programme formulated by the Party and security officials, called the “Secure Olympics Action Plan” (Ping'an Aoyun xingdong), covered everything from the issuing of visas to the deployment of local vigilantes in the greater Beijing area.

9 Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty the concept of the “sacred” in Chinese politics has experienced a number of transformations. In dynastic China, not only was the emperor's body sacred and inviolate, but the imperial precinct itself was a sacrosanct and forbidden realm (jindi). Gradually, during the Republican era and later, the concepts of the numinous, spiritual and sacerdotal related to the dynastic house and its mandated right to rule were transferred to the whole territory of China, frequently referred to by the old poetic term Shenzhou, as is the case in Jiang Zemin's poem quoted above. The nation, long subject to the depredations of imperial powers, would be spoken of as a territory (lingtu) possessed of a sacred (shensheng) and indivisible (buke fenge) nature.

10 Gan Yang, “Dakai guomen, fang tamen jinlai” (“Open the nation's door and let them come in”), 21 Shiji jingji daobao (21st Century Economic Herald), 29 April 2008, online at “I-DO-NOT-BELIEVE” is a reference to a famous 1970s poem by Bei Dao, “The answer” (Huida). See Barmé, Geremie and Minford, John (eds.), Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (New York: Hill & Wang, 2nd ed., 1988), p. 236.

11 See Rowan Callick, “Beijing locals heated as Olympic torch enters city,” The Australian, 7 August 2008, online at,25197,24140109-601,00.html.

12 See Zhang Ying's interview with Zhang Jigang, “3 fen 28 miao: tiyu shishang zuihaode daojishi” (“Three minutes and 30 seconds: the best countdown in sporting history”), Nanfang zhoumo (Southern Weekend), “Aoyun tekan: siwen Zhongguo” (“Olympics special: a refined China”), 14 August 2008, p. A3.

13 Ying, Zhang, “Chunwan zuobudaode kuanghuan – Chen Weiya tan bimushi” (“A carnival unlike any spring festival evening celebration – Chen Weiya talks about the closing ceremony”), Nanfang zhoumo, 28 August 2008, online at Chen is known for the designs he created for previous mass gatherings in Tiananmen Square, the arts performance of the 2001 World University Student Games and the opening ceremony of the 2005 East Asia Games.

14 Zhang had something of a traditional socialist-era arts career first as a student of theatre (1961–68), before becoming a cadre in a Mao Thought Propaganda Station, Daxing county, Beijing from 1970 to 1975. Later he was deputy chief of the Beijing Cultural Bureau (1995–96) and general manager of the Beijing Zijin Cheng Film Company (1996–98), which produced a number of Feng Xiaogang's best-known comic films, before becoming director of the Beijing Cultural Bureau and its Party secretary (1998–2003). Zhang wrote many well-known theme songs for films and TV productions. In 2008, he was made head of the prestigious Beijing People's Art Theatre (Renmin yishu juyuan).

15 “Zhang Heping: yong shijie yuyan jiang Zhongguo gushi” (“Zhang Heping: using an international language to tell China's story”), Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan (Sanlian Life Weekly), No. 492 (18 August 2008), pp. 68–71, at p. 70.

16 Ibid. p. 71.

17 Ibid.

18 Ying, Zhang and Chen, Xia, “Zhang Yimou jiemi kaimushi” (“Zhang Yimou reveals the secrets of the opening ceremony”), Nanfang zhoumo, “Olympics special,” 14 August 2008, p. A6.

19 Yuan, Qu, “Bu ju, divination,” translated by Hawkes, David in The Songs of the South: An Anthology of Ancient Chinese Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 205. For a comment on the difficulties encountered in performing this scene, see Ying, Zhang, “Yong daguo fengfan ji ‘fou’” (“Beat the fou with the style of a great nation”), Nanfang zhoumo, “Olympics special,” 14 August 2008, p. A5, an interview with Sun Yupeng, head of the countdown and drumming team.

20 Lane, Anthony, “The only games in town: week one at the Olympics,” The New Yorker, 25 August 2008, p. 28.

21 Sixteen of the “footprints” traced the original north-south axis of Beijing, from Yongding Men on the South Second Ring Road to the Drum Tower. “Footprint” 17 was at the new City Park just inside the old northern wall of the Inner City, and 18 to 25 were along the extended axis. The 26th was at the soccer field of the Olympics Sports Centre and the 27th was at Juyong Guan, the famous pass at the Great Wall on the way to Bada Ling. The last two were inside the Olympic Park. See “Fire in the city,” China Daily, 8 August 2008, p. 6.

22 Cai was responsible for the artistic vision behind the fireworks, but for their realization he relied on a team of specialists including Cheng Yanwen, who is credited with developing the technology to produce the “footsteps,” and Pan Gongpei, a professor at Nanjing University of Technology and Engineering. See Hongliang, Wang, “Kaiqi yichang yanhuo shengyande ‘mimi’” (“Revealing the ‘secrets’ behind a pyrotechnical banquet”), Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan, No. 492 (18 August 2008), pp. 104–08.

23 See “Kaimushi jiaoyin tajin Meishu Guan” (“The footprints of the opening ceremony walk into the [China] Art Gallery”), Xin jing bao (The Beijing News), 20 August 2008, also online at See also Wenhan, Zhou, “Cai Guoqiang: xingzhede zuji” (“Cai Guoqiang: footsteps of a traveller”), Jingji guancha bao (The Economic Observer), 25 August 2008, with pictures of “history's footsteps” and a photograph of the pyrotechnical footsteps over Tiananmen Square made by Cai's long-time collaborator Ihara Hiro. For an online version of Zhou's article, see For another picture of the footsteps over Tiananmen Square, see Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan, No. 492 (18 August 2008), p. 48.

24 Cai accepted the need to make a digital version of his “vision,” and explains his reasoning in an interview with Ruichun, Yang, “Zhi you nan gao, bun neng luan gao: Cai Guoqiang fangtan” (“You have to deal with difficulty, but not act irresponsibly: in conversation with Cai Guoqiang”), Nanfang zhoumo, “Olympics special,” 14 August 2008, p. A9.

25 See my essay “Let the spiel begin,” published 2006, online at

26 See Kelly Layton, “Qianmen, gateway to a Beijing heritage,” China Heritage Quarterly, No. 12 (2007), online at; and my “Beijing reoriented, an Olympic undertaking,” opening address to the biennial conference of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia, June 2007.

27 For an example of how some members of the internationally vaunted contemporary avant-garde used the Olympics to further ingratiate themselves with the state, see Li Ying and Yang Fan, “Xianfeng yishujiade Aoyun zhi meng” (“The Olympic dream of avant-garde artists”), 29th (29th, the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games official newspaper produced by Beijing Daily), 4 August 2008. One of the featured works at the 798 Art District was a rendition of a Mao-jacketed discus thrower.

28 “Duihua Cai Guoqiang – xiangshou chuangyi shixiande xingfu” (“Cai Guoqiang in conversation – the joy of realizing one's creativity), Quanzhou wanbao (Quanzhou Evening News), 13 August 2008.

29 In earlier rehearsed versions of the opening ceremony the sun did feature in other ways. In one, as the scroll painting opened a performer was to run into the stadium before being lifted by wires to chase a sun. This was named after the fable about “Kua Fu chasing the sun” (Kua Fu zhu ri) in order to tame it so he could end a calamitous drought. The reference to Kua Fu was problematic because, in modern Chinese, the saying Kua fu zhu ri means vainglorious ambition or a miscalculated attempt to do something far beyond one's abilities. See the comments by the choreographer Lixun, Han in Li Wei, “Wumei sheji: jianchi Zhongguo meixue chuantong” (“Set design: in pursuit of traditional Chinese aesthetics”), Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan, No. 492 (18 August 2008), p. 130.

30 See Zhang Jigang's remarks in his interview with Zhang Ying, “Three minutes and 30 seconds.”

31 It is interesting to note that Huang Yongyu was awarded the Olympic Art Prize on 24 August 2008. See “Huang Yongyu huo Aolinpike yishujiang” (“Huang Yongyu awarded Olympic arts prize”), Xin jing bao, 26 August 2008. His winning 3.5 m x 2.5 m painting was entitled “China = mc2.” Huang's story was the basis for the controversial film scenario “Unrequited love” (Kulian), which contained a pointedly anti-Mao scene featuring a setting sun. The scenario led to the first mini-purge of culture in the early 1980s.

32 The generally impassive expressions on the faces of China's leaders were not unique to the Olympic opening, although those who attended actual athletic events did upon occasion evince a measure of emotional engagement. Chinese TV producers have remarked that it is always a challenge to get state and Party leaders to lighten up for the cameras. In this context, see Ann Condi's “One world, whose dream?” posted on Danwei, the Beijing-based media site edited by Jeremy Goldkorn, on 13 August 2008 at

33 Lunyu, 1.1, for this interpretation, see Ling, Li, Sangjia gou: wo du Lunyu, xiuding ben (Dog Without a Master: Reading Lunyu, revised ed.) (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 2007), pp. 5152.

34 Lunyu, 7.37, for this translation, see Leys, Simon, The Analects of Confucius (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), p. 33.

35 Lunyu, 12.5, Leys, The Analects, p. 56; and, “Zhang Yimou: zixin le, cai neng langman he zhizao menghuan” (“Zhang Yimou: only when we are confident can we be romantic and be able to create dreamscapes”), Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan, No. 492 (18 August 2008), p. 78.

36 “Zhang Heping: using an international language to tell China's story,” p. 70.

37 The Associated Press translation of what they dubbed “The eight dos and don'ts” was: “Love, do not harm the motherland; serve, don't disserve the people; uphold science, don't be ignorant and unenlightened, work hard, don't be lazy and hate work; be united and help each other, don't gain benefits at the expense of others; be honest and trustworthy, not profit-mongering at the expense of your values; be disciplined and law-abiding instead of chaotic and lawless; know plain living and hard struggle, do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.”

38 For a painstaking and thoughtful analysis of the various strains of “New Confucianism,” see Makeham, John, Lost Soul: “Confucianism” in Contemporary Chinese Discourse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2008), esp. pp. 316–30.

39 Gan Yang, “Zhongguo daolu: sanshi nian he liushi nian” (“China's way: 30 years and 60 years”), originally published in Dushu, No. 6 (2007), and online at

40 Xun, Lu, “Zai xiandai Zhongguode Kongfuzi” (“Confucius in modern China”), collected in Qiejie ting zawen erji (Qiejie Pavilion Essays, Second Collection), in Lu Xun quanji (The Complete Works of Lu Xun) (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1981), Vol. 6, pp. 313–19.

41 For a cogent discussion of these issues, see Liqun, Qian, “Kongfuzi zai dangxia Zhongguode mingyun –. niande guancha yu sikao zhi yi” (“The fate of Confucius in present-day China – observations and thoughts on 2007”), Suibi (Essays), Vol. 4, No. 177 (2008), pp. 318.

42 Ibid.

43 For an interview with the designer of the “type-face blocks,” see Yue, Yuan, “Xin shidaide ‘huo’ zi yinshuashu” (“Printing with ‘live’ characters in the new age”), Sanlian shenghuo zhoukan, No. 492 (18 August 2008), pp. 155–57.

44 Lane, Anthony, “Fun and games: week two at the Olympics,” The New Yorker, 1 September 2008, p. 71. Again, this had a great deal to do with the highly intrusive effects of the “Secure Olympics Action Plan”. See n. 8.

45 See, for example, xiansheng, Ershibahua (Mao Zedong), “Tiyu zhi yanjiu” (“A study of physical culture”), Xin qingnian (La Jeunesse), Vol. 3, No. 2 (1917), pp. 6667; and, Brownell, Susan, Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People's Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 39, 53 and 56. Some internet commentators were outraged that Mao, a crucial proponent of Chinese sports and physical fitness, was not given due credit for the growth of Chinese athletics during the Olympics.

46 See Chongji, Jin (ed.), Mao Zedong zhuan (1893–1949) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1996), p. 27.

47 Guo Hu of the Beijing Municipal Meteorological Bureau announced that 1,104 cloud-seeding missiles were launched around Beijing from 4.00 p.m. to 11.39 p.m. from 21 sites to prevent the rain that had been forecast from spoiling the opening ceremony.

48 Qing, Dai, “Thirsty dragon at the Olympics,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 54, No. 19 (6 December 2007), online at; and, Dai Qing's editorial in “The heritage of Beijing water,” No. 16 (2008) of China Heritage Quarterly (

49 See Ying's, Zhang interviews with Wang and Pan respectively: “Ji pa guoren bu manyi, ye pa shijie bu manyi” (“Afraid that the people of China would be dissatisfied, and just as fearful that the world would be unsatisfied”); and “Mei shang yihui weishengjian dou duo yige xin zhuyi” (“There'd be a new idea every time you went to the toilet”), Nanfang zhoumo, “Olympics special,” 14 August 2008, p. A4.

50 Although Song had her clothes made especially for her in Beijing, many of the most striking costumes in the opening ceremony were the creation of the Japanese designer Ishioka Eiko, who had also worked on The First Emperor for the Met.

51 See Jie's, Li colourful review “Exporting nationalism: Zhang Yimou's The First Emperor,” in China Rights Forum, No. 1 (2007), pp. 9395.

52 Photographs of these figures featured in the media following the first rehearsal of the show in July.

53 Zhang Weidong, deputy director of the Old Soldiers' Arts Ensemble of the Beijing Military Region, was in charge of operatic material used in the ceremony. See his interview with Zhang Ying, “8 tian paichu ‘xiqu’” (“‘Opera’ rehearsed in eight days”), Nanfang zhoumo, “Olympics special,” 14 August 2008, p. A5. A picture of the warrior puppets in rehearsal was published in ibid. p. A7.

54 See my “Beijing, a garden of violence,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Vol. 9, No. 4 (2008), p. 624.

55 The model used for this was created by Wang Zhenduo in the late 1940s. Many of Wang's “reconstructions” of ancient Chinese scientific devices remain highly controversial.

56 Gavin Menzies' book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (Bantam Books, 2002) while embraced by political figures and cultural activists in Singapore, China and elsewhere has been dismissed by serious scholars. Debates about maritime trade and their relationship to views of China as “landlocked” and “inward looking” were brought into the public arena by the controversial 1988 TV series River Elegy (Heshang). It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate how the 2008 opening ceremony relates to these broader discussions.

57 In 2003, for example, President Hu Jintao asserted that Zheng He's fleet visited the shores of Australia in the 1420s. See his address to a Joint Sitting of the Australian Parliament, “Constantly increasing common ground,” on 24 October 2003, the text of which can be found online at

58 “Zhang Yimou: only when we are confident can we be romantic and be able to create dreamscapes,” p. 73.

59 For a recent overview, see Dikötter, Frank, The Age of Openness: China before Mao (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

60 The East is Red was denounced in the Cultural Revolution and for a time the new artistic representation of modern China's revolutionary history was The Five Milestones (Wuge lichengbei), or five sacred revolutionary sites related to Mao's rise to power.

61 “Zhang Yimou: only when we are confident can we be romantic and be able to create dreamscapes,” p. 79.

62 The tai chi performance featured students from the Henan Shaolin Temple School, not PLA soldiers. According to Zhang Heping, this addition was suggested by Party leaders when Liu Qi, Politburo member and head of the Beijing Olympic Committee, and Zhang were making a report on the progress of the opening ceremony to the standing committee of the Politburo in April 2007. Members of the Politburo pointed out that tai chi should be included since so many people practised it for their morning exercises, and the relevant, and in this case powerful, addition was made. See “Zhang Heping: using an international language to tell China's story,” p. 70. See also Farquhar, Judith and Zhang, Qicheng, “Biopolitical Beijing: pleasure, sovereignty, and self-cultivation in China's capital,” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2005), pp. 303–07, which offers a perceptive discussion of the “lordship” created by the autonomous tai-chi practitioner in pursuit of yangsheng, or self-cultivation.

63 For the use of “homeland” jiayuan in post-1989 China, see my “Beijing, a garden of violence,” pp. 632–33.

64 Liu came to prominence as a young singer in 1990 for, among other things, his rendition of the theme song of the TV riposte to River Elegy called On the Road: a Century of Marxism. For details of the series and the theme song, see “The graying of Chinese culture” in my In the Red, on Contemporary Chinese Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 120.

65 “Zhang Heping: using an international language to tell China's story,” p. 71.

66 Called kong or xu, these intentional absences in paintings are also known as liubai.

67 See Guoqi, Xu, Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895–2008 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 4243.

68 See Hilton, Christopher, Hitler's Olympics: The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006), p. 183.

69 “Zhang Yimou: only when we are confident can we be romantic and be able to create dreamscapes,” p. 78.

70 See, for example, Fuchao, Cai, “Yi Aoyun xuanchuan wei qiji, kaichuang shoudu xinwen xuanchuan gongzuo xin jumian” (“Use the Olympic Games as an opportunity to create a new vista for media propaganda work in the capital”), Qiushi zazhi (Seeking the Truth), No. 485 (2008), p. 23. Cai was the deputy mayor of Beijing and municipal propaganda chief. “To make people the focus” is integral to the Party's socio-economic programme centred on “the concept of scientific development” (kexue fazhan guan) and one enshrined by the 17th Party Congress in October 2007.

71 Ruichun, Yang, “Zhi you nan gao, bu neng luan gao: Cai Guoqiang fangtan” (“Coping with difficulty, and not acting irresponsibly: in conversation with Cai Guoqiang”), Nanfang zhoumo, “Olympics special,” 14 August 2008, p. A9.

* My thanks to Lois Conner for her support during my stay in the Olympic city during August 2008, Sang Ye for his advice and suggestions, and Gloria Davies for reading and commenting on the final draft. My work on Beijing, spectacle and the Olympics is supported by an Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship and the Research School of Pacific & Asian Studies, The Australian National University.

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