Whose house? How the Olympics opening ceremonies gave me insight into two nations

I’m not gonna lie. When I saw the 2008 opening ceremonies in China, I was wondering how the hell London was going to follow that show. China’s opening ceremony was opulent, dazzling and managed to conscript every person in its borders into performing some role.

To me, London’s was cheekier — from the Five Rings to Rule Them All to Queen Elizabeth’s entrance via parachute — this was an opening ceremony that didn’t feel like it had to prove anything, as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei observed in The Guardian:

This was about Great Britain; it didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn’t need a monumental Olympics. But for Chinathat was the only imaginable kind of international event. Beijing’s Olympics were very grand – they were trying to throw a party for the world, but the hosts didn’t enjoy it. The government didn’t care about people’s feelings because it was trying to create an image.

And he’s right. Culturally it was about many things for China. It was about proving that it was a superpower, that it could play on the same stage as the United States and the other major powers. It was also an extravagant display of the Chinese cultural marker known as face, or the dignity and prestige someone (or some nation) has.

Face would never allow China to have something like Mr. Bean performing with the London Symphony in a silly comic piece. Face would never have the Chinese president Hu Jintao get into a gun-fu battle with Chow Yun Fat that was directed by John Wu. It simply isn’t allowed. It’s about the best impression and strongest impression.

London on the other hand, never felt like it had anything to prove. It’s history is already revered by many (Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin is a member of her high school’s Anglophile club) and has left its imprint all over the world. If anything, Danny Boyle wanted to create a picture of what England was like now in a fun, bubbly way.

After all the opening ceremonies I’ve seen lately, it seems like the countries that feel like they have the most to prove — be it culturally, economically, whatever — treat the opening ceremonies differently than the countries that don’t feel that way.

It’s not that one is better than the other — certainly people have their preferences — but I think if anything, it’s a good indicator of culture and changes in the global powers. China is still a new superpower on the global stage and its opening ceremony was a showcase of what it could do. England is already a superpower and felt like it had nothing to prove, so why not have a little fun?

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