The Beijing opening ceremonies were one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. I remember seeing thousands of drummers working in synchrony, a field of men performing Tai Chi, and a wave of Chinese characters moving up and down, to remind the world that China invented typesetting. What amazed me was that each character was human powered, and the up and down movements had to be perfectly choreographed to give the rippling patterns. When I realized that London was set to follow Beijing, I thought “There is no way they can match or beat this.”
I was both right and wrong, and the difference highlights the differences between the two countries.
When it comes to majesty and spectacle, Beijing won hands down. For me, the 2008 Opening Ceremony was a coming out party for China. ”We are here world – look at our rich culture and history, and see what we can accomplish.” To have so many people working together in such artistry and synchrony was amazing to see. But I grew uncomfortable when I learned that the 900 men under the typesetting segment had to wear diapers, because they had to stay under their props for six hours. What was the human cost of that greatness?
China’s approach was very much in line with what we have seen in the subsequent four years. It can move a large number of people to act together to produce great things. Check out this video about the manufacturing of iPads by Foxconn. The vast majority of the work done by each individual is repetitive and boring. But the end result is something spectacular.
A Different Focus
Danny Boyle, the oscar-winning director of Slum Dog Millionaire and the director of the London Opening Ceremony took an entirely different tack – it wasn’t about technology, and synchrony, it was about people. The first part of the program highlighted the transition in England’s history from an agrarian existance to the industrial revolution. Giant smokestacks rose out of the ground, and workers emerged from a hole in the ground to roll up and carry off the grass sod that covered the field. Each smokestack in the show let off smog, and the Boyle’s magic managed to include the sulfer stink of the pollution.
The London games reminded the world that the UK has been through the pain of industrialization, and has dealt with the impact on socicety. There were workers with picket signs as part of the show, advocating women’s sufferage among other causes. As host Matt Lauer put it ” for all the prosperity from industrial revolution, there was also great hardship.”
The ceremony seemed to be saying “Industrial Revolution? Been there, done that. Now lets move on to our legacy of children’s literature, The National Health Service, and the uniquely British comic sensibility.” I was also struck by the cultural and ethnic diversity of the performers.
From the land to factories and back to the land
Today, China is the country undergoing the transition from an agrarian to an industrial existence. At the opening of the 2008 games in Beijing, Tijeniman Square was filled with smog for a few days until the government-mandated shutdown of factories allowed the air to clear for the games. At the turn of the 20th Century, the London Fog was the result of smog an industrial waste. Now, much of that industry is gone from London, and in fact the industrial reminants on the economically depressed East End were replaced with the Olympic park. And after the games, this region will be home to a new public park filled with trails, wetlands, and open space.
In China and the UK, I see two countries at opposite ends of the industrialization cycle. And the opening ceremonies? I loved them both, but I have to give the edge to the one that put people first.