Thursday, April 10, 2008

Entry Ten: The Olympic Stage

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you know that the Olympics are rapidly approaching. The international response to the torch relay is not something that I have discussed with many people here; I figure if they want to talk about it with me they will broach the issue. I usually have access to western media, so I am aware of the controversy. Naturally, different news sources are presenting different perspectives. My aim with this entry, however, is not to make a political statement one way or the other, but rather to try and put the Olympics (and all that comes with it) into the context of what it means for everyday people in Jinhua. I will do this by attempting to act as an ethnographer, and offer my observations as your primary source.

Disclaimer: I fully recognize that a single event is not a decisive representation of China or attitudes in China. I only offer these summaries of what I saw for your academic consideration. While my writing is not sound ethnography, it is an honest attempt to produce a primary source for your evaluation.

Background: Two weeks ago I was invited to serve as a judge in an English speaking competition. This year’s competition was different from years past because the format was one-act theatre, and the theme was the upcoming Olympics. In a three day county-wide event, all schools (primary, middle and high school) sent participants. I was one of five judges, and in addition to enjoying the performances, we were treated to an impressive lunch each day of the festival.

If you have been to a high school one-act or music festival in the states, I would say the atmosphere was similar however here there was a more to the pomp and circumstance: dramatic intro music, 2 well dressed MCs, lots of flowers, etc.

The most important judging criterion on the score sheet was English Pronunciation, worth 40% of the score. Other categories included Harmonious Cooperation (10%), Artistry (20%), Stage Performance (20%) and Scene Development (10%). Of the five judges, two were from America (Courtney, who has taught in China for over 2 years, and myself), another was a Chinese-English teacher turned curriculum administrator (for those familiar with our exchange program, it was Angela), a Chinese-English professor from the University, and a Theater Professor from the University who did not speak English. It was a real pleasure to serve in this capacity, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

The plays I have summarized are listed in no particular order. Given the topic and the timing of this festival, I hope you find the plots as interesting as I have.

Reading Target: My recommendation for students and readers alike is to read and analyze these summaries looking for patterns and connections to currents events and your prior knowledge. I offer five questions to guide your reading.

  1. What common themes, issues and/or messages are present in the plays?
  2. Given these sources, how does 'China' perceive itself?
  3. Given these sources, how does 'China' perceive people not from China?
  4. Hypothesize about the impact of these Olympics on everyday life in China.
  5. Hypothesize about the Chinese perception of what these Olympics represent.
  6. Finally, how do these primary sources influence your perspective on China?

Play One: The Torch Bearer Competition

Grade Level: Primary School

Twenty young children, maybe third graders, begin the performance by dancing in green costumes. They are all girls. As the song concludes the dancers take positions in the background; it looks like a forest. In the back center stage a boy dressed like a lion stands and stretches as if waking up. He yells, “Sensational News!” Four other children dressed as animals appear: one boy as an elephant, a girl as a puppy, another boy as a monkey, and the final girl as an animal that I could not identify. The lion explains that the Olympics are coming and they must select a torch bearer from the forest. Each of the 4 animals argues why they are the most deserving of the honor. The lion looks around and asks, “What about turtle?” Turtle slowly arrives and concedes he does not have the strength, speed or wit of the other animals. As he sulks the lion decides there will be a competition to elect the torch bearer, and it will be a race through the forest. Music starts and they run around the stage. The puppy character, neck in neck with the others, falls into a river (blue fabric being held and waved by either side of the stage). The three other leading animals watch her struggle and decide to carry on with the race. A bit later the trailing turtle sees the puppy struggling in the river and leaves the race to rescue her. As the three lead animals finish the race they all cheer for themselves, however the lion declares the turtle as the winner. The lion roars, “Do you know the lesson of the Olympics? It is harmony and friendship!” Turtle enters the scene helping the puppy walk and receives a torch. The students then sing a song and dance holding a “Beijing Olympics” sign. The play concludes with a bow.

Play Two: Spending Money

Grade Level: Performed once by a primary school, and three times by different middle schools

The play opens with a colorfully dressed person who introduces herself (a female in all four performances) as a candy maker. The set includes a large table with colorful decorations and a sign that reads, “Sweet Shop.” The candy maker explains that she sells candy to children at the school gate and is making lots of money. She says she is placing Olympic logos on her products and it is contributing to her success. She then begins to make candy, explaining the process. During the candy making she sneezes a few times on the candy, and admits her hands are dirty. She claims she does not care, and admires her finished product. She tries to sell candy to two school children, but the children have no money. The two children (girls in all four performances) go home to ask for money. One of the girls suggests that they compliment a parent (three times a father, once a mother) in order to get some money. They do so, but are told not to use the money for sweets. The students make a promise and then promptly go back to the sweet shop and buy the candy anyway. There are people dressed as large packaged candy. The candy people complain that they are dirty and cry. The students buy the candy anyway, much to the candy maker’s delight. Later, the girls return to the parent complaining of a stomach ache. The parent scolds them for lying and then goes to the candy maker. When the parent arrives to confront the candy maker there is a police officer (always in some uniform, three times the kid had a full PRC military officer’s uniform). The official questions the parent and then screams at the candy maker, demanding that the candy maker leave. The students apologize for lying and the candy maker is dragged off stage. A narrator enters and makes comments. Part of these comments includes, “There are more foreigners coming to China for the Olympics, and phenomena such as this must be reduced. We must show a good face to the foreigners.” The play concludes with a bow.

Play Three: [No English title in the program]

Grade Level: Middle School

A small boy enters the stage and wanders about. 15 or so larger boys enter the stage in formation carrying very convincing toy guns. The young boy says he wants to join the army, but is told by the tallest boy that he is not ready. There is dialogue that is difficult to understand. They then dance with the guns. The boy follows the soldiers but gets lost in what he calls “the forest.” He receives the help of someone dressed like one of the Olympic mascots, and eventually finds his way. There is more dancing, this time by 15 girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms. The soldiers reenter the scene looking for the young boy, and the boy confidently finds them. The boy is told he has passed “the test” and is given a very large toy gun. All of the students, male soldiers with guns and female dancers, take the stage in a tight formation and march a few steps. They repeat a slogan a few times, saying, “The Olympics are coming, we must obey our word.” They march off stage.

Play Four: Beijing is Ready!

Grade Level: Once by a middle school, once by a high school

The play begins with many different school children on the stage, some with books and others with basketballs. All exit except for three. There is a girl with a book sitting in the back, and two boys with brooms. A sign divides the stage into “Class A” and “Class B.” The boy in “Class B” sweeps a plastic bag away from his side and onto the “Class A” side. The other boy returns the same action. They speak for a while about the incident and begin to grab and push each other, still talking about the bag on the floor. The girl sitting in the back rises and says, “It is no problem, it is our duty.” She takes the bag and disposes of it in a waste barrel. The two boys apologize. All exit. More students arrive and explain they will compete for a position as an Olympic Volunteer in Beijing. As they compete one of the three is less aggressive, and offers help to his opponents. Much of the scene is difficult to understand because of technical malfunctions. The less aggressive competitor is awarded the position. All enter the stage and sing, and form the Olympic Ring logo with hula-hoops. They unfurl a banner that reads, “Welcome the Olympic. Improve Manners.” They shuffle off stage maintaining their formation.

Play Five: Snow White goes to Beijing

Grade Level: Middle School

The play begins with Snow White and seven dwarfs exclaiming that they should visit the Olympics. There is a bubble machine filling the air around Snow White. A sign suggests that they have arrived in Beijing and they ask for directions. There is a song. A witch appears and places a spell on their map and on different signs that now randomly switch direction. When the witch appears there is a smoke machine that creates smoke around her. Snow White and the dwarfs wander on stage. A vendor enters with a cart. He says, “Look, Look, See, See, Yummy, Yummy, Cheap, Cheap.” Snow White buys some food from him and asks how much longer they must walk to get to the stadium. The vendor explains they went in the wrong direction. The dwarfs cry. The vendor offers to take them to their destination. All cheer. As they arrive to a gate (complete with torches topped with electric lights) the witch appears again. She attempts to cast a spell, however nothing happens. She exclaims, “Oh no, the Olympic torch!” She falls. All sing, and say “Welcome to the Olympics. Welcome to Beijing. Welcome to China!” All bow and leave the stage.

Play Six: The Olympics are Coming!

Grade Level: performed by 4 different middle school groups, and 2 high school groups

Two girls enter the stage wearing blonde wigs and baggy clothes. There is a man with a table and red umbrellas. He says, “Looky, Looky.” He then speaks in Chinese. The two girls explain that they do not understand the “strange language.” Another student appears and offers to help as a translator. The translator and the vendor speak in Chinese, and then the translator explains that the vendor wants to sell things to the two blonde girls. The girls look at the umbrellas and agree to purchase a red umbrella. The translator speaks about the significance of the color red for the Chinese. The blonde girls say, “Awesome!” After they leave, the vendor walks around the stage with a book reciting English expressions. The translator later returns and is greeted by the vendor in English. The vendor explains that learning English will not make him “forget the mother language” and he is happy to learn “a useful language.” The two blonde girls reappear. They meet the translator and invite her to a picnic. During the picnic the translator explains that the vendor has recently learned English. One of the blonde girls exclaims, “It is so wonderful, the Chinese are very good at learning languages!” They then agree to visit the vendor, who reappears at the corner of the stage with five students dressed as the “Five Friendlies.” [These are the five mascots of the Beijing Olympics] He introduces each of the five characters, who then in turn talk about themselves. There is a fish, a flame, a panda, an antelope and a swallow; each has symbolic significance that they explain. The blondes ask how much to buy all five, and the price is 350 RMB. They make the purchase, and then the group gathers at center stage for a song and to bow.

Play Seven: Hero

Grade Level: High School

The play begins with a man who introduces himself as a king. There are two people at his side. A character in red appears and claims to have killed would-be assassins. When the king demands proof, the one in red opens a computer and asks the king to watch. Four people (two boys, two girls) enter the stage to different pop music songs. Once all together, they dance. In the background, the boy in red explains how he killed the first assassin. A girl in white (who is the younger version of the boy in red during this flashback, as a narrator explained) engages in a sword fight with one of the assassins, and wins. Then two other assassins enter the stage. The boy assassin asks the girl what she wants for her birthday, and the girl replies that he must kill the king. The boy refuses, saying, “But I am a good egg.” The girl then threatens to kill him too. The younger version of the boy in red appears again, and offers to sing a song to calm the situation. The song is a terrible scream, and the two assassins fall to the stage and appear dead. The boy in red closes the computer and says that the flashback is over. The King stands and says, “I do not believe you,” and then kills the boy in red. All quickly gather at center stage and say, “Thank you,” and bow. [Special Note: The play is based on a recent and popular Jet Li movie about the warring states period in Chinese History. After the competition, I was asked for advice on how to change the play to make it more about the Olympics. It was explained that this group had been asked to change the play before the next round of competition in two weeks.]

Play Seven: [No English title in the program]

Grade Level: High School

The play begins with two students dressed as trees, and one dressed as a river. A white bunny then hops across the stage. There are some papers and wrappers on the stage. The bunny begins a conversation about pollution with the trees. After a long discussion (much of it was difficult to hear because of the reoccurring audio malfunctions), the bunny screams, “Oh no, a sand storm.” The characters are “blown” off stage and a lot of crumpled paper is thrown onto the stage as very dramatic music plays in the background. The characters return to the stage in slightly different costumes. The bunny is now gray, the river has changed (see picture) and the trees look less healthy. Again there is a discussion, and phrases such as “global warming” and “soil erosion” are mentioned in the conversation. The group blames humans for the problems and gets angry, leaving the stage. A narrator explains that humans are now “suffering because of pollution and must learn.” Students dressed in casual clothing take the stage and pick up the trash. The animal, river and trees return again looking clean and happy. They sing a song and then bow.

Other Plays – Common Themes:

There were many more plays, but it is too large a task for me to summarize all of them. The most common occurrence, other than singing and dancing routines, was the inclusion of the five Olympic mascots or “Friendlies” in the plot of the plays. Also, there were 12 different plays that included a competition to determine some kind of prize – either a trip to the Olympics, or a chance to become a volunteer. Three of the plays included characters from the classic novel The Journey West.

Final Note: With less than 24 hour notice, Courtney and I were informed that we would be singing during one of the intermissions. Since we are both Red Sox fans, I got my hands on a karaoke version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” As an ethnographer, I cannot say that we performed well, but the audience did clap.

This week I have tried to keep my conclusions out of the blog to provide space for more of your comments and discussion. Please post! It would be especially insightful if you could make connections with currents issues and/or your prior knowledge of China.


jules said...

Hi Jason -
I've had a hard time making a postal comment and can understand why there's not more. Everything I write gets disappeared!
Anyway, just want you to know you are being read and I must complement you on your wonderful rendition of being the judge at all those plays. That must have been a task!
So where can you go with all this information? What about doing a master or doctoral thesis on . . . "The Philosophical Impact of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the People when Hosting the Olympics." OR, "The Many Uses of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for Keeping the Witch Out of the Picture when Hosting the Olympics."
There's so much there, and it's so hard to grasp it all in words. You are doing a great job Jason. There's so much to share and so many ways it can all go. I know you'll find a way to make it positive. Keep sending those blogs. Oh, and by the way, is it OK if I use your pictures for my lab schedule? They are gorgeous.
Sincerely, your friend,
Jules Adlard

Ashley said...
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Ashley said...
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Ashley said...

I know this is a long time after this post was made, but we just read this in my Drama class today.

It's interesting to look at the propaganda mixed in with these one-acts.

Well, maybe propaganda isn't the right word. I really can't explain it. Each of your examples had a lesson or real point. It seems kind of odd to me because I know, that if you gave schools here the task they had, 90% of it would have been harmless or without a real point [and most likely without weapons].

-Ashley Carlton

Don said...


May I suggest a link related to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games?

Our site:

Title: Beijing Olympics

Please let me know if you want a link back.
Many thanks for your reply.

Best Regards,