The Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and Responses from Different Media Audiences
The 2008 Summer Olympics Games was an international sports event that held in Beijing. Following in the footprints of the two Asian countries, Japan and South Korea, the Beijing 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony is determined to utilize this sporting event as a celebration and representation of Chinese Renaissance and national identity (Xu 2006). Based on the research by Leibold (2010), the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) promised to present educational programs and diversified cultural to cater to the demand of audiences, while encouraging the participation of the individuals in the preparation of the ceremony in order to improve the "pride and cohesion" of the Chinese national identity.
In recent years, China has been enthusiastic about showing the world its recent progress and achievements under its socialism with Chinese characteristics (Cui 2013). Through multiple symbolic representations in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, it acted as a media ritual in the contemporary social and media environment (Cui 2013).
As a globalized event with almost exceptional influence through both traditional and new media, the ceremony presented a performance of over two hours with more than 15,000 performers and was watched live by about 91,000 audience and spectators. It was then further spread to an audience of 3 billion all around the world. It was estimated that this show was “the most expensive theatrical display” ever (Ebert 2008).
This paper argues that the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and the Game as a whole are a good example of how different groups of media audiences respond differently to the same media text or event. In the second part, it will review the theories of Hall and Fiske about audience interpretations of media text on TV. Next, it will discuss the desired meanings of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony in the first place. Then, it will compare two major responses from the audience of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Finally, there will be a discussion about the context of the ceremony and audience responses of different groups.
One of the most influential theories explaining audience understanding about television messages is Hall’s (1980) encoding and decoding model. According to his model, the producers of programs use one meaning structure to encode their thoughts and expressions into the programs while audience use another meaning structure to decode them. The way that the audience use to understand the intended meanings vary from person to person and from group to group. In this process, the meaning structures of both steps are determined by factors including frameworks of knowledge, relations of production and technical infrastructure. Hall (1980) managed to describe the process of transmitting information to different readings through television messages. He also pointed out the disparate ways audience use to accept the encoded television messages: dominant reading, negotiated reading, or oppositional reading (Hall, 1980).
In his early studies, Fiske (1987) also pointed out that television messages are open to the audience. He thinks that meanings of TV messages have three levels: the first one is an essential sense on the screen; the second are criticism and fan magazines, which can show how the original meaning of the text is connected with different people and how it is fit into their culture; the final level is the meaning understood by the audience, who talk about the shows and create their text of the TV messages. Therefore, Fiske thinks that although television has its consciousness for replication, the audience decide what to get from the television.
Therefore, due to the diversity of media audience and the complex process of transmitting information through television, different groups of audience usually have disparate understandings about the same context on TV in terms of different gender, class, nationality, religion, professions etc., and the same is true with the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony.
What were the organizers of the Beijing Olympics trying to project to the world about China? The Beijing Olympics in the opening and closing ceremonies and throughout the Game, China had a lot of chances to demonstrate to the world whatever it wants and it is reasonable to believe that there were some overall principles and themes when organizers designed the Beijing Olympics.
Anderson (2002) points out that the national identity of China has a close relationship with Mao Tse-tung, Stalin and Lenin. The full name of China is The People’s Republic of China, and thus represented the long history of China, tight skin of nationalism over a vast multiculturalism, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic imperium (Anderson 2002). Similarly, Leithe (2010) analyzes the elements of ethnic inclusion in the Beijing Olympics in three significant aspects: Confucian principles, Han ethnocentrism and Lenin-style multiculturalism (Leithe 2010).
Indeed, many such elements could be found in the opening ceremony. China, with its thousands of years of culture and tradition, looked forward to showing as much of them as possible while following some major doctrines of this nation. For example, in the opening ceremony, many of Confucian doctrines were brought to the stage to express the hospitality, inclusiveness and respect for diversity of the Chinese people, including ‘it is delightful to welcome friends coming from afar’, ‘harmony without uniformity’ and ‘the whole world as one community’. Besides, multiculturalism and the harmony of fifty-six ethnicities are demonstrated from time to time. At the beginning of the opening ceremony, children from fifty-six ethnic groups carried the national flag together to the Flag Rising Ceremony. It represented the multiculturalism in the diversity and unique national form; fifty-six ethnic groups formed the individual national culture and identity of China.
As Yimou Zhang, general director of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony admitted, the opening and closing ceremonies were mostly designed for foreigners to learn about the Beijing Olympics China and the Beijing Olympics the Beijing Olympics of its past and modern faces. Therefore, the Chinese culture he wanted to project to the world were adapted to fit the foreign audience better (Tang 2008).
Apart from Chinese characteristics and traditions such as multi-nationalism, solidarity, and harmony, China also intends to improve country branding through this event. As the world becomes more and more globalized, researchers (Papadopoulos and Heslop 2002; Sun and Paswan 2002) have pointed out that in the global market, we could regard a country as a brand, the former tends to improve constantly its brand image. Many strategic activities, including sporting events, films and animations and publications could be used to improve the brand image of a country (Swart and Bob, 2004). China understands that in order to prosper and catch up with the developed world, it should attract more investments, tourists, trade, and cultural exchanges, for all of which hosting an Olympic Game is a beneficial opportunity.
On the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said that the Game had improved global understanding of China. It enhanced the understanding between the host country and the world beyond and allowed them to learn more about each other (BBC News, Aug. 24, 2008). It seems true to many scholars. According to Giulianotti (2015), by highlighting ‘locality’ particularly through the opening ceremony and during the event, China managed to get more soft power, and to tackle challenges of ‘soft disempowerment’ during the Beijing Olympics (Giulianotti 2015). Go, Kolmer and Zeng (2011) also concludes that though the Beijing Olympics did not improve the breadth and attribution of the national image of China considerably and directly, they helped others to see China more clearly and increased the presence of China in the international media indirectly (Go, Kolmer and Zeng 2011).
Audience response I: negative interpretations of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony
Despite the success of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony itself and its positive effects on China’s country branding, closer study of the event has suggested that the opening ceremony was a distraction from criticism on China’s domestic and foreign policies before the Beijing Olympics.
Bonde (2009) pointed out that all opening ceremonies are a form of the host nation’s cultural propaganda, but Beijing failed to tackle its human rights issues and ethnic conflicts as promised. The opening ceremony also triggered controversies in Denmark due to the presence the Danish Prince Frederik as head of Denmark.
There was also much coverage focusing on issues such as human rights, security and environment instead of the events themselves as a result of how China is usually viewed in the Western eyes (Wu and Xu 2010).
Audience response II: positive responses from average audiences
For most audience around the world, though, studies have suggested that the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony had a positive effect on their recognition of China. Many studies have been conducted to reflect the ‘decoding’ process of the audience in and outside China.
For example, by conducting a survey of 624 people online, Kodama (2012) concluded that Japanese people spent much time watching the Olympics-related news and TV programs specials and news programs. Besides, Japanese media coverage tended to be larger and longer about the event during the Beijing Olympics and improved Japanese-Chinese relations in the short run.
Besides, some professionals in the art field tried to evaluate the opening ceremony from an artistic perspective. Lawson (2011) argued that most of the ceremony’s brilliance was attributed to the use of mediatisation and synchronized human performance and that it provided a unique perspective to recent discussions in the modern performance field.
The perception of readers on literature works is often described as “there are one thousand Hamlets in one thousand readers’ views”. Both in the art and literature world and in media field, it has been widely acknowledged that audience perceptions on the targeted work vary from person to person. As globalization prevails, such tendency has become more evident. For example, there are many different groups of people who hold the same opinion or care about the same aspect including anti-feminists, pro-feminists, Asians, African Americans, Protestants and Buddhists, politicians, students, housewives, etc. People of different groups may draw disparate conclusions from the same representation of a media text or a media event.
The same is true with the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony as well as the Game as a whole. As ordinary Chinese people who know at least some of the history and traditional culture of its country, the Opening Ceremony serves as both an exciting moment to experience the prosperity of a modern China and an opportunity to review and appreciate the core spirits of the Chinese nation. While many fine values such as ‘harmony without uniformity’ and ‘the whole world as one community’ have been less and less evident in today’s society, no other people understand and remember them better than the Chinese audience who might feel a strong sense of connection and pride during the ceremony. For ordinary audience who care about sports and view the Olympics as a spiritual and entertaining feast, the Opening Ceremony serves a bonus before the exciting sporting event begins and a chance to learn about something about China in addition to panda and the Great Wall. Though the Chinese authorities intended to export some values and positive images about China through the Opening Ceremony and hoped to change the threatening dragon image of China in some foreigners’ minds, the latter might not get all of it because of the vastness and richness of the Opening Ceremony. However, they could to some extent feel the inclusiveness, tolerance and hospitality of the Chinese people and might change their stereotypes about China.
For Chinese and foreign media, though, the Opening Ceremony is more than a cultural event. Foreign media, in particular, tends to report this event in a comprehensive and objective way as they incorporate the Beijing Olympics with other current affairs including China’s domestic problems, foreign policies, relations with neighbors and political intents. For international relations scholars, the Beijing Olympics might serves as part of a larger picture of the situations in the Pacific Asia area and China’s status in the international arena.
This discussion could be expanded further to artists, theater directors, musicians and dancers and their viewpoints on the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and show the diversity of both media audiences and their responses. In general, however, the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and the Game as a whole are a good example of how different groups of media audiences respond differently to the same media text or event.
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