On Saturday, 17 May, the Olympic torch will pass through Shaoxing. What is more important is that it will pass through Shaoxing wenli xueyuan (Shaoxing College of Arts & Science). This is the only university so honored because China’s premiere modern writer, Lu Xun, taught at Shaoxing wenli when it was a 3-yr academy in the 1920’s. He was headmaster and supporter of the student paper that criticized the city/county leaders. He lasted a year before the Republican government–the Kuomintang (Guomindang in pinyin)–took him off to Nanjing because he caused too much unrest.
His writings are sharp satires, along with essays and reminiscences; they have been politicized to fit in with the Communist regime change and his sayings/writings have a constant presence in the school curriculum from primary through upper middle school. Many students can’t understand him because they’ve been told he’s difficult and it’s all from his imagination with no relationship to reality and it has “this” proscribed meaning. Many students don’t like reading Lu Xun.
Still, he is the most important of modern writers and it is fitting that the Olympic torch, the coming out party for China, should run through the town and through the college.
I teach at this college.
I will not be standing inside the college gates/walls, for reasons that will become plain later. I will be standing on the corner of the huge intersection, called a square by all, at the foot of the most famous bridge in the city, Lang Qiao. This corner is perhaps 50 metres from my house. I am going out with a little stool around 2-2:30 to sit on the curb and wait for the passing in order to be sure I’m in the front row. The torch is scheduled to trot by around 4:50. I take a stool because I can’t stand for 2+ hours.
On campus, the students will line the roadways, of course, and the main square where there is a nice statue of Lu Xun, a little bit more than life-size. The Foreign Language Building and the Chinese Studies building border the square. Then it will pass out Dong damen–the Great East Gate–and onto the main road and downtown. The festivities began organizing on Monday, 12 May.
Today, 16 May, I rode through campus making a hash of the proceedings. I am a serious teacher but, also, I am, as the Chinese say, y? dù zi huài shu?–which literally translates as “full of bad water” but we might say “mischievous.” My parents would call me a trouble-maker. I did this because the students were forced to gather in their pre-assigned areas in order to practice for the coming of the torch, as if they do not know how to wait or wave their little red flags. (I have one, too, gotten for me by one of my sophomore students.) They are being exhorted in their duties by administrators and lead teachers, the more prominently frightening being the lead teachers who are wont to take students on the carpet and shout at them for the most egregious of misbehavings, such as being late to class, not being present at the mandated study times/rooms, etc. They are, after all, college children and, as children, don’t understand the first thing about supporting their country or school, showing enthusiasm or waiting in an orderly fashion.
The last is kind of oddly ironic since most Chinese only line up at banks and China Mobile shops and McDonald’s and KFC; otherwise, the immediacy of a queue dissolves immediately upon, say, the arrival of the bus or the train and mob stampede ensues to the point that people who wish to get off are virtually disallowed to do so.
The college is doing this for two reasons: 1) to save face, to make sure their face is of the best; 2) control, colleges like to control their students from the get-go. Colleges enjoy control to the nth degree here. They not only control the students, they control the teachers. So, the college gathered all of the students and necessary teachers together today, Friday the 16th and had a practice run, as it were. To make sure everyone knew their role and nothing would be out of place to embarrass the college.
I joined in, in a manner of speaking.
Finding this entire episode of the utmost ridiculous nature, I rode my bike through campus to the West Square and railed at the students about how to wait and how to wave their flags and shouted at them to behave themselves because their parents would see them on TV. And then, amidst laughter on the part of the students and embarrassment on the part of the teachers, I rode back through campus waving at all of the student spectators who had come to see me. I thanked them. I told them I loved them. The security personnel, whom I greet and talk to daily, waved and laughed, some giving me thumbs up. I screwed my finger around my temple for the foreign students and rode out the Great East Gate shouting and waving over my shoulder, “I’m going to Beijing now!” It was a lovely journey. A lovely sight. And the students appreciated it.
Lest all you Westerners think that this entire torch relay is entirely without spontaneity, let me tell you these students are very excited about it. The government, the college can organize the pants off of the torch’s passing but they can do nothing about what happens within that frame. So, no matter what the college is trying to impose on the students from outside, they will be cheering on their country, cheering on their Torch Bearers with all they’ve got. And it will be on TV, as it is every night, every morning, sometimes the same footage with new additions. This is a big thing.
When I lived in the US, I never saw the likes of this enthusiasm as the Olympic torch was run across the country, right along Interstate Route 70–a really boring road, to be kind to it. In the US, the event was greeted as if they, the US populace, deserved it. Privileged people tend to see things in this light. There is no enthusiasm in the US; there is expectation that the US athletes will remain the best in the world–even though they’re not. There is virulent couch competition over who wins the most medals, who gets the most gold. USians are fond of shouting “FOUL!” at the judges when their fellows lose. A US judge would never cheat.
I don’t care. I’m after good performances by whomever. I want to see a good Games. Alas, my country and her reluctant allies are all for ruining the Games, embarrassing China. And for what? The US government, politics, is ruining a good time, for all athletes but especially for its own athletes. This is the time of their lives, the time to show the world just how good they are. This is their time to shine and shine and shine. . .and the US is tarnishing the medals before they’re won.
But the excitement here is catching. The life here, the pride in country is wonderful to behold. And me and my long wavy blond locks are going to be in the front row as the Olympic torch trots up and over Lang Qiao. I’ve never been part of such a thing before. I’ve never seen the Olympic torch run across the country. And after the torch passes up and over the bridge, I will run down the street, perhaps 100 metres, and wait for it to emerge from the Great East Gate. . .because I’m outside the campus, as are some of my students. And we can carry on and change position. Later, I may make it downtown to the city square for the performances.
While the US tries its best to cast a pall over the Beijing Olympics, I will be enjoying myself in all the positive splendor of the moment. Some of my students will be dealing with the press/media, translating and showing them around. So. . .you will see, if any of the torch’s transit through the college is shown on Western TV, many of my students and probably a lone blond man in red shirt waving a little red flag and taking pictures with his old Nikkormat and his new Samsung digital.
JAMES L. SECOR is a writer dramatist and professor of literature at Shaoxing University, Shaoxing China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.