The Party, the Bread, the Track, and the Circus

God knows that I love bread. (Bread and I, however, are in the midst of a relatively amicable separation, and my waistline has noticed.) The student body at my university, and especially at the rich-kid college within it where I teach, is of a particularly well-fed demographic, and they see their grindstone bachelor’s degree exclusively as job training, nothing more. (The majority work in majors chosen for them, often with no real interest or aptitude in the subject but only faith in the promise of the “comfortable life” that most Chinese — understandably — seek.) Though privileged within Chinese society, they do endure acres of boredom and megatons of rote learning, so the circus does come to town. And though I am not above the occasional superior sneer at the circus entertainments chosen by others, I’m still a sucker for the Olympic march of the athletes, small-town parades, the communal experience of fireworks. Even loners like me love a good show, some high-wire performance, but I was recently put in mind of the ancient Roman poet Juvenal’s scorn of the use of “bread and circuses” to pacify a population.

It was Sports Day at my university in northeastern China, a day common to most schools here. It is a more of a show than a track and field meet, and actually two days of class are

The March of the One-Time Athletes. A beautiful day for a show. (Photo: JP Mayer)

sacrificed for it. Many students are required to miss class sessions in the days before in order to prepare, but not for their events. In a country where precious little importance is given to physical education – except, that is, for the tiny minority selected in their youth or childhood to attend State sports schools and bring sporting honour to their province or their Olympically-ambitious country – this once-yearly festival of geng kuai, geng gao, geng qiang (“faster, higher, stronger”) sees astonishingly little athletic preparation, or even the possibility of it. It drives my Canadian friend JP, a masters decathlete and long-time high-school coach, just slightly bonkers.

High jump mats emerge only on the competition days, as do the take-off boards for long and triple jumps. In the two weeks before, I did see more students circling the track in running mode, rather than the typical Chinese after-supper stroll. Particularly, I noticed grim and dutiful girls, getting themselves “ready” for a furious spurt of competitiveness that belies their culture’s general exclusion of girls and young women from sport and fitness. Yes, and suddenly there were large photos in my college’s lobby of our athletic leaders, at least some of whom had been “volun-told” to compete. JP had told me roughly how the day would unfold, especially the actual competitions — I’ll write have written about that over yonder in the sports section — but I still wasn’t ready for it. I’d never seen anything like this live, though the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies began to make a little more sense in retrospect.

When I showed up at the venue at 8:00 am on a Thursday, wearing the white T-shirt and red cap that I’d been issued, I realized more clearly why every Chinese university I’ve seen has a fairly large stadium, though no spectator sports – at least, on every other day except this one. Thousands of kids were already seated inside. Thousands more students and staff were massed outside the gates, and I joined my college’s expatriate crew. Most wore the T-shirts, and a few wore the hats. (“Teacher’s pet!” one guy grinningly jeered at us.) At the urging of parade marshals, our Chinese colleagues and our School of International

SIB in the house! Jia you! Jia you! (Go, team, go — literally “add oil!”)

Business (SIB) student representatives briskly formed into rows of six marchers; the foreigners languidly rag-tagged their way into something vaguely resembling a formation. And in we went, to a rising crescendo of cheers. 8000 students and about 50 dark-suited dignitaries were standing and hollering for me! (Sorry, for us!)

The Chinese marched and we lolly-gagged around one full circuit of the track. Our students, many of them not far removed from their obligatory freshman military training in September, maintained their rows and their rhythm, and even marched backwards without a mis-step if the groups ahead got stalled. The incredible precision marching of the Chinese military units at Beijing 2008 had stunned me, but now I knew that often the bulk of

The marchers gather in the infield. A speech awaits. A “colourful life” is what my students routinely speak of, if not actually work towards. Here it is, momentarily! Photo: JP Mayer

school children’s Phys. Ed. classes involved yi! er! san! si! (“1,2,3,4!”), as did several “Frosh Weeks” of university students getting their “orientation” by marching and singing patriotic songs.1  In the midst of this surprisingly spectacular procession – for a track meet not much more advanced than a really big elementary school, though the facilities were great – I grinned in wonder. This is incredible! This is a SHOW! I was pumped, cynicism and “bread and circuses” be damned. My wonder lasted most of the day. It’s still an amazing thing.

We first passed our own white-shirted students in the first section of the stadium. (SIB is Guo Ji (International) Gong Shang (Business) Xue Yuan (College) Guo Shang! Guo Shang! they shouted as we passed.) We waved and bowed in the direction of our home section. (Well, I bowed, pirouetted, took photos and thrust my hands into the air like an NBA player exhorting his fans to greater adulation and maximum volume; I figured our kids needed a little extra entertainment, a little more razzle-dazzle in their required attendance at the circus. Plus, I am a sugar-glazed ham, and this was a show!)

Gong Shang Guan Li Xue Yuan was next, an impressive mass of orange Business Administration students. (They were all equipped with orange parasols, and they shouted Gong Shang! in time to their drummers, while each shook a pair of 1.5-litre Coke bottles filled with dried beans.) Next were the Accounting majors (Kuai Ji! Kuai Ji!) in a lighter orange, the biggest group of students in our finance-oriented university. (Was it only

Accounting students. Made in the shade.

coincidence that they were seated in the part of the stadium that had a shady overhang, right next to the official guests?) I forced myself to be less irreverent than I wanted to be as we marched past the tiers of Party and University officials (often the twain meet – the universities are extensions of government departments to an extent that is quite alien to our Western conception of academia). And on around the mulberry bush we went, being politely cheered by the other colleges’ students until we made the turn into the infield to face the viewing platform.

It was time for the national and school anthems (yup, I remembered to doff my goofy red cap, which the Ol’ Ballplayer in me balked at wearing until I realized I’d forgotten to bring sunblock, or anything shady beyond my reputation) and, praise be, speeches! I carried a little bucket full of dread as I counted the number of be-suited men in their office chairs behind tables and potted plants, but they — the men, I mean, as well as the plants — were mainly there for decoration. The University President was the only one who spoke. I prodded Aaron, my fluent American buddy, for translations, though he was a bit too blissed out by the sun. He had backups, though.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome… Hmm, what? Oh, yeah, sorry… something about the importance of physical education. (Dr. T., Alternative Pseudo-Translator Number One: Please be careful, everyone! Don’t get hurt! Someone fell down last year!) Okay, something, wasn’t paying attention… Um, advance the national program, improve the quality of our people. (DG, Second Alternative Pseudo-Translator: America is Number One! The feeble red dragon can never defeat the imperialist devils!) This year our university has had over 20 athletic clubs, and our basketball team was very successful! (Me: Well, yeah, they beat other schools in a one-day tournament, thanks to enrolling ringers from the local sports school who had never passed the college admissions test!) This will be a wonderful example of a track and field competition with Chinese characteristics!” (Okay, Aaron didn’t actually translate that last bit. That might have been me, too.)

Looking up to the dignitaries in the shady part of the stands. The red banner reads “The 40th Track & Field Sports Day of Dongbei Caijing Daxue” (our uni). After translation, I realized I could read “40”.

None of the other suits got up, so that was a bit of a relief, but then there was a young man in a black T-shirt, not one of the colour-coordinated tees all the college reps were wearing. (Who’s this? What’s he up there with the big-wigs for? “Oh,” Aaron translated, “he’s giving a welcoming pledge on behalf of the athletes, I think. Yeah.” And does his shirt say what I think it does?) I was pretty sure of what I was seeing, but I ran forward past several rows to get closer to the dais. And there it was: the student voice of welcome had the spirited slogan “F**K SCHOOL!” in large white letters across his chest. There were no asterisks in the live version.

It is popular fashion to wear clothing with English (or occasionally French or German) writing on it, and often kids don’t even know what their shirts or hoodies proclaim. (I once had a quiet bit of advice for the shy young girl whose chest announced, “I’m easy, but I’m not cheap!” She’d had no idea what it meant, and got very red.) We buzzed about which was harder to believe, that he knew what his shirt said, or that he didn’t.

The pre-meet show wasn’t over. Once the assembled marchers had left the infield, several hundred kids came running on to replace us. A peppy pop tune started out of the stadium speakers, and a mass dance party broke out. It was synchronized: now I knew why the kids in Room 110 had moved all the tables and chairs into the

A mass display of student enthusiasm, vigour, affection and loyalty. (I’m guessing.) Photo: JP Mayer

corridor, two evenings before when I had come into the school to get some grading done. It was the same simple dance steps that “volunteer” students in every college and department must have been rehearsing (sometimes instead of attending class) in the week before the meet. I hope the suits loved it, but I’m doubtful. Suits carry obligations, and they must watch fervent displays like this over and over.

The circus carried on from there, a long and sunny day of earnest and sometimes silly track and field competition. What’s most remarkable in this Chinese context is that the circus comes with compulsory attendance; freshmen and sophomores, at least from my school, were assigned seats in the SIB section and their attendance was monitored. You. Will. Have. FUN. Ms. Zhang moaned, “Jay, take us away, save us, we’re melting!” every time I wandered by, or dropped off my heavy knapsack so I could skip from event to event. Come on, girl! Where’s your school spirit? The really amazing thing, though, was the number of kids who actually appeared to have it, despite the forced and face-making nature of this ostensibly “athletic” event. The Party officials were gone well before noon, but Ms. Zhang and 8000 other students, plus JP and me, were still there taking in whatever could be endured or enthused about, respectively.

I never did find the guy with the “F-SCHOOL” message, and I wonder if he meant it.  



 1 My understanding, gained from a few quiet conversations, is that the military training, complete with marching and singing (and more marching) and led by altogether-rather-decent-blokes from the People’s Liberation Army, began on campuses after the events of June, 1989. Quite brilliant, actually.

Comment (1)

  1. James, as always, I absolutely love your writing. Thank you. I was there, sitting in the stands with you. Even all these months after leaving China, I’m still homesick. But your writing ameliorates it just a bit…!

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