07/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting in Shape to Watch the Olympic Games: A Five-Week Plan for the Intellectually Curious Mouse Potato

Last October, with the start of the Games still ten months off, I wrote a piece for Outlook India that spelled out a "twelve-step" reading regimen for anyone planning to go to Beijing this August. My argument was that just as athletes take steps to get in shape, so should spectators. In "Books for the Beijing Bound" (easiest to access now via the reposted version available on the History News Networksite), I selected a book-a-month for ten months, beginning with October 2007 (the first selection: an elegantly crafted short biography of Mao) and running up through this month (the July 2008 choice: China's Transformations: The Stories beyond the Headlines, a collection of essays on widely varied topics by scholars, journalists and activists). In between were books that focused on the history of Beijing and on China's engagement with the Olympic tradition. Then, to bring the total up to an even dozen, I added two bonus titles. First, a mystery set in Beijing for airplane reading. Second, a then-forthcoming but now available erudite and irreverent guide to one of Beijing's main sites, the Forbidden City, to be read in China during the breaks between medals being awarded and sightseeing forays.

I'm still happy with that old list. It's true that the sheer audacity of recommending so many books inspired some gentle ribbing from a favorite travel-themed website. It's also true that, were I redrafting the piece now, I might try to find room on it for some new books. The Last Days of Old Beijing, for example, which I recently enthused about in Newsweek, or Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, a work whose strengths I've blogged about elsewhere.

Now, however, the Games aren't months away but only weeks, so a different approach is needed. There's no point in telling people what the best route to take in a marathon is, after all, when all there's time for is a sprint. So, what I'm offering up here is a much simpler plan: not a book-a-month, but an online activity-a-week (or two for some weeks, plus extra credit options) to take us through the weeks remaining before the Opening Ceremonies begin. And I'm assuming that people heading to Beijing have already been getting ready mentally (or are a lost cause if they still haven't done any homework for such a special trip), so this regimen is for those who want to be informed consumers of Olympic broadcasts.

Week 1: The goal this week is to become acquainted with the history of the Games and of China's involvement with the Olympic movement. Start by checking out this excellent photo slide show, which comes with commentary by Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford. The images are great, and the narrative nicely reminds us that the Games were politicized long before they Beijing got the nod to host. Follow this up with a China-focused reading: the sample chapter from anthropologist (and former medal-winning athlete) Susan Brownell's book Beijing's Games that's available at the publisher's website.

Extra Credit: check out the "Olympics FAQs" that Brownell's been writing for The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read, a group blog to which I also contribute.

Week 2: The goal this week is to get a general feel for the land and people of today's China, and the place to turn is to National Geographic. If you are a subscriber, you may have already seen their excellent May special issue on the PRC, which was guest edited Peter Hessler, a talented writer who's still another person involved in the China Beat project and whose latest book was part of my extended Olympic prep course. If you missed the NG special issue, check out the version online. It's filled with wonderful photographs and well-written reports that nicely evoke the complexity of a country and people whose diversity Americans often fail to appreciate.

Extra credit: get hold of Pocket China Atlas, a colorful little collection of graphs and charts that further reinforces a sense of the PRC as a very diverse country, and check out what it has to offer.

Week 3: The goal this week is to provide background about two landmarks that you'll be seeing a lot of during the Games, if the promos NBC has been running are any hint of what's in store: the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. For the former, see the excerpts from the new book on the palaces alluded to above available online. For the latter, check out the concise debunking of some Great Wall myths by the China Heritage Quarterly.

Extra credit: go to Netflix and order up a copy of the The Last Emperor, or check out P.K. Cassel's China Beat post on the derivation of the term "Tiananmen," which before lending its name to a giant square and become a shorthand for the protest and repression of 1989 protests was the name for the most famous gate leading into the Forbidden City.

Week 4: The goal of this week is to get a feel for life today in the city of Beijing, where most of the Olympic events will take place. And a great way for mouse potatoes who don't speak or read Chinese to do this is via "Sexy Beijing", an Internet television series that defies description and whose star, Anna Sophia Lowenberg, was recently profiled on NPR.

Extra credit: find a Blockbuster store (or library) that has a copy of A Great Wall (Netflix doesn't carry it, alas), a wonderful 1986 joint Chinese-American production that gives an amusing and sometimes poignant look back to life in Beijing and U.S.-Chinese understanding and misunderstanding roughly two decades ago.

Week 5: The goal of this week, due to the imminent arrival of the Opening Ceremonies, is to provide a feel for past PRC political spectacles. To do this, the best place to start is by viewing the excepts from a 1960s song-and-dance extravaganza called The East is Red that you can find (along with many other interesting things relating to the Mao era) on the website created to accompany Morning Sun, an award-winning documentary on the Cultural Revolution. Follow this up by reading an essay by one of Morning Sun's directors on what to expect from the Opening Ceremonies.

Extra credit options: watch some Zhang Yimou films, look at this online exhibition of Cultural Revolution posters, or spend time going through the different sections of this online collection of Chinese political posters from different periods, which includes a section on visuals used to whip up enthusiasm for the Olympics.

Well, that's it. There are limits to how well any five-week plan -- especially one limited, except for the extra credit assignments, to things that are just a click away -- can do in bringing you up to speed on an event as multi-faceted as the Olympics and a country as complex as China. Still, it's a start. And if you are left wanting more, there are these twelve books I could tell you about...

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at UC Irvine who blogs regularly for The China Beat. His reviews and commentaries have appeared in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and magazines such as the Nation, he's the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and he's the author, most recently, of the books China's Brave New World--And Other Tales for Global Times (2007) and Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 (due out later this year).

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