Friday, August 8, 2008

Happy Olympics - Eight THIS China!

For quite a while now, I've been waiting for someone (else) to point out that a classical Chinese pun uses the number 8 to stand in for "hegemon", that hugely popular word among the post-posts. As I recall (and I'm not reliable on this or any other topic), the way it works is that poets are inherently feal to the empire since the route to office is knowledge of classics, and mastery of poetry is evidence of a rectified heart and therefore suitedness for ministerial advancement. Poetic mastery, in Confucian China, implied an arduous path toward the imperial center, meant to be at the heart of civilization.

Of course, nothing's perfect, and sometimes top scholars at the imperial exams become corrupt mandarins later on. And sometimes the imperial offices themselves earn the critical attention of literati who feel that the center is more endangered than embodied by the imperial person, or his various impostors.

So poets distant from the center, who feel the need to criticize without at the same time feeling the need to risk their eventual return toward the center, often indulge in a kind of double meaning in their poetry. The emperor is often the assumed object of seduction in a love poem, (that one's practically transparent, and so criticism had better be more veiled than the love object) lending an interesting twist to many poems.

For real criticism, the trick is to write a poem perfectly capable of standing on its own, but offering to the more subtle reader a sharp critique of the powers as exercised. A really fine such poem would offer a kind of confluence of sentiment, where the heartfelt validity of the one level reinforces the critical validity of the other and vice versa. Fun stuff. Ideally, the loyally oppositional poet will be read and recognized in the fullness of history, and perhaps even credited with steadying its course.

So hegemon, generally punned, was the cue to think of classical tyrants, Cao-cao most typically, but more generally those who veered toward exercising the machinery of power more toward consolidating and perpetuating that power than toward perfecting the civilization at the center of which the humane, rather than merely powerful, were meant to reside.

A swinging target in China's past has always been its original tyrant, Qin-shi Huang-di, or "The First Emperor", whose tomb is so celebrated by all those terra-cotta warriors. Variously a hegemon (pejorative sense) and the great unifier, his iconic definition has most recently been buffed up in the movie called in English "Hero" by that great Chinese cinematographer Zhang YiMou.

So, guess who's choreographing the opening ceremonies in Beijing?

I uncharacteristically turned on my TV at precisely 8.8.8 8:08 Beijing time to see what might be popping. Of course, the US networks redirected me to their canned coverage in American prime time, so I'll have to wait and see.

But I do have to say that silence in China, in Chinese, and certainly in English commentary on the various supposed meanings of all the eights, has been resounding. This has got to be a taboo of colossal proportions. To even suggest this particular pun must be dangerous beyond any imaginable social faux-pas.

Hero was and remains a tremendous success inside China. It can certainly be viewed as vindication of the nationalistic triumph of whatever quelled the Tian-an Men tiltings toward chaos. (Beyond the dangers of tyranny is that more than entropic force against civilization - chaos) So, is this filmmaker literate, in the Classical sense? How clever did he have to be, if indeed there is anything of youthfully loyal opposition remaining beyond wild mature success?

Did anyone else watch Hero?

Thrive or fail, people. What do we wish for China? What do we wish for this great choreographer of history. What will be the message that washes through?

Stay tuned.

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