Reimagining the past at the Beijing Olympics




Poor, Galen

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This thesis examines the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, which was an unprecedented effort by the Chinese Party-state to reinvent Chinese national culture for consumption at home and abroad. Director Zhang Yimou delivered a spectacular event – three-thousand chanting Confucian scholars, two-thousand Ming Dynasty sailors, a grid of giant dancing printing blocks and an endless display of fireworks presented a sensational spectacle of Chinese culture and history. How should we interpret these symbols representing a romantic Chinese past? I argue that the “ancient” history on display in the Opening Ceremony is actually a product of China’s recent past: its interactions with the West, revolution, nationalism and communism, and the turn toward capitalism and authoritarianism. This thesis pulls the Opening Ceremony back into this historical context, closely examining three of its most prominent symbols: Zheng He and his voyages to the Indian Ocean, the Four Great Inventions, and Confucius. My results show that, 1) far from being a product of China’s history alone, these symbols are a co-production of China and the West, in which both identities were mutually constituted; 2) they are created in the context of political power, and take on different meanings in response to political shifts; 3) they suggest a state desire for power and status rather than simply a revival of cultural heritage. This research will contribute to an understanding of the modern political uses of Chinese history.



Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, Zhang Yimou, history, China