Don’t Stand on Ceremony

This morning I attended a ceremony on the campus of Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT).  The ceremony was to celebrate the 65th anniversay of the founding of BIT, one of China’s major universities of science and technology.  Many former and current goverment leaders in China are graduates of this university, so they pulled out all the stops.  In some ways, it was the closest thing that a Chinese university has to "home-coming," as dignitaries and distinguished alumni were invited back for the celebrations.

The main event this morning was the opening ceremonies held on the school’s sports field.  I was in attendance as an official representative of my Institute, which has a partnership with the school.  I and a few colleagues arrived around 9AM, and were first taken to the VIP reception area.  As we were arriving and signing the guest books, we were greeted by a phalanx of photographers who were obviously given the task of producing pictures to go with the obligatory "We have friends from all over the world" caption that must appear in the commemorative book that will be published.  We just smiled and pretended to be important (which, of course, we really aren’t!).  After collecting our bag full of gifts, we were marched to the parade grounds and given seats just in front of the stage. 

The Chinese have a phrase:  "Don’t stand on ceremony."  It is used in a variety of occasions, including as a response to "thank you."  In other words, an exchange might look like this:  "Thanks."  "Don’t stand on ceremony."  When foreigners first arrive here, such an exchange leaves us scratching our heads.  Whatever does that mean, and what does standing on ceremony have to do with expressing thanks? 

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Chinese culture places a great deal of importance on ritual and ceremony.  Getting the ceremony right, and doing the proper ritual are all ways in which one can demonstrate that they know what it means to be Chinese.  In other words, Chinese phraseology notwithstanding, it is very important to stand on ceremony, and only when standing on ceremony is socio-cultural balance and equilibrium maintained.

This morning was Chinese ceremony at it’s grandest.  I’ve been in China a long time, and have attended countless such ceremonies and they are all exactly alike.  They must be alike.  That’s the point of the ceremony.  This morning’s ceremony included the following:  the reading off of the names of ALL 125 dignitaries seated on the VIP stage; congratulatory speeches by no less than 9 dignitaries, each of which said almost exactly the same thing (creativity in speech-writing is not sought-after).  I won’t decieve and say that it wasn’t a bit (I’m being diplomatic here) tedious.

But what was interesting to note as I watched and listened to not only the speakers, but the several thousand students and guests assembled on the sports field, was that no one seemed to be paying attention.  People were talking.  Students were playing chess.  Men in suits were talking on their cell phones.  At one point, the din of voices from the sports field was almost loud enough to drown out the speaker’s voice wafting out of the 6 foot-high stack of loud-speakers.  Even the 125 dignitaries on the stage weren’t paying attention. 

Closer observation revealed that it didn’t seem to be phasing the speakers that they had lost complete control of the crowd and no one was listening to them.   And quite frankly, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was the ceremony, and it was being performed, regardless of how anyone felt about it or their level of interest in the content.   

We were all standing smack-dab ON ceremony, and as a result, all was right with the world.