"Breads, Circuses, and Steel," Redux


When I was at Princeton a week or so ago and meeting the awesome newbies of the a cappella group I used to be in, I thought, "wouldn't it be nice if I were part of the class of 2013 so I could have had some overlap with them?"

While there was no way in hell I was going to delay graduating on time (almost all of my four years at Princeton, I dreaded graduating later than 2012) between my newbie-meeting last week and some news I received a few mornings back about the Nobel Prize winners, I wonder a little on how things might have been different if I were a senior at Princeton this year, or even a junior, and not a graduate.

Mostly, I've been thinking about how the recent Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to China's Mo Yan, would have totally changed what I wrote about for my senior thesis.

My senior thesis, "Bread, Circuses, and Steel: Mega-sporting Events, Modernization, and National Image in China and Brazil (Beijing 2008, Brazil 2014, Rio 2016)," dealt with three issues. The first was how sports in the modern history of both China and Brazil were tied to conceptions of national power--winning a game of table tennis against the Japanese or a game of futebol to Uruguayans, for Chinese and Brazilians, respectively, would determine how these countries saw themselves with respect to the rest of the world. The second was how Chinese and Brazilian leadership figures represented their respective countries to the outside world in order to win the right to host the Olympic Games. By emphasizing their rapid growth and development in addition to their historical greatness, in the Chinese case, and national exuberance and joie de vivre in the Brazilian case, the leaders of both countries beat out their competition to host the events. The third issue was how in preparing for the Olympics (Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016)  and the World Cup (Brazil 2014), these countries responded to their weaknesses (both real and perceived) in the effort to create an image of responsibility, security, and prosperity befitting rising global powers. Transforming Beijing and Rio, crusty and dilapidated shadows of their former glory, into cosmopolitan landscapes for the athletes and tourists of the world was a major challenge (and one that Rio has little more than three years left to accomplish). But just as difficult as it was to rewrite the maps of Beijing, it was even more difficult for Chinese leaders to appear as if human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet, and even in Beijing were non-issues. As for Brazil, the leaders of Rio continue to struggle with dealing with the crime and drugs of the favelas before 2014, and especially 2016.

This entire thesis probably wouldn't have happened had Mo Yan won the Nobel earlier or if I'd graduated from college later. While I have yet to read an actual book by Mo Yan--though I have at least 3 on my Amazon queue--I feel like a thesis on him would have been a great deal more in line with my academic department (Comparative Literature), and my prior academic work. My Junior Papers were both on the intersection of literature and politics, the first in the music of Chico Buarque under the Brazilian military dictatorship, and the second in the 1960s poetry of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Had I written my thesis on Mo Yan, I probably would have discussed the elements of social commentary on the CCP his novels, with the greatest focus on 'Red Sorghum' (the best known of his works in the West, in part because it was made into a movie by Zhang Yimou). Alternatively, I might have argued something about how the novels exemplify Goethe's concept of world literature (cue Comp Lit Junior Seminar with Prof. Eileen Reeves, Fall 2010) as Mo Yan is said to have been inspired as much by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Lu Xun as the old Chinese greats, Wu Chengen (Journey to the West) and Cao Xueqin (Dream of the Red Chamber).

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading some of Mo Yan's work and having these more productive moments of "what if?" when it comes to reminiscing about the scholastic parts of college. Is it obvious that I miss school a little?