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.
August 17, 2008 4:04 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Michael Phelps has swum. Yao Ming has jammed. Gold medal fever has gripped Beijing.
On the sixth floor of his modest brick building, in the living room of his modest apartment, Ha Yiqi picks a gorgeous dragonfly kite off the wall and flashes his modest smile.
Beijing's greatest kite maker will watch these Olympics on television at home with his family - "No tickets, no problem," chuckled Ha. "I'm just an artist."
But Ha, like China's veiny gymnasts, belongs to the 2008 Games. For seven years he's championed a truly Olympic cause - bringing Chinese culture to the world.
"You foreigners - visiting Beijing for the Olympics - have your own skyscrapers and bullet trains," Ha remarked. "What don't you have? Two thousand years of Chinese kite culture."
A fourth-generation kite-maker, Ha demonstrated his craft before the globe's best athletes August 1-7 at the 2008 Olympic Village. Other Chinese folk artists - singers, dancers and shadow puppeteers - performed beside him.
"The athletes were so civilized," said Ha. "They watched quietly, listened and asked intelligent questions. They were interested - they'd never seen art like ours before."
The first athlete to approach Ha was a friendly man from the tiny West African river nation Togo.
"I gave him a small kite - a present," Ha recalled. "He was very grateful."
Russian tread-marks lead into Georgia and Beijing's protest pens remain empty, but according to Ha, the Olympic Village felt blessedly free of political tension.
"I enjoyed the atmosphere - when the athletes arrived it became hot (as in cool)," said Ha. "Over 200 nations. So many languages. So many faces.
"We met famous Chinese athletes, German gymnasts and a French badminton champion. We met people from 50 different nations one day. We talked a lot, and treated all the athletes the same - the athletes from China and the athletes from Togo."
Ha Yiqi is a fourth-generation Beijing kite maker and Olympic fan.
Ha devoted himself to the Games following Beijing's successful bid in 2001, working on government-sponsored xuanchuan (advertising or propaganda) campaigns. He'll keep on kites when the races are run; these Olympics have boosted cultural pride domestically, awareness abroad and furthered heritage protection.
"The 2008 Games have provided everyone with a chance to think about China," said Dr. Kristin Congdon, professor of film and philosophy at the University of Central Florida. "The Chinese government wants the world to understand who the Chinese people are. That story can best be told through Chinese traditions and folk art."
Congdon leads ChinaVine, an educational alliance designed to teach English-speakers about traditional Chinese culture. She and her students have documented Ha's craft, and that of fellow folk artists in Beijing and Shandong province for ChinaVine's website.
"Because I have made so many friends in China, I was happy that the opening ceremonies were so successful," said Congdon, who's seen Beijing three years in a row. "I think the show honored Chinese traditions beautifully. They were an artistic statement beyond my wildest imagination."
ChinaVine, a partnership between UCF, the University of Oregon and the Shandong University of Art and Design, is part of the cultural renaissance these Olympics have sparked. Of course, Olympic organizers here planned the Games for China's future, not its past.
"Many of Beijing's new buildings are world-class and I applaud the way so many people are being lifted out of poverty there," Congdon said. "At the same time, I mourn the loss of the city's traditional life. Folk art and folklore change with time and place, but Beijing is developing so fast, its folk art and folklore may not have time to adapt."
Ha, 54, is more optimistic.
"Beijingers' attitudes have changed since I was little - changed for the better," he said. "Back then the status of folk art was very low. Now searching through our history for meaning, for identity.
"People appreciate our craft more today. Just as our society has developed economically, it will develop artistically."
Born in Beijing to a professional kite maker, Ha grew up painting. He didn't try kite making until the age of 10.
"My first kite was simple. My father helped me," said Ha, opening a washed-out kite book. "I still remember - a double fly kite."
When Ha was 20, a friend and fellow factory worker asked him for a special kite. So it began.
"At first it was fun," said Ha. "Nothing more, nothing less. But I did a good job. And the more kites I made, the more I grew to love kite making."
Ha's great-grandfather was a kite maker. So was his grandfather. In those days, kite makers in Beijing depended on rich patrons for business. The Ha family ran a small restaurant as well.
"Our kite shop opened during the Qing dynasty," said Ha. "In China, Beijing kites are number one. Quality and exquisiteness, that's what Beijing's lords demanded.
"Kite making is unlike other arts. It requires a combination of imagination and skill, physics and aesthetics. If your kite looks great but doesn't fly..."
In 1970 Ha founded the Beijing Kite Art Company. He's determined to keep his family's craft alive.
"Chinese people have flown kites for quite some time. In the beginning, kites were used only for war. Now everyone can fly."
Ha and other Chinese folk artists' patience and passion have inspired ChinaVine participants.
"(Ha) is more a 'kite scholar' than a 'kite maker'" gushed Myra Tam, 27, a Chinese national from Hong Kong and University of Oregon graduate student. "He respects his family's business - his respect reflects the core tenets of Chinese culture."
"From a westerner's perspective, what really strikes me as special about Chinese folk art is the generations and generations of tradition," said Blair Remington, 20, a UCF undergrad who traveled to China this May as a ChinaVine photographer.
"The styles change to fit popular taste, but the techniques and processes stay the same. In America, if you make the same cookies for Christmas every year, it's a tradition. In China, it's only a tradition if your great-grandfather did it. I wish we had the same respect for history that the Chinese do."
ChinaVine participant Erika Rydell filmed Chinese folk art this March.
When you think 'Olympics,' you might not think 'folk art,' but every modern Games has paid homage to its host city's culture. Barcelona's Catalan, Cubist sheep dog, Nagano's snow monkeys, Atlanta's...Coca-Cola dispensers.
Most people here see these Games as a showcase for Chinese history and culture. Ha, though, believes in a deeper connection between sport and art.
"There's a powerful link between the two," the kite-maker declared. "Sport is art. You hear athletes saying things like 'our gymnastic art,' 'our diving art.' What they're saying is true.
"How do I know? I've watched American basketball players - the Dream Team. Their movements are very artistic, very beautiful."
Asked what he thought of Beijing's Olympic Village, Ha smiled, then described the compound's sprawling tennis and basketball courts, it's streams and trees.
"We artists have worked so hard," Ha said. "Performing for the athletes, even letting them try...it was wonderful.
"They have banks inside the Olympic Village. They have Internet, restaurants and dry cleaners. We wanted to offer them something too - a tranquil, civilized space to appreciate art. I know they appreciated it."
Ha paints and tinkers with kites for art's sake. For tradition's sake. Mostly.
"For the Olympics we made a kite out of 205 different nations' flags," Ha said. "It stretched 103 meters, took seven of us 25 days. It looked so pretty, so harmonious up high. No animosity - everyone's flag in the same sky."
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