Opening ceremony: the meaning behind the spectacle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Giant scrolls? Human kites? An army of drummers? Clifford Coonan decodes the symbols of the ceremony China used to tell its story to the world

The opening ceremony was beautiful and breathtaking, intricate and pyrotechnically the last word, but what exactly did it all mean?

Scrolls? Chops? Puppets? So many drummers? Sarah Brightman?

For an event watched by four billion people, this was a visually spectacular undertaking and the fireworks were so good it worked on every demographic. It was also an incredibly cerebral show, with deeply symbolic elements that will resonate with Chinese even if they passed others by.

The thematic unity in the show was based on China's greatest achievements – the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing and, erm, the wheelbarrow, as well as its ancient art and the magnificence of the Great Wall.

Cue human kites, no less. And enormous scrolls, symbolising China's pioneering role in printing, and its ancient bureaucracy. One sequence featured what looked like thousands of human beings dressed as chops – the ink stamps which are everywhere in China and without which no document is complete.

Martial arts, too. Kung fu was a major feature, despite China's failure to have it installed as an Olympic sport. White-gowned tai-chi experts going through their paces, in their thousands, was always going to impress.

The references to the ancient art of paper-making, a favourite pastime of President Hu Jintao, bore this out. 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.

All the mainstays of Chinese culture were there – the Great Wall, the Chinese opera puppets, even the astronauts from New China. While beautiful, the show was occasionally incoherent, especially to foreigners who do not understand the niceties of calligraphy in the Ming dynasty.

For students and fans of the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, the opening ceremony will have been relatively familiar territory, though the occasion was surprisingly low on the colour red, which has become his trademark hue from movies such as Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum. Ironically, these were the movies which led him to be banned on a regular basis but they are also the Chinese Communist Party's colour of choice.

Zhang is not shy, and he has been open in saying that his opening ceremony would be no less than a distillation of 5,000 years of Chinese history, and would have to include elements of all that great tradition.

You can't help but wonder if it was dealing with such weighty matters that really scared Steven Spielberg off, not the doubts about China's Darfur policy.

An understanding of the ancient art of calligraphy is a useful aid in decoding 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.

Involving a cast of 15,000 people, including 2,008 drummers, there were no references to Chairman Mao, class struggle, rightists, or any of the other mainstays in the Communist canon.

But making a temple out of thin air is something I am still working out how they did. Same with the Olympic rings, how did they do that?

The ceremony was successful in avoiding clichés about China, such as rickshaws and paddy fields. But it did open with a quote from the venerable Confucius: "Friends have come from afar, how happy we are."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin