Jeffrey Wasserstrom: One Country, Many Voices

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeff Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, Asia editor, Los Angeles Review of Books; Chancellor's Professor and Chair, history Department, University of California at Irvine; and editor, Journal of Asian Studies. He can be reached at @jwassers

IRVINE: Four years ago, when the Beijing Olympic slogan was “One World, One Dream,” global audiences were wowed by a Chinese spectacle that began with a quote from Confucius describing the pleasure of welcoming friends from afar. Now, the sounds coming from China and grabbing our attention are not spirited drumming but angry chanting about settling scores. 

It’s worth comparing the recent street actions in China, triggered by an ongoing dispute over control of specks of land known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, with the mesmerizing gala of the Beijing Games. The two spectacles offer a striking study in contrasts – and intriguing parallels.

Let’s start with contrasts. 

The 2008 spectacle, choreographed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, was held in one locale and, though filled with historical allusions, included no nods to Japanese invasions or direct references to Chairman Mao. Today’s demonstrators, marching through streets across China, carry portraits of Mao and refer continually to past atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers....

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