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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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May 13, 2008 11:14 AM

Beijing's Olympic curse

Posted by Daniel Beekman

A muscular knot of bright white socks and shaggy black heads surges onto the grass at Beijing's National Stadium - the Chinese Olympic soccer team. Their fans roar with patriotic delight.

When a second group of players take the pitch, confident in royal blue, the stadium grows silent. "France, %$@& you!" someone shrieks. Ten thousand voices join him.

Welcome to Liu Jingmin's worst nightmare. A year ago, Beijing's vice-mayor launched a campaign against foul language. According to Liu, boorish Beijingers pose a threat to China's Olympic image.

"Beijing ball-fans do swear a lot," observed a student from the Capital Normal University. "Some of them are fengkuang - crazy. Go to a game. You'll hear 60 percent of the people around you swearing.

"We don't swear, though. We're college students - educated. I mean, $%@*...there's been enough propaganda on the subject."

Construction workers from Henan curse. So do businessmen from Fujian, bakers from Xinjiang and bartenders from Anhui. Yet Beijing boasts an uncouth lexicon all its own: jingma ('capital cursing').

Some Beijingers consider jingma part of their heritage - an earthy way of speaking that's casual and free. Children break into jingma before they know what &%%# means.

Nonetheless, many Beijingers object to jingma; they liken it to Qing dynasty foot binding, an ugly relic of the city's dark past.

"Jingma is a problem we should address," another Capital Normal student asserted. "Jingma isn't a custom we should preserve."

"Beijingers curse all the time," said a young migrant worker from Shandong province. "You get used to it, though."

"Swearing is definitely a problem in Beijing," a Capital Normal freshman from Heilongjiang province chuckled. "*&*# this, *&*# that - it's all you hear."

A smoky, underground Beijing pool hall...and jingma stronghold.

Older interviewees shared a different account.

"Beijingers don't curse very often," declared one grizzled porter, resting his tricycle cart against a shady wall. "Jingma included - we don't use that sort of language."

"People curse on the ball-field, I suppose," an elderly chess-player said. "Fans curse in the stands. We don't curse. We're a bunch of lao tou'er ('old heads'). We don't attend ball-games."

Beijing's Olympic organizers are scrambling to ensure clear skies this August and keep 'Free Tibet' protestors at bay. But rowdy Beijingers worry them too.

Aggressive nationalism is on the rise, thanks to Olympic torch relay demonstrations in Paris and London. China, as host, stands to gain or lose an enormous amount of 'face' in 2008. Fiery fans could ruin the party.

"Taunting would be in poor taste," said a 32-year old accountant from Inner Mongolia, enjoying his lunch break. "We ought to welcome all the Olympic athletes."

"Cursing? At the Games? Impossible!" a middle-aged woman accompanied by two friends exclaimed. "That would be impolite."

"We Chinese are civilized," explained a young Beijinger, breathing hard from pick-up basketball. "There's no cause for concern.

"European soccer fans swear. That's just soccer culture. Americans swear too. At the Olympics - no. In China - no."

The right way to cheer for China's Olympians...

Jingma and the Games first made headlines in 2001, weeks before Beijing was awarded the 29th Olympiad. An article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) began:

Beijing officials fear they have an image problem. When fans are unhappy at football matches, they have a habit of chanting an obscenity. A very lewd obscenity. It is a commonly heard insult on the streets of Beijing, but when thousands of people in a stadium yell the phrase in unison, which includes a crude reference to the female anatomy, the effect is rather overbearing. The Beijing Economic Daily has warned that the curse has damaged "Beijing's reputation as a modern international city with an ancient history and culture. People from top to bottom regard it as a disgrace to the capital."

According to the SCMP report, Beijing's Office of Spiritual Civilization would launch a campaign "to clean up the fans' language and restore the city's image." The newspaper quoted Zhao Dongming, head spiritual civilizer.

"If they say our fans are barbaric and rude, this isn't good for the Olympics bid. If we don't guide the fans in the right direction, they'll become soccer hooligans."

Last March, Liu pounced on the issue.

"It's way out of line to have 30,000 people shouting and swearing en masse," said the vice-mayor.

Soon afterwards, 'Starting New Trends to Welcome the Olympics' commenced. One of the campaign's eight aims: reduce cursing.

In July, a Beijing soccer fan was detained after organizing an uncouth online campaign. According to Beijing Today, the 20-year old administered a forum, encouraging Beijingers to curse Guo'an FC opponents and referees.

Members teamed up at home games, calling themselves the 'Jingma League.'

"I've been using jingma since I was a little boy," the fan told Beijing Today. "For our team, it really raised their spirits."

Also in July, Beijing police announced they would punish discourteous soccer fans - days before a friendly match pitting local props Guo'an against Spain's Barcelona.

"There will be a police officer in each stand videoing the crowd during the match in order to collect evidence of fans' bad behavior," Liu said, dubbing the Barcelona bout "a drill for the Olympics."

"I watched China's soccer league final last year on TV," recalled a college administrator. "Every time the ball went out of bounds, the crowd shook and swore."

A Beijing taxi driver pled ignorance.

"I watch soccer all the time and I've never noticed," he said.

Opponent baiting is hardly a Chinese phenomenon; ask any Mariners' fan who's visited Yankee Stadium. But here in China, hooliganism is on the rise.

In 2000, a mob of soccer fans rioted over officiating in Xian, setting police cars on fire. In 2004, Beijing Hyundai fans knocked a referee in the head with a bottle. The same year, Shanghai Shenhua and Shanghai International players brawled.

Four years before the 2008 Olympics (to the day), soccer fans-turned-rioters poured out of Workers' Stadium in Beijing following China's 2-1 Asian Cup loss to Japan. Prior to the game, boos drowned out Japan's national anthem. Post-contest, a crowd hurled obscenities, surrounded the opposing squad's hotel and burned Japanese flags.

Last September in Hunan province, Chinese soccer fans rallied behind Germany for that country's win over Japan...and cursed the Japanese.

Many here still resent Japan's invasion and occupation of China between 1931 and 1945. President Hu Jintao recently visited Japan - the first such trip in a decade. China suspended high-level contact with Japan during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006.

France irked Chinese nationalists when protestors disrupted the Paris leg of China's 2008 Olympic torch relay this April.

"I’m a big ball-fan, but don't swear," said a young real estate agent trolling for home-hunters in Beijing. "If the Chinese team plays France or Japan, a few of us will turn rowdy - most of us won't. On the other hand, the Olympics have been politicized, thanks to the Dalai Lama. People are angry now. It's hard to say what could happen."

Most interviewees differentiated between Beijing's soccer crazies and the city's common folk - laobaixing.

"We care less about sports and politics, more about making money," a rail-thin fruit seller remarked. "We laobaixing don't swear. What would be the use? Swear, and afterwards you're still poor."

China's top taunters beg to differ.

"If the referees were fair, we wouldn't curse," one Beijing fan informed the SCMP. "Cursing is a way to show love," argued another. "If you aren't cursed, no one cares about you. That's a tragedy."

Wang Wen of the Beijing Soccer Fan Association doesn't think cursing will spoil the capital's Olympic image. Cursing allows fans - under pressure at work or at home - a kind of release, Wang told China Daily.

(Note: For one Beijinger's eloquent defense of jingma, click here.)

Liu's anti-cursing campaign belongs to a larger 'civilizing' movement sponsored by Beijing's government ahead of the 2008 Games. Billboards, banners and blackboards throughout the city encourage Beijingers to support the Olympics and jin wenming ('advance civilization').

For people here, jin wenming has meant resisting the impulse to spit, litter, cut in line...or curse.

"Beijing is changing," an elderly woman said. "We've been educating the laobaixing for years now - preparing for the Games."

"Cursing is common at soccer games - if you're a defender, you'll be heckled for sure," admitted a man from Hebei province. "But in general, people curse less these days. The television PSAs delivered by athletes and film stars have been effective."

Beijing's Federation of Trade Unions runs Olympic cheer classes for local firms. Beijing University has contemplated a student ban on Internet cursing.

"We win, we cheer; you win, we boo - that's not right," a sports journalist and cheer coach advised Agence France-Presse. "This is just training...They don't have to use these slogans or moves. Just as long as they behave well in front of the whole world."

"I only curse among my best friends, and when I'm fighting with my girlfriend," said the Capital Normal freshman from Heilongjiang. "When I watch sports? Yeah, I guess I do swear...a lot!

"But I'd never curse Olympians. None of us will."


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