Performers Treated Like Rest of China’s Workforce

Everyone knows it’s tough to be a worker in China. Long hours, minimal recourse, and — for most in the country — tiny pay. China’s economic boom directly benefits from all of these factors, but that doesn’t make them any more palatable to outsiders.

So I suppose it’s no surprise that China’s Opening Ceremonies performers were treated in the national fashion. Unfortunately, being prima donna performers isn’t quite like being a wage slave at a provincial Nike plant, and now the performers are speaking out.


Performers have complained that they sustained injuries from slipping during rain-drenched rehearsals or fainting from heatstroke amid hours of training under the relentless summer sun. Cheng (Jianghua) and 2,200 other carefully chosen pugilist prodigies spent an average of 16 hours a day, every day, rehearsing a synchronized tai-chi routine involving high kicks, sweeping lunges and swift punches. They lived for three months in trying conditions at a restricted army camp on the outskirts of Beijing.

Pshhh! Wusses! Performers are always supposed to work 16 hours, seven days a week, and live in barracks at a restricted army camp in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know what you namby-pambies learned at Julliard, but … well, actually, ceremonies director Zhang Yimou knows, and he doesn’t like it:

“North Korea is No. 1 in the world when it comes to uniformity. They are uniform beyond belief! These kind of traditional synchronized movements result in a sense of beauty. We Chinese are able to achieve this as well. Through hard training and strict discipline,” he said. Pyongyang’s annual mass games feature 100,000 people moving in lockstep.

Performers in the West by contrast need frequent breaks and cannot withstand criticism, Zhang said, citing his experience working on an opera performance abroad. Though he didn’t mention specific productions, Zhang directed Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor,” starring Placido Domingo, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2006.“In one week, we could only work four and a half days, we had to have coffee breaks twice a day, couldn’t go into overtime and just a little discomfort was not allowed because of human rights,” he said of the unidentified opera production. “You could not criticize them either. They all belong to some organizations … they have all kind of institutions, unions. We do not have that. We can work very hard, can withstand lots of bitterness. We can achieve in one week what they can achieve in two months.”

I believe you heard Zhang right: Unions bad, North Korea good. He might as well just say: “Yeah, so what? I abused and destroyed China’s finest performers in the name of one-time spectacle. I faked fireworks. I told a little girl she was too ugly to sing. And what are you going to do about it?”

Everyone, meet China. China, everyone.