The Magazine


What I Saw at the American Embassy in Beijing

May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By ETHAN GUTMANN
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Beijing, China

Saturday, May 8 -- I really wasn't in the mood to go to the "happening," a modern art show, but my wife insisted. So we began pedaling to a gallery in a hidden courtyard just west of the Forbidden City. As we rode side by side, I asked her, unironically, "Are we having fun yet?" And her eyes smiled and she said yes, and the spring air seemed to fill with the barely held-in satisfaction of two foreigners making it in a strange culture.

We weren't living the most glamorous life, it was true. I came here to do my own TV documentary and ended up creating feel-good talk shows for Chinese-style wages -- the only white man at an independent but exclusively Chinese television production company. And my wife -- let's call her Betsy -- was pursuing her scholarly career in the Asian way: poring through the moldering lists of the Qing emperors, hobnobbing with the poor academics who had made it through the Cultural Revolution to emerge as slightly less poor academics in the New China.

But I had been named executive producer of a new television show -- a Chinese attempt to place themselves in the American market -- and a top state-run TV network had just signed on. That meant, down the road, 100 million plus viewers! 150 million! More if Shanghai picked it up! True, I could only do shows about divorce, and pollution, and other "non-sensitive" topics. But still, I was building the New China, working with enlightened Chinese producers. And Betsy was methodically building her guanxi, her connections. Evidence of her success was clear: the occasional lavish banquet at Deng Xiaoping's favorite Sichuan restaurant, the growing trust between her masters and her, the cultural exchanges that seemed more liquid every day. What's more, art, Betsy's kind of high art, was becoming a kind of cornerstone of legitimacy for the New China, as it drugged the populace with larger and larger doses of nationalism and nostalgia for imperial China's tokens of power, culture, and authority.

The contemporary Chinese art scene was really a sideshow for Betsy, but the invites kept coming. Politeness had become warmth, had become something close to actual friendship. And I had basked in that reflected warmth! We were turning down invitations, we were a happening couple . . . these were my heady thoughts as we arrived at the art show near the Forbidden City.

We were greeted by the kind of eager, young, lithe beauty that you come to expect at these kinds of events. Always wearing a black bodysuit, the universal symbol for sophisticated, international culture. Always: "Please sign the book, please!" Always the shy and expectant smile.

We grabbed wine off a makeshift table and quickly toured the exhibits: huge carefully posed photographs of a thin naked Chinese man and a white girl with dark roots wearing little see-through raincoats, battery-operated dildos undulating in raw chunks of meat, an imperial robe constructed entirely of lime-green plastic, and plastic models of various state buildings filled with birds, goldfish, and -- gosh, how eggroll -- crickets. The guests were piling in: half Chinese artist types with bohemian hair configs and half expats, white girls with more black bodysuits and short haircuts, white men with textured, checked shirts and skinny Chinese girlfriends, everyone talking excitedly, pleased to be at the Very Center of the New China on a brilliant Saturday afternoon.

A new acquaintance, a jocund American art broker hailed me from across the garden and I joined him under a finely painted Chinese canopy -- "How are you doing?" He beamed at me. I beamed back and, after a short interlude of small talk -- I couldn't wait! -- I mentioned my new show. He began nodding knowingly, very good, very good, national TV, eh? You hear the news? No? I just heard about it on the way over -- a bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last night. Just a little damage, I guess, but they say 18 people were hurt. There's bound to be some trouble.