Saturday, July 5, 2008



With all the political and natural upheavals that have taken place during the countdown to the Beijing Olympics, the August 8 opening date has an air of inevitability about it, being both a deadline and zero hour for a new era.

The prominence of the start date is not just a matter of feverish anticipation of a long (all too long?) hoped for event, but it has practical ramifications as well. Hotel prices will jump up astronomically during this period, automotive traffic flow will be forcefully controlled and curtailed, security commandos will descend upon the city and newly erected gates and walls will guard Olympic venues. The tightening up is both instinctive and unprecedented; China takes the honor of hosting the world of sports, and all it represents, with ultimate seriousness, so much so, that what was supposed to be a step forward to increased openness is looking more and more like a step backward to increased control.

The threat of terror may be trumped up, but the threat of terrible embarrassment is real, as spoilsport activists would like to steal a bit of the Olympic spotlight. Guarding against the latter in the name of the former, nervous state officials at airports and visa offices impose temporary clamps on traffic into the country.

The countdown continues. Dozens of giant construction projects, from subterranean train lines to twisted glass towers, get manic, last minute love and attention, hoping to meet the big deadline, hoping to finish finishing touches in time for the big event.

China boosters and China detractors alike are counting down to in uncanny unison, because the big day in the world of sports is D-Day for demonstrators as well.

Adding to the buildup of tension, the summer Olympics don’t open on just any old summer day, but a precisely selected one, said to be an auspicious date.

Much has been said about the lucky number eight and the Beijing Olympics, which will open at eight minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008.

In staging so elaborate an event where so many things could go so, so wrong, it’s somehow understandable that traditional superstitions be conjured up to steady the unsure hand of the host. To align a start time with lucky digits is not without cultural cachet, in many parts of Asia, 88888 would be the vanity license plate or vanity cell-phone number to kill for, easy to remember, and lucky, if you are prone to believe such things.

Beijing requested an August 8 start date after the IOC scheduled the 2008 Olympics to open on July 25. The official argument in favor of the postponement was the possibility of cooler weather, but numerology seems to have played a supporting role.

Once August 8 was officially anointed, number-crunching numerologists came up with various nonsensical permutations with putative meaning, only serving to heighten anticipation of the big day.

The calendar by which the Olympics are officially scheduled is of course the Western-imported Gregorian calendar, not the age-old Chinese one, which is a shame in a way, for choosing a date according to the lunar calendar makes more sense.

In Chinese calendar terms, the Beijing Olympics commence in the seventh month, not a big deal number wise (unless one is rolling dice) but significant nonetheless as it comes on the date of a half moon. The date is also the cusp of Lunar Autumn, a correspondence which can't have gone unnoticed, if only in hopes of getting, fingers crossed, some cooler weather.

But more striking in visual terms is the rise of the August moon.

The original start date was a waning moon, which would put the games, in the two weeks following July 25, under the darkest stage of the lunar cycle.

In contrast, the start date of August 8 coincides with optimal lunar illumination, the brightest fortnight of the lunar cycle, commencing with a half moon that blossoms to full moon during the height of the games.

While doing research for a memoir on the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, I was struck by how closely events on the ground back then hewed to the lunar calendar, even if most of us who were there were not consciously aware of it at the time.

The 1989 protests picked up speed during the new moon of May Fourth, waxing almost unstoppably as the moon brightened, then faltered and stalled out as the moon began to withdraw. The waxing gibbous moon presided over the joyful and peaceful demonstrations of mid-May, the waning gibbous moon saw martial law put into effect, while the night of June 3-4 was the darkest of the month, the night of no moon.

The rise of the full moon over Tiananmen marked the lyrical and literal apogee of the peaceful protests in May 1989 which saw the citizens of Beijing flock to Tiananmen Square a million strong under a bright clear sky in celebration of what they hoped would be a brilliant new chapter of Chinese history.

One need not be convinced that lunar tides play a role in human hearts to see such a correspondence as something more than coincidence. Military strategists, from the time of Sun Zi and Sun Bin to the age of sneak attacks and stealth bombing, pay attention to lunar illumination, carefully selecting attack dates that provide needed illumination or require the cover of darkness. The June 6, 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy involved careful calibration of both optimal moonlight and counter-intuitive use of moon-related tides.

On the brighter side, there is a common, if not universal, human impulse to commune with the heavens by taking a walk on a moonlit evening.

Just as the mild weather of spring is more conducive to mass demonstrations than frigid mid-winter, so too is the full moon an attractor to those who gather out of doors at night, be they nature lovers, romantic lovers or those who find comfort and inspiration in the visual company of our nearest celestial neighbor.

Keeping the moon in mind, one can better appreciate the extreme lengths to which Beijing has gone in order to put the Olympics in the best possible light.