August 7, 2008

The Olympics, The Number 8, and Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda has taken China by storm. Seriously. Everyone I talk to says it's the best China-related movie they've seen, even counting Chinese movies. Everyone feels that it really portrays Chinese culture and society very accurately. Themes in the movie are traditional themes from Chinese life. And it's just a well-done film. Citizens are now pointing fingers at Chinese moviemakers and saying things like "Why can't you make a movie this good! You're Chinese, for Pete's sake!" (Okay they probably don't use that idiom.) They're amazed that Americans could do this good of a job. (As am I!)

I've seen it twice myself and think it's really good. But from my point of view I was like "Oh this is terrible, so stereotypical China, with the pagodas and the martial arts and the mysticism and the dragons and the animal characters and what have you. I can't believe Americans have the nerve to put this stuff out." So elitist. But it turns out that these stereotypes are accepted and embraced by native Chinese, as detailed above. So does that mean they're really stereotypes? After all, that word has a pejorative connotation.

Sooo many interesting things going on there.


After years of hype and speculation, the 2008 Beijing Olympic games are finally upon us. The opening ceremony is tonight at 8 PM. For those who don't know, 8 is a lucky number in Chinese culture. Its pronunciation (ba) sounds like another character (fa) which means to get rich, to be prosperous. That's why the most prominent buildings have 8s in their addresses. The Jin Mao Tower is at 88 Century Ave. The glitzy Radisson New World hotel is at 88 Nanjing Xi Lu. The more 8s your phone number has, the more money you will pay for that SIM card. The hotel that my relatives are staying at has a phone number that ends in 8888. I shudder to think what they must have paid for that.

Thus it was inevitable that the Chinese would bid for the games in the summer of 2008. Not only that, because of the year, but because the summer games start in August, the 8th month. And it's beginning on Friday the 8th. Starting at 8 PM.

The Olympics will start on 8/8/08 at 8:08 PM. This is not an accident.

The Games are China's coming-out party. The unveiling. The dropping of all pretense that China is still the China of the past 150 years, the China of the Opium Wars and concessions to foreign governments and the fall of dynasties. China is using the Games say to the world "We are a new world power; before this century is out, we will be the world power. Recognize us. Accept us. Our prominence is inevitable."

It's not in a threatening way. It's not in an intimidating way. It's in a factual way. 1.3 billion people. An economy with a double-digit annual growth rate. Cars. Oil. Internet. Cell phones. Plastic packaging. More skyscrapers in Shanghai than on the entire West Coast of the US. A projected population in this city alone of 40 - 60 million during the next century. If so many people still have an image of China as a backwater, they will soon drop it in favor of the glitz and modernity, the glamour and pomp, that the games will showcase.

At least, that is the hope of the Chinese government, that the world will recognize it must come to terms with what's going on over here. That the US no longer will stand as the world's unquestioned superpower. It can't. There's no way. 300 million people? Pshaw. That's nothing. A drop in the bucket. That isn't even enough people to ensure the quality of the English language. Yes, our standard of living is higher. But it won't be for long. It can't be, given the trajectories of both economies. This isn't malicious or spiteful or aggressive. Again -- it's just a fact: death, taxes, and China has a shitload of people who collectively will soon wield unheralded economic influence.

This isn't the decline of Western civilization. It's important that nobody see if this way. Because that line of thinking lends itself towards grasping, clutching, clawing attempts to hang on to perceived place in the world. That line of thinking leads to violence, which is a nothing more than an outward manifestation of deep-seated insecurity and other fears. We're better than that.

Rather, it is the rise of Eastern civilization, which was well on its way at the turn of the century but was derailed by WWII (as was much of the world outside the US). In the modern age, this rise started 30 years ago with Deng Xiaoping opening up the Chinese economy to foreign investment and a capitalist way of thought. That's why he's revered here. But in another sense, it really starts tonight. Tonight, the world will begin to see what the Chinese have known for quite awhile now. And you can even watch it on TV. How post-modern.


Here in Shangers, we feel the Olympics personally. One of my favorite music venues has been shut down until the games are over, actually, until September 6th. (The music will simply move to another venue.) People's flights (including mine to Macau!) are being randomly canceled or moved. I would not even want to THINK about flying to Beijing for the next two weeks. It will be bad enough flying to Macau and Tunxi. Restaurants and other venues near the Shanghai Stadium, which is hosting the soccer portion of the Olympics, also have been shut down. I see uniformed police officers much more than before, especially in the metro and along well-traveled streets like Huaihai Zhong Lu and Hengshan Lu. If you're carrying a large bag or package, expect to be searched as you enter the metro turnstile. And don't even think about shopping at any of Shanghai's 1,080 metro station stores. They're closed for a month. People are acting up. There was an attack in Xinjiang last week, and there was some nutcase with a knife out on Nanjing Dong Lu.

Here's hoping we all get through the craziness of August in one piece.

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