“Our motherland is like a garden, and we, the colorful flowers,” the song goes.
Dear motherland, I would love to be one of the colors and add to your beauty. But before that, please let me bloom into my own.
September 8, 2013, I was on my way home. “2020 already? God, I’m old!” I exclaimed, when I heard the news that Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Olympics. “London 2012 and Beijing 2008 still feel like just yesterday!” After I pulled myself out of this bout of pretentious self-pitying, the news flooded me with a torrent of reminiscences that carried me from the moment when Beijing won its own bid in 2001 and then to the opening ceremonies of the Beijing and London Olympic Games. When I finally snapped back to reality, I was smiling—but with tearful eyes.
Let me begin with these three very special moments. In 2001, I was 12 years old. On July 13, the day when candidate cities delivered their final presentations to the International Olympic Committee members, I glued myself to the television, not wanting to miss a single second of it. For me, being there for my country in critical moments like that was an outright obligation. When Juan Antonio Samaranch, then IOC president, announced Beijing’s victory, I, like many Chinese, was immersed in a night of tearful exuberance. It was only instinctual for me to have that level of patriotic devotion and pride.
Came 2008, and I turned 19. And yes, August 8 was another whole day of “being there for my country.” On top of that, I had my mom get me two mini flags, and I would cheer and wave them in front of the TV. Again, I felt obliged to capture every moment with my full attention, as if deep regret would haunt me if I hadn’t. Eight past eight—the ceremony began, and I invited a close Indian friend of mine to join me over Skype so that I could explain to him the profound cultural significance behind every set. To every impressed gasp of his, my heart beat with unspeakable pride and enthusiasm—spreading to the world my love for my motherland was such a blessed calling.
I couldn’t help but wonder, however, why it always seems to take a special “international” occasion for my patriotic love to burn ever so passionately? I believe underneath the fire is a desire for recognition—recognition from the world. This is something every citizen raised in China can relate to because our education taught us repetitively about the transformation our nation has gone through: from the humiliation of the Opium War and being called the “sick man of Asia,” to the glory of the founding of New China and the Reform and Opening Up. This sentiment of getting recognized for the extraordinary comeback has become part of our national psyche, evident not only on big occasions like the Olympics, where the nation’s image is on full display, but also in our everyday life as ordinary citizens. Even here at graduate school in the United States, whenever I receive praise from my professors and colleagues, I can sense the presence of the “international recognition” element in my joy.
I started to think more deeply about this when watching the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. It was 2012. I was 23. In the four years since the Beijing Olympics, I had traveled the longest and the most complicated of personal journeys. Ignorance is bliss, indeed. With more learning, reading, and thinking over the years, my understanding of things grew more sophisticated, and my thinking on China’s future, more solemn, with the feeling of increasing weight on my shoulders. Since then, the world has not been the same: it’s no longer filled with pink marshmallows—even though that innocent, childlike heart of mine remains unchanged. I am no longer content just to watch the calm ocean. I need to go into the depths to find answers, even if it means swimming against the soaring waves. This is perhaps the cost—as well as the gain—of growing up.
I was not the only one who watched the London Olympics opening ceremony just to compare it with Beijing’s, but I was looking at it from a different angle. Instead of pitting them against each other in competition, I was curious to see how each of these two nations—one, as one of the oldest civilizations, and the other, as the vanguard of industrialization—would, on the Olympic stage, highlight its rich legacy and contributions to the world that cannot be ignored.
If I have only one word to describe each presentation: “uniformity” for Beijing and “chaos” for London. The 2,008 percussionists chanting words from the Analects of Confucius while beating the fou drums with surreal synchronization formed a stark contrast to the London performers, who seemed to each be doing his or her own thing—playing the various roles of farmers, Union workers, and suffragettes, against the backdrop of seven big chimneys that signified the Industrial Revolution.
For me, the divide between “uniformity” and “chaos” speaks to a greater difference between two underlying rationales for the ceremonies: Beijing deployed the individuals to showcase the glory of its civilization, while London used civilization as the stage to glorify the individual. But the difference in staging points to something of greater significance: the staging is an expression of how each state relates to its people.
It has been said that anthropologist Margaret Mead once stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Thanks to the unprecedented advancement of information and communication technology and social media, the crowd of the “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” of the world—the heart and moving force of civil society—is getting larger, speaking louder, and growing stronger. The civil society that initiated the change in the Arab world was the same civil society that provided much needed assistance after a magnitude 8 earthquake struck my dear home province of Sichuan in 2008 when official disaster relief efforts proved insufficient. Civil society is fundamentally an institution that embodies the collective desire of citizens to solve problems on their own, and it shares with government the same problem-solving function. As such, it is an institution to be nurtured by the government for the greater good of the people.
One song we grew up singing is called “Our Motherland Is Like a Garden.” The first line goes like this: “Our motherland is like a garden, and we, the colorful flowers.” If we borrow the symbols from this song, the state-citizen relationship of the “Beijing model” can be understood as one between the flowers and the gardener. To achieve a most colorful garden, the gardener would arrange the flowers’ position, manage their nutrients, and monitor their growth. In contrast, the state-citizen relationship of the “London model” is more like one between the flowers and the garden: each flower, with the nutrients provided in the soil, grows freely in its own natural course, with the garden patiently waiting for the day when all the flowers are in full bloom. The latter is what the leaders of China should aim for when they proclaim the governing principles of “putting people first,” “biding our time,” and “rising with accumulated strength.”
In other words, the Chinese government needs to come to the realization that it was people who wrote the nation’s five thousand years of history. China’s success requires the restoration of the people as the agents of its political life. “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” should not be constructed as a government-led national project with each citizen shouldering a share of the “rejuvenation” responsibility. Instead, it should be viewed as a natural result of positive citizen-state interactions. As I have previously mentioned, the “recognition” sentiment—a byproduct of the “humiliation” education and “rejuvenation" campaign—has penetrated into the national psyche as well as political and cultural life. We urgently need to change course.
The Beijing and London “models” can also be applied to the relationships among parents, children, educators, and students. There are already extensive and heated discussions in China regarding the lack of individuality and creativity of Chinese students compared to Western students, and the harm of rote learning and exam-oriented education, so I will not elaborate on that here. What I would like to highlight, rather, is the often overlooked correlation between China’s current political life and the education of the next generation.
Initiatives such as promoting the rule of law and implementing education reform are needed, but they are, in my view, not the most urgent tasks for our nation today. I believe the foremost priority is to change the national subconsciousness of uniformity and synchronization, which can be found in every facet of Chinese society. This subconsciousness is essentially a distorted obsession with control and imposition of authority and an intolerance of behaviors that depart from what is prescribed by the authorities. This obsession—a disease, in fact—stifles civil society and, therefore, impedes the natural, intellectual growth of a nation. It undermines civil society’s ability to function as the harbinger of our time and critic for better governance.
In parallel, teachers and parents arbitrarily put their students and children on an assembly line and manufacture a future generation in the image they desire. Now, to teach is no longer to educate, and the children are deprived of the opportunity to develop into their own selves. But education is not flower arrangement; it is flower cultivation. Children and students should be the agents of growth and education, with parents and educators being the supporters and nurturers. Our children will only be themselves when they are granted the freedom to know themselves.
Granted, it is extremely difficult to eradicate a deep-rooted tenet. But we must, in order to enter a virtuous cycle of history. It is my firm conviction that this great nation has an extraordinary cohesion formed throughout its long history, and the emergence of Chinese civil society has caught the world’s attention. Meanwhile, the Chinese leadership also possesses a remarkable machinery of mobilization. If this machinery can be put to a good use to restore the greatness and impact of the people themselves in making history, that would be the nation’s greatest blessing.
September 8, 2013. That flag-waving little girl in front of the television watching the Beijing Olympics in 2008 has now traveled half the globe. She still harbors the deepest love for her homeland and will always be there for her as she did before, but now with a more mature, rational, and constructive approach. Then I smiled: after all these years trying my hardest to bloom freely, I have passed that breakthrough moment of springing from the darkness in the soil to the brightness in the sun—I’m now joyfully budding. That thought also makes me sad, because so many people have yet to have the opportunity to taste the wonderfulness of blooming free.
I returned home, humming the melody of “Our Motherland Is Like A Garden.” But I was singing my own song: “We, the flowers, are beautiful, hence the garden-like motherland. Watching us sway in the breeze of freedom, our Mother smiles.”
Nakshatra is a 24-year-old Chengdu native who is passionate about Western studies and political science. Once an aspiring simultaneous interpreter, she currently is pursuing her Master’s degree in human rights and democratic governance in Washington, D.C., after rekindling her childhood interests during a year studying in Prague, Czech Republic.