09/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Inside the Stadium, Another Look at Beijing's Opening Ceremony

Standing eerily still and in machine-like formation over square tables, the army of thousands portended something big. From one angle, they resembled angry youth, standing at attention before their desks. Another interpretation might imagine them as factory workers listening attentively to morning loudspeakers before getting down to work. And then there is the obvious comparison with the theatrical image of soldiers lined up in uniform that has become shorthand for the Chinese government.

But this wasn't about that China, at least not overtly. This was about a China of the past and the future, a China transcending a half-century of difficulties to reach backwards and forwards at once. It's a China defined by a sense of tradition and a capacity for innovation in the arts and sciences -- a far cry from the reputation China has for, say, mass politics, rote learning, knock-offs and copy-paste manufacturing. (See photos here)

"I've never seen a country spend so much time showing itself off," a Chinese friend mentioned later, with a comparison to North Korea's Mass Games. "But I guess we have a lot to show."

Indeed it's a history and culture that remains unknown to most Westerners, and, as many Chinese will remind you, goes back 5,000 years. Of course, because successive dynasties interspersed with drastic upheavals, that number's not completely accurate. But that didn't stop director Zhang Yimou from attempting to pack it all in to a typically epic, spectacular ceremony.

Zhang's crack team of advisors, including Cai Guo-Qiang, Ang Lee and Tan Dun (but not, of course, Steven Spielberg), were faced with a truly Olympian task: craft a show based on the world's oldest living culture and longest history that engages the rest of the world as much as it speaks to China. Another thing: given the importance of the Games to China, it needed to be the biggest and boldest opening ceremony, or any ceremony, in history.

He mostly succeeded. The show will wow the world and China, even if it glosses over some of the finer points of Chinese culture and history -- and even if at times it relies too heavily on pasted-on (and certainly impressive) special effects rather than on human performance. But for cramming 5,000 years into two hours for an audience of billions, Zhang deserves a medal. Or at last a good night's sleep.

- The athletes' procession revealed some interesting Chinese allegiances. There were the usual suspects: Cuba and the Russian Federation got rousing applause. Brazil and Venezuela were cheered, perhaps having to do with their economic ties to China but more so out of a south-to-south solidarity. When the measly North Korea team, Chinese audience members cheered vigorously out of support for their ailing, anti-Western neighbor.

Pakistan was loudly received, apparently because China's westerly neighbor donated tents to earthquake victims in Sichuan. Iraq and Afghanistan got cheers for their resilience, and Iraq got extra support because, as one Beijing resident in Ditan Park told my friend, America caused some trouble there.

Great Britain and Germany received a strong show of support, due I'm told to China's adoration of their soccer teams. "You Americans think about politics, but to us this is more about sports," said one Chinese woman.

And there were many others, including Burkina-Faso, Kazakhstan and Guam, that seemed to draw no response at all. The quiet that accompanied Japan was deafening.

The second loudest applause of the evening went to the US team, which won support though much of it may have come from Americans themselves, who, considering where a majority of Olympic sponsorship deals come from, made up a good portion of the audience. Kobe Bryant and flag bearer Lopez Lomong, a refugee of the war in Sudan, garnered even louder cheers.

But when President Bush and his wife came on the big screen, the tone changed noticeably. Boos were audible. The Chinese I noticed looked on bemused. Booing your president is not a favorite pastime in China.

When China came out at the end, the whole stadium felt primed. The roar was nearly deafening. It grew even louder when the flag bearer, Yao Ming, was joined by a young boy from Sichuan who had managed to save two of his friends from earthquake rubble. Every hand seemed to be waving little red flags. It was exciting and relieving to find that, in the midst of Olympic harmony and in the context of Chinese censorship... many of the other cheers were coming from non-Chinese all over the stadium.

If this was an expression of love for Chinese athletes, it was just as much a social and political expression. At this Olympics, it's hard to tell the difference.

Some highlights:

- There were many warnings that the tickets would be tied to real names; we were made to submit forms with our pictures and passport information a month ago at the latest, and told that this information would be embedded in the tickets' microchips (though every Olympic ticket has a chip, none of the others carried this policy).

But when we swiped our tickets before the scanner at the entrance, the woman merely used a machine to snap our portrait. On her screen, there was no sign of my name or information.

- The lack of real name tickets made it possible for thousands of audience members to acquire tickets through their companies or travel agents, or even buy from a scalper. We heard rumors that some tickets were going for $50,000. The currency may have been wrong, but either way, that's still one of the costliest tickets the world has ever seen.

- The architects of the stadium, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, were present. You might expect the designers of China's new architectural icon to have been plopped down in the VIP section next to, say, the Beijing Olympic officials. But nope. They and their coterie, along with their Chinese counterpart Li Xinggang, were seated in a corner of the stadium along with the rest of the hoi polloi, who probably had no idea who any of them were. And they were only invited to the ceremony two weeks ago.

Herzog & de Meuron's erstwhile competitor and CCTV architect Rem Koolhaas was also seen hanging around the stadium. The other notable stadium collaborator, artist Ai Weiwei, was not present, as promised.

- Back to security: there was virtually none. The talk about airport like lines seemed overblown, even though I did arrive closer to the start than much of the crowd. There was an x-ray machine and a metal detector and a wand, and a strict prohibition on food and water. But there was no enforced restriction on camera equipment, despite warnings that professional equipment is not permitted. Nor was there any attempt to search me for, say, a large "Free Tibet" banner hiding under my clothing. Just to be clear China, I have no such banner. You can search me this time.

See photos of the ceremonies here