A presidential visit is always taken so seriously in China that nothing is left to chance. But nobody could have scripted the most memorable moment of United States President Barack Obama's visit early this week. I'm sure the PR teams had thought of every scenario and the security personnel every contingency, but who'd have known?
To many ordinary Chinese, Obama made an immediate and positive impression even before he stepped on Chinese soil, while he was still on the staircase from the plane, on a dark and rainy day.
It was all because Obama held his own umbrella. It was an iconic image, beating all the rhetoric, elocution and eloquence the smooth-talking president could have mustered.
Simply put, few in the country he landed in would expect a president - any president of any organization - to hold an umbrella. That is the job of underlings.
The horde of reporters waiting for hours at Shanghai's Pudong Airport did not think it was Obama. They could not see clearly and many assumed the second person who walked out of the plane was the real McCoy. It's rumored the second guy received a round of applause.
Americans like to call their president "the most powerful person in the free world", but in the minds of most Chinese, holding your own umbrella does not convey power. In fact, it exudes humility. It was a typical example of: "No drama Obama".
Power in China is often manifested by drama, and sometimes pageantry. The umbrella is just a prop. In ancient times, the dragon seat, sheltered by an umbrella-like canopy, was where the emperor presided over court affairs. It would follow his procession wherever he set his royal sedan.
In modern times, you need rain or sunshine to add this flourish of authority. Type "holding umbrella" in a Chinese search engine and you'll come up with a slew of illustrations. Take this one, published in June 2006. A bunch of Chongqing district leaders are watching a performance. Most have someone sitting next to them holding umbrellas. Nine 4-year-olds are dancing on a wet carpet, wearing skimpy costumes and not sheltered from the rain by anything. The name of this event was "Caring for our girls". Ironical, perhaps?
Of course most cases are not extreme as this one. An article extolling Zhou Senfeng, supposedly China's youngest mayor, is accompanied by two photographs, each showing the 29 year old protected from the sun's UV by a man holding a brolly. Netizens asked: "Is he too old and fragile to hold his own umbrella?"
One Chinese official, much older than Zhou Senfeng, not only held his own umbrella but was photographed trekking ankle-deep on a muddy road. It was Premier Wen Jiabao. Again, ironically, the local officials who attended to him all had assistants keeping the rain off them.
Now we must put things in cultural context. Confucianism dictates a strict hierarchy. So it does not offend if a 30-year-old man holds the umbrella for a 60 year old, or for that matter, an able-bodied staffer doing it for a senior leader. But, if the umbrella-holder is much older or younger than the beneficiary, it just does not seem right. The photos that incur the most public resentment are those where officials deliver speeches under cover while school children stand in the rain or scorching sun.
Of all displays of pomp and power, the umbrella might seem the most innocuous. Most officials probably do not even realize the impropriety when they are thrust into such a situation. Otherwise they would not have these images publicized.
In a hierarchical society, rank entails specific perks, which we call "daiyu" (treatment) in our official parlance. People are fastidious about it. It doesn't matter whether they need it or not. Someone who is entitled to a chauffeur does not ride a bicycle to work even if his home is five minutes away and his doctor advises him to walk as much as he can.
Corporate America has the same obsession with power-affiliated frills such as who flies first-class, who flies by corporate jet, who owns his own jet paid by the company ... All these things determine how much respect you command in the organization.
But holding umbrellas transcends them all. You don't have to hold a particular title or seniority. You just have to be a little higher in rank than the next person to enjoy this informal yet obvious token of vainglory.
I've had people holding an umbrella for me while on reporting trips. It was awkward at first, but I quickly overcame it. Then I felt quite natural about it. Power, even a modicum of it, can be intoxicating.
Another time I was on a TV show with a movie starlet. She had three assistants in tow. I couldn't figure out who was responsible for what. Anyway, when she made her entrance, none of the three remembered to open the door for her. For that she fumed for a good 30 minutes. She was too important to open the door, let alone hold her own umbrella.
Sometimes I visualize a scene with the big shot holding the umbrella for the subordinate. Call it a reversal of power display. It's comical. For instance, Queen Elizabeth II holding a parasol on her own; or George W Bush struggling with an upturned umbrella. Many young Chinese laughed when they first saw these photos and then sank into meditation.
It is ironic that "holding the umbrella" has the opposite meaning when used figuratively. While in real life it is always the minion who holds it over the superior, in language the holder of the umbrella is the one providing protection and making an offer that can't be refused.
There is an old saying about the umbrella that was famously misinterpreted. It is called "a monk holding an umbrella". On the surface it seems to depict a scene of misery. But actually it is a play on words. Monks have shaved heads, and "hairless" sounds like "lawless" in Chinese. With an umbrella separating the monk and the sky it becomes "skyless", which, figuratively, means a disregard of heaven and its decrees. So, a monk with an umbrella over his head is an indirect way of saying: "See no law, see no heaven".
Chairman Mao Zedong, in a flourish of braggadocio, used this term when talking to American journalist Edgar Snow while looking over the Tian'anmen Rostrum in his golden years. The translator did a dutiful job of converting the words and the image, but not the implied meaning, into English. And the West got a self-pitying picture of the Great Helmsman.
I figure that when Obama stepped out of Air Force One in Shanghai, he was brimming with confidence. Yet, through the night rain, people saw only a figure with a large umbrella. Whatever he might have had in his mind, he actually managed to appear to be a man of the people.