Opening ceremony: the meaning behind the spectacle

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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."

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