On August 8, 2008, the world watched with awe the amazing spectacle of the Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing. We saw the electronic unrolling of Chinese scrolls replete with great historic symbols and were mesmerized by dancers creating “harmony,” using their bodies as ink brushes. 2008 martial arts students performed millennia-old moves with mechanical precision, while the flying celestials and the galloping torchbearer created a sense of heavenly abode on earth.
There was another time when China dazzled the world at its doorstep: the Tang dynasty (618-907), often thought of as China’s golden age, when it was truly the “middle kingdom” at the center of the universe. Its capital, Chang Àn (modern day Xìan) was a world-class city; visitors came from all over the world and were dazzled by its wealth, beauty, and power. Its emperors used silver from Persia, glass from Europe, precious stones from Central Asia, and gold implements from India. Open, confident, and cosmopolitan, China connected with the world with ease, adopting new ideas, and projecting its own indigenous creations. It’s no wonder that Chinese scholars sometimes refer to today’s China era as the new Tang Dynasty.
Indeed, when China was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001, the country’s official news agency, Xinhua called it a “milestone in China’s rising international status and a historical event in the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.” For seven years, Chinese officials and artists worked tirelessly to make this dream of a “renaissance” a glittering reality, and they exceeded all expectations. But how should we understand the broader implications of the opening ceremony, both for China and the outside world?
First, the good news. In keeping with China’s recent efforts to project its “soft” side, the opening ceremony produced the idea of a historic, but dynamic culture at its best. Other than the presence of a few People’s Liberation Army soldiers, you would have been hard pressed to find any visible evidence of the reigning communist regime or its founder, Mao Zedong.