Face of a Nation

Yang Peiyi, who recorded the song that Lin Miaoke lip-synced at the Beijing opening ceremonies.

Yang Peiyi, who recorded the song that Lin Miaoke lip-synced at the Beijing opening ceremonies.

Today’s big Olympic story (see CBC coverage here and National Post coverage here) was not about athletic accomplishments, but rather another lip-syncing controversy. This time, it was something far more disturbing than learning that Luciano Pavarotti lip-synced his performance at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. Rather, today we learned that not only did nine-year-old Lin Miaoke lip-synch her performance of “Ode to the Motherland” at the Beijing opening ceremony, but the girl who actually sang the song, seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, was considered not beautiful enough to represent China because of her crooked teeth. According to Chen Qigang, the ceremony’s chief music director, “The reason was for the national interest. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings and expression.”

It is interesting to note that the Chinese quest for the perfect prototype is one that has deeper roots in terms of how they see themselves in scope of human evolution. Several studies have demonstrated that the concept of race has been rejected by about 75% of anthropologists globally in terms of understanding human biological variation. Interestingly, a recent study of the race concept in China showed that of 324 articles directly related to human variation printed in Acta Anthropologica Sinica, China’s only journal dedicated to physical anthropology, none questioned the validity of human racial classification. Rather, several articles were mainly concerned with the biological differences among or between ‘major races.’ The reason for this is that whereas most North American and European anthropologists are interested in human diversity, Chinese anthropology has been dramatically shaped by an interest in expressing unity rather than diversity. As such, there is a widespread belief that Chinese “Mongoloid” populations can trace their biological ancestry back to Homo Erectus about 2 million years ago. The irony of this focus on the so-called Mongoloid race is that studies of intra-group variation reveal that subdivision by north and south, and even further down to the ethnic or tribal level is possible.

Michael Ignatieff, in The Rights Revolution, argues that to commit ourselves to this way of thinking about the relationship between human equality and human difference – that human equality actually manifests itself in our differences – is to understand our commonalities as human beings in the very way we differentiate ourselves (as peoples, as communities, and as individuals). I agree, and I believe that there can be no perfect prototypes.

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