Giant on the move
The Games have begun, but what was that ceremony about?
I’ve been deafened by the drums, astounded by the aerial acrobatics and blinded by the cornea-carving light show. The torch is lit in its giant cauldron hanging from the lip of the Bird’s Nest stadium and the 2008 Olympic Games have begun.
But what is it I’ve sat through for hours on a steamy Beijing evening? Was it mass-participation theatre, a pseudo-religious sanctification of sport, a kitsch ‘son et lumiere’ mangling of traditional Chinese art forms? A pyrotechnics-fuelled rock ballet? A modernised courtly pageant or a magnified pantomime of over-produced gimcrackery? The best of Cirque du Soleil-style wizardry or high camp showbiz?
It was any of the above, depending on your taste. Artistically it was a crowd-pleasing mishmash, in the tradition of all such ceremonies. Oscar-nominated Chinese film director Zhang Yimou engaged creative overdrive to trowel significance into the joints of what he built, rampaging across the cultural landscape for his raw material.
The gala display left few cultural forms or genres of human expression untouched in its technically dazzling but historically selective sweep across China’s imperial past.
Multi-participant dance, strangely-headgeared quill formations, dancers cavorting to form calligraphy and actors in the shape of blocks of type swept across the stadium floor.
Peking Opera puppeteering, 8th century Tang dynasty poetry, scroll painting and ancient Kunqu song vied with synthesised ambient noise and Liberace-esque piano tinkling. Energetic Taiji exercises by white-costumed martial artists reached into China’s rich philosophical store cupboard and stomped out a lesson on ‘the unity of man and nature’.
What did it all mean?
Liu Qi, head of the Games’ organisation, said it was a showcase that would ‘provide a unique and unprecedented interpretation of the Olympic spirit and ideal from the Chinese perspective’. It would embody the aspiration of all 1.3 billion Chinese ‘for a harmonious world,’ he said, stating an ambition as resoundingly bland and empty as the official Games’ motto of ‘One World, One Dream.’
Generously, it was a wild, welcoming fiesta that should pluck the heartstrings of all humanity and kick off 16 days of spectacular sporting endeavour. More sceptically, it was a multi-layered lacquering over of China’s broken promises to improve its human rights record and respect press freedom. And few doubt the ceremony’s jaw-dropping ambition and no-holds-barred cost were partly tribute to China’s economic, social and geopolitical resurgence.
Where did Zhang go for his ideas? The former problem child for the Communist Party, whose early films were banned for showing China’s ugly side, now shines a more favourable light. His Wushu martial arts epic Hero and action romance House of Flying Daggers retain his early trademark of sumptuous colour, a feature of the show. Both films employ wire fu techniques of breathtaking air fighting. That might account for the ceremony’s trapeze scenes, including the spectacular roof run by ex-Olympic gold-winning gymnast Li Ning that lit the stadium flame.
And Zhang moonlights as an opera director, staging Puccini’s Turandot at the Forbidden City in central Beijing, with a cast of over a 1,000. The man has a taste for lavish spectacle. His collaborator, Zhang Jigang, China’s leading choreographer, best known for Thousand Hand Bodhisattva, is also a Lieutenant General in the People’s Liberation Army. No problem then for the Zhangs to mobilise reinforcements. There were 9,000 PLA members dancing, flying and tumbling tonight.
Reuters photos by Lucy Nicholson, Eric Gaillard and Reinhard Krause