For much of the past quarter century, the Chinese director Zhang Yimou made films that showcased his country’s struggle against poverty, war and political misrule to the outside world — films that Chinese, for the most part, never saw.
Time and again, Zhang’s terse, gritty epics were banned by government censors for portraying China’s ugly side. When he won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, the authorities stopped him from attending. Up for an Oscar one year, officials lobbied to have his film withdrawn from the competition.
But when the Olympics kick off Friday at China’s new National Stadium, with President Hu Jintao of China, President Bush and other world leaders in attendance and perhaps 1 billion people watching live on television, Zhang will preside over the opening ceremonies.
Nearly two years in the making, his spectacle is intended to present China’s new face to the world with stagecraft and pyrotechnics that organizers boast have no equal in the history of the games. Whether or not it succeeds, it will underscore one reality of a rising China: Many leading artists now work with, or at least not against, the ruling Communist Party.
Rising nationalism and pride in China’s emergence as an economic power, and robust state support for artists who steer clear of political defiance, have transformed China’s cultural landscape since the early part of this decade. Today, directors, writers and painters who seek to expose the darker side of authoritarian rule not only enrage the censors, but also often find themselves shut out of the lucrative market for Chinese art, books and film. Many of those who find less political outlets for their talent, on the other hand, can get rich.
“People really are selling their talent in a way that can make them money,” said Ai Weiwei, an internationally recognized artist based in Beijing. “They really know that if they work with the government, they’ll benefit.”
The opening ceremony will represent a particularly momentous conversion for Zhang, whose experience during the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution appeared to inform several of his internationally acclaimed — and domestically banned — films, including “Ju Dou” and “To Live.”
Zhang said in a recent interview that he never had political aims. His supporters say it is the Communist Party that has become more sophisticated, seeking to harness the country’s top talent and embrace a broader notion of national culture.