BEIJING — China officially marked its arrival on the world stage with a stunning ceremony to launch the Beijing Olympics, complete with pyrotechnics, heavy drumming and a comprehensive lesson in ancient Chinese history.
The spectacular event may have taken place against a background of discontent about China’s human rights record and its stance on controversial issues such as Tibetan independence, Xinjiang autonomy and selling guns to Darfur.
But for a few hours, these issues took a back seat to the event itself.
The beautiful, breathtaking and intricate ceremony, that was eight years in the making, unfolded in front of 91,000 people at the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, including world leaders such as President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. An estimated 2.3 billion to 4 billion more watched on TV.
Although NBC must be happy with this crowd-pleaser, this was also an incredibly cerebral show, with deeply symbolic elements that will resonate with the Chinese but might leave some scratching their heads.
Chinese helmer Zhang Yimou orchestrated the event, which opened with a quote from the venerable Confucius: “Friends have come from afar, how happy we are.”
Zhang had said that his Opening Ceremony would be a distillation of 5,000 years of Chinese history, and would include elements of all that great tradition.
And he delivered — helped by a cast of 15,000 including 2,008 drummers.
As expected, Sarah Brightman sang and classical pianist Lang Lang’s perf was a triumph.
The thematic unity in the show was based on China’s greatest achievements — the compass, gunpowder, paper and printing, and even the wheelbarrow, as well its ancient art and the magnificence of the Great Wall.
It featured human kites, enormous scrolls symbolizing China’s pioneering role in printing, and its ancient bureaucracy.
There were no references to Chairman Mao Zedong, class struggle or any of the other mainstays in the Communist canon.
The ancient art of calligraphy figured in the ceremony. Zhang has used calligraphy in his movies as a way of displaying Chinese resolve under pressure, as well as a sign of ingenuity. The athletes were brought out into the Bird’s Nest stadium according to the character strokes, not in Western alphabet terms.
You never have to travel a million miles to get cool martial arts in China – kung fu was a major feature, despite China’s failure to have it installed as an Olympic sport. The sight of thousands of white-gowned tai-chi experts going through their paces was impressive.
There were many references to the ancient art of paper-making, a favorite pastime of President Hu Jintao. One gorgeous section was the way the square drums were transformed into writing desks, and seen from above they all lit up in significant sequences, combining the visual sense with an intellectual element that is extremely Chinese.
National hero and Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming led the 639 home athletes into the stadium to chants of “Zhongguo jia you,” which translates as “add oil China” but means “go China.”
The ceremony culminated with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron by Li Ning, China’s “Prince of Gymnastics,” who won more medals than any other athlete at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the year China returned to the Games after a 32-year hiatus.
Suspended by a wire harness, Li ran a wide circuit around the stadium roof before igniting the flame that will be kept alight until the Games finish Aug. 24.
Outside the stadium, the streets of Beijing were deserted as everyone watched the ceremony on TV.
It was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humid — and the air was polluted despite widescale efforts to get rid of the smog for the Games.
Although President Bush was in the stadium — the first American president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil — he had made himself unpopular earlier after he chastised China for its failure to improve its human rights record in Bangkok shortly before his arrival in the Chinese capital.
The Chinese made their feelings clear. President Hu Jintao didn’t show up to the ribbon-cutting for the new U.S. embassy in Beijing, despite earlier agreeing to attend. And State Department journalists were left sitting on the tarmac at the airport for hours.
Before the ceremony began, Intl. Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said: “The Games are a chance for the rest of the world to discover what China really is. For a long time China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world’s athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games. Tonight that dream comes true.”
This was the view of most of the Chinese people outside the stadium.
“This is fabulous. China will be stronger after the Games. It’s a big opportunity for foreigners to invest in China and to see that China is here,” said Zhao Xiaoyu, 24, who works for an international company.
She was speaking at a bigscreen viewing event near the newly installed Central Business District, which was emblazoned with Coca-Cola advertising in a way that Chairman Mao might have found challenging.
“There’s been some negative news about China alright, but there are always misunderstandings between countries. People won’t forget these differences, but they will possibly avoid them. If the Western world wants to know about China, they should let it be itself,” said Zhao.
Another onlooker said the ceremony gave him “a great feeling.”
“I don’t think foreign journalists have been too critical. It’s an engine to push China towards progress,” said Yang Xiaobo, 23, a pharmaceutical engineering graduate from Beijing University.
“It will push China to develop more. China will be a more open country and foreigners will know different things about China. Our country is becoming more and more strong, but also more friendly,” said Yang.
His friend and fellow graduate, Zhang Qingxiu, also 23, said the Games were a great way to see the positive impact of 30 years of reform in China.
For many Chinese, the anniversary of 30 years of reform is a bigger topic than the Olympics or any other political development in China in recent years.
One hour before the ceremony, three Tibet supporters from the Students for a Free Tibet group staged a symbolic protest near the entrance to the Olympic park and the Bird’s Nest stadium, displaying Tibetan national flags.
The two Americans and one Argentinean were detained 40 seconds after the protest began.
Earlier this week, four members of the organization hung two banners from lampposts outside the stadium.