China Beat Archive



Sam Goffman

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August 7, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright August 7, 2008 Sam Goffman. Used by permission.


“You Americans look down on us—you think of us as low-educated and savage. I hope the Olympics can change all that.”

One could be forgiven for thinking the above statement is from contemporary China. In fact, the statement is from a South Korean travel agent, who said it on September 16, 1988, one day before the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Summer Olympics, held in Seoul.[1]

It is striking how many of the expectations regarding what the Olympics will do for China’s status in the world reflect earlier expectations in other East Asian countries that have hosted the Games—Japan in 1964 and Korea in 1988—and, to a lesser extent, other “developing” countries, such as Mexico in 1968. The most far-reaching of these is a yearning for international acknowledgement of the country’s status as a major economic power, and confirmation from Western countries of China’s equal standing as a modern nation-state. This expectation has been covered extensively in foreign media, so much so that it has become almost requisite for stories about the Beijing Olympics to include a line about China’s efforts to appear “modern” to the outside world.

As Susan Brownell noted in a recent essay, China’s view of modernity tends to be about 100 years out of date—based on an evolutionary model of history, it focuses on economic achievements and leaves out more recent, Western-centered additions to the ideal of modernity, such as human rights. The Olympics, in its role as stage on which modernity is performed, certainly plays an important role in this broad historical arc. However, the Olympics act as more than a mere passive demonstration of historical progress: it can also act as a destabilizing event, forcing us to investigate the meaning of “modernity” itself.