All the world is a stage and for a few mesmerising hours on Friday night that stage was China’s. Doubts over China as Olympic host faded away, at least temporarily, as the organisers delivered a fitting tribute to the mystery and sophistication of Chinese civilisation. Led by Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou, a cast of 15,000 artists performed a magical stroll through China’s 5,000-year-old history, tapping into the outside world’s fascination for the Middle Kingdom. And for as long as the sparkles of fireworks held and a few lingering moments after, the Beijing games were not about politics and not even about the rise of a new superpower. It was about rebirth.

The ceremony is a deeply felt celebration of China’s renaissance, says Prof. Jin Yuanpu, president of the humanistic Olympic studies center at Renmin University. It had poetry and romantic charm unseen in any previous Olympic ceremonies. I can confidently say there has never been a more successful attempt to express the essence of Chinese culture to the outside world.

For months before the beginning of the games the opening ceremony had been a focal point of strife about China’s credentials as an Olympics host. Human rights activists had called on political leaders to boycott the party as an expression of condemnation of China’s alleged human right abuses. Celebrated US director Steven Spielberg resigned as an artistic adviser to the ceremony in protest over China’s record in the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Sudan’s Darfur. Skeptics have predicted a hotchpotch of well worn cliché symbols of Chinese culture mixed with an obligatory display of joyful dances by the country’s 56 ethnic groups. Such shows are often performed in the country to illustrate China’s success at achieving national harmony.

The perception of the games as a political showcase has not been helped by the fact that Chinese leaders were the first to infuse hosting the Olympic games with political significance. They have made no secret of their desire to use the Olympics as an endorsement of the ruling communist party’s achievements in modernising and transforming China into a significant world player over the last 30 years.

When China was awarded the games in 2001, Xinhua hailed the move as recognition of the “renaissance” that occurred after the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping imposed his vision of a market-led economy. Through the Olympics Chinese rulers are seeking to prove to their subjects that this is the dawn of a new golden age for China, says Liu Junning, an analyst with the Chinese Cultural Studies Institute in Beijing. “To the outside world they want to say: pay attention because a new superpower has arrived.”

On the day of the opening ceremony the official newspaper China Daily had taken a bold guess. The Zhang Yimou brand of ‘Chineseness’ may or may not appeal to every Chinese, an editorial said. But one thing is for sure, the Friday show will find its way into the annals of contemporary China. — IPS