With pageantry and elegance surpassing all levels of human comprehension, China opened the 2008 Summer Olympics with beauty and grace. The images of a soaring humanity will never be forgotten, blazing itself into our collective consciousness. Zhang Yimou’s vision of the Olympics has changed the world—forever.
Truth be told, I don’t think I ever saw one acrobat—not in the traditional way we Westerners would expect to see one. Instead, there were people in flight; through the director’s vision, humankind has achieved the ultimate goal. To see the otherworldly beauty of young Chinese women soaring from wires as mythological muses suspended above a steadily unrolling scroll of China’s 5,000 year history was a new level of acrobatics. To see the I-can’t-believe-they’re-going-to-top-what-they’ve-already-done finale of a 60-something Chinese Olympic hero bearing the torch suddenly rising into the sky at a slant like Superman and soaring hundreds of feet above the crowd to run mid-air around the circumference of the stadium astonished everyone. The crowd went “Ooh,” but it was the “Ooh” that says, Look at us: we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.
Like with the acrobats, there are things we Westerners take for granted when we think of the Chinese culture—drumming, dancing, singing and particularly martial arts. The director was so inventive in showing us the ultimate version of these great disciplines, not as Western aesthetic delights or curiosities, but within the context of the history of the development of a people. To see 2,800 drummers beating on ancient drums in unison, to see 2,800 marital arts masters “perform” in unison, all dressed in white and running to make a perfect circle on the floor of the stadium was mind-blowing.
The most amazing feature of this entire artistic presentation was the realization of a civilization, from its beginnings to where it is headed in the future. The Chinese theme of harmony was understood by spectators when we witnessed how these 15,000 performers had enough discipline to submerge their own individual tics, and gripes and personalities to become one mind for an extensive amount of time in pure concentration in service to achieve near-impossible feats.
Zhang Yimou is a true storyteller, unrolling his people’s history across that gigantic scroll to instill dignity and pride in a people still struggling with contradictions, people who in some ways had forgotten the best part of themselves. As an artist, Zimou will be honored in China for eternity for what he has done for his people. I cannot imagine a better way to reveal China to the world “under heaven.” This production vindicates all artists living and dead, because it reminds us all how effectively art tells the story of humankind not only for us to see and understand, but to show God that there was no mistake in creating us, after all.