Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Great Awakening


I sit here struggling for words to describe how eye-opening the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics were to me.

I struggle not for the impression the ceremonies made on me, I can write volumes on the artistry. Nor do I struggle for words on how the ceremonies showed me what China will become in the very near future.

What I'm struggling with, what I realize now, is my deep naivete about what China has been: a distant, secret place, whose image in the mind of this fairly sophisticated American was clearly incomplete.

The China I saw introduced last night was at once precisely disciplined, yet wildly creative; technologically advanced, yet almost wholly reliant on the human element; richly historic, yet able to rebuild and remodel itself in almost a moment's notice.

The juxtaposition of these opposite values was made quite clear in the precision of the artists on stage. As a performer myself, I can tell you that it's near impossible to get twenty people to perform in near-perfect unison (The Rockettes spring to mind as the exception) but to get 2,000 at a time? Often with no more visual cue than your muscle memory and some awareness of the "chi" of the people around you?

As Matt Lauer, one of the hosts of NBC's coverage of the ceremonies, pointed out last night, China has had the largest GDP in the world for 9 of the last ten centuries.

The sole exception? The United States in the 20th Century. China clearly aims to take that title from us once again, and I can't see how they will fail.

Which brings me back to the image I had of China. I, like many of you, was aware of the China we were introduced to during the Nixon administration: grey and blue jacketed men and women, deliberately muted and homogenized in their diversity, struggling to break the shackles of governmental regulation and economic morosity.

As the years rolled on, I began to hear stories of how the Chinese were slowly awakening to the 20th Century: gleaming buildings in Shanghai, more freedom to pursue individual goals, a burgeoning middle class.

I sure wasn't expecting that, less than thirty years out from her commitment to becoming an economic lion, she had come this far. I assumed that the nation had done it thru sheer force of will and brute strength.

The delicacy and beauty of last night's show, reminding us of 5,000 years of heritage while reinforcing China's paternalistic centralized power structure, spoke volumes of how a great nation does not have to be "ruggedly individualistic" nor supremely sovietized in order to be a world player.

China has found some sweet spot in the middle, and by now throwing human minds and creativity into the mix, have become a formidable and powerful competitor to the United States.

I wonder how we'll handle them?