In Giant TVs Across Beijing, Chinese View Games
FRANK LANGFITT: This is Frank Langfitt, and I'm sitting on the edge of a soccer field at Beijing Institute of Technology. Thousands have poured in here for the opening ceremony to watch on a giant-screen TV.
The Chinese have been waiting for this moment for seven years. The audience begins the final countdown.
Unidentified Man: Twenty seconds.
(Soundbite of crowd)
LANGFITT: Three, two, one. The crowd erupts as the spectacle begins on China Central Television. The audience here is mostly students and some nearby residents. They're sitting on newspapers and bamboo mats, drinking green tea and Sprite.
The show begins with an elegant journey through Chinese culture. Most in the audience are rapt. Chen Jie(ph) is a 20-year-old student at a local geology school. She has a Chinese flag sticker on her forehead.
Ms. CHEN JIE (Student, Beijing, China): (Through translator) I'm excited. I'm moved, and I can't describe my feelings in words.
LANGFITT: Chen is drawn to the show's modern depiction of ancient ways. In one set piece, men dance and roll across a scroll, using their hands as paint brushes to create a classic mountain scene.
Chen says that in a time of rapid economic growth and social confusion, she appreciates the focus on the nation's roots.
Ms. CHEN: (Through translator) I think China has started to develop and prosper, but a lot of times it ignores its cultural past. The opening ceremony promotes Chinese culture to the Chinese people.
LANGFITT: When Chen sees something she likes, which is often, she bangs her empty water bottles together as if clapping. She marvels at the elaborate robes performers wear from the Tang Dynasty, a Chinese cultural renaissance that began in the 7th century, and she admires the little girl in a pink dress who floats across the stadium as if hanging from the end of a kite.
Ms. CHEN: (Chinese Spoken)
LANGFITT: Very cool, very beautiful, she says.
LANGFITT: Chen's classmate, Shing Ting(ph), spent most of the evening with her hands clasped in front of her as if in prayer. She worried that all the ancient references would be lost on an international audience, so she was pleased to see China's modern accomplishments, including a man floating over the stadium in a space suit.
Ms. SHING TING(ph) (Student): (Through translator) The director's concepts are very good, such as the astronaut. That's something the Chinese are very proud of and foreigners can easily understand.
LANGFITT: Some people in the crowd said the most moving performance was this…
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LIU HUAN (Singer): (Singing) (Chinese Spoken).
LANGFITT: A duet between Chinese singer Liu Huan and Sarah Brightman, who sang in Mandarin. They said it underlined China's ability to work in harmony with the world that to some degree, views the nation with suspicion.
Jackie Lee(ph) spent most of the evening sitting cross-legged with a Chinese flag in his lap. His favorite moment came early. Thousands of people on the soccer field leapt to their feet and broke into song.
(Soundbite of song, "March of the Volunteers")
Mr. JACKIE LEE (Language Teacher): All of the people sing the, you know, national anthem together. I feel a very strong power, you know.
LANGFITT: Lee, who's a language teacher in Beijing, said hearing the song was a comfort. Until now, it's been a year of disasters in China, culminating with an earthquake in Sichuan Province that killed tens of thousands.
Mr. LEE: Especially when we sing the song, sing the national anthem together, I have this feeling. Our country will become stronger and stronger.
LANGFITT: I met Lee before the opening ceremony. As the minutes ticked down, I asked him what his hopes were.
Mr. LEE: (Through translator) I know a lot of Western countries have misconceptions about China. I hope the Olympics will provide a platform so that all of our friends in the world can really understand China.
LANGFITT: Over the next 16 days, the nation will have its greatest opportunity to shape that understanding. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.