August 10, 2008

It's exceeded my expectations.
- George W. Bush


I am not numbered among the estimated billion people who are believed to have watched the opening ceremony of this 29th Olympic Games on television, let alone among the fortunate 91,000 who watched it in person. Only those who watched it live are counted, and I had to tape, to watch it nearly a day later.

It was well worth the taping.

Giant footsteps of fire, integrating city and an otherwise isolated Olympic green. A literal race across a globe that bloomed from world to Chinese lantern, culminating in the lighting of a cauldron. A simulated waterfall falling into the stadium from a giant scrim above the audience -- who were made active participants, the twinkling stars in a night sky that for perhaps the first time in that crucial week had been fully cooperative.

Of course it showcased China's best! Have you ever known an Olympic city to deliberately set out to show off its worst?

There was visual trickery involved, some of it rather startling, yet nothing out of the ordinary for a spectacle of this scope. The girl we saw sing was not the girl whose voice we heard, though both were Chinese and of a similar age. We who watched the televised version saw a computer simulation of the fiery footprints, due to helicopter safety and technical camera limitations, but many home videos prove that the footprints were real enough. Ironically, that particular piece of electronic illusion became the one thing we at home may have seen better than those in the Bird's Nest stadium. The television camera tried, but it was inadequate by far to transmit what the human being experienced.

Don't try to put a price on it. China, its government, its people, had something to show the world. The will was there, the technical resources were available. When all else failed, individual human beings manually picked out a sudden blooming of algae in the yachting lanes. The profit of it is not something that would be recognised by a bottom-line ledger. The economics of it are meaningless.

The technology was cutting edge and ancient. The spectacle was presented to us as a celebration of four great inventions China has given the world: gunpowder, paper, printing, and the compass. Perhaps the concept was also sold this way internally. These were shown: but they only served as the framework for something far more enduring than the most revolutionary of inventions. Four inventions, four dragons, four rivers of silk and terra cotta and Chinese opera and earth-spanning magnetic lines leading out into space itself. A white dove lands, a phoenix is reborn. Confucian disciples chanting the Analects, Buddhist Shaolin temple Fou drummers, Taoist tai chi masters who managed to make the very first, most basic chen form into something which linked heaven and earth, three forms of harmony spanning Bronze Age to modern, the structure of human society existing entirely to support its future, its children.

And always, again and again: dozens of ethnicities united, a thousand people moving as one to create something so much greater.

The ceremony was envisioned by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, working with the choreographer Zhang Jigang and the composer Tan Dun. This choice itself is a message to the world: for Zhang Yimou has been a victim of the Cultural Revolution and regular waves of political controversy which have at times restricted his ability to accept prizes and his international movements ... and yet the China of the Olympics shows itself able to look beyond the politics to acknowledge and support and finally showcase the perseverence, superlative talent, and sheer genius of this one of its many sons.

The Chinese soul transcends politics. A glitch of a few decades is still only that, a glitch. The politics of it are a hiccough in history. What is essential, endures.

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