Rumour mills in overdrive about what to expect at the opening event
For a country obsessed with pageantry and mass rituals, there could not be a better occasion to display national pride than the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
With 80 per cent of the planet expected to tune in for the razzle-dazzle at the 'Bird's Nest' National Stadium on August 8, most mainlanders - whether Communist leaders, underprivileged peasants or middle-class urbanities - are looking forward to a spellbinding and inspirational curtain-raiser for a growing regional power's coming-out party.
With only 22 days to go, the rumour mills are running fast on what award-winning and controversial movie director Zhang Yimou , who was assigned to lead the designing of the 3 1/2-hour bash, has dreamed up.
The media ballyhoo has centred on how the cauldron will be lit, while the programme for the proposed 50-minute gala has also been a talking point. Everything has been kept under wraps except for the revelation that images of tens of thousands of toddlers, collected from around the world, will be used at some point.
Beijing authorities have signed participants to a confidentiality agreement and warned that any leak of the details could lead to a maximum seven years' jail.
However, it is hard to shut out all the inquisitive eyes for a ceremony involving 10,000 performers and a number of rehearsals. 'The phoenix has been chosen as an important theme for the ceremony,' said a source. 'You can't think of a more fitting subject at the 'Bird's Nest' than the phoenix, the holy bird.'
Speculation has it that NBA superstar Yao Ming , China's first Olympic gold winner, Xu Haifeng , or He Zhenliang , the man behind the successful Games bid seven years ago, will be the final torch-bearer who lights the cauldron.
Don Mischer, who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, said: 'The key is trying to hit on the Chinese icons and the recognisable culture for a global audience, but avoiding stereotypes.
'I understand Chinese people are sick of their culture being represented by the same things. In Atlanta, Americans complained about anything Southern; in Sydney, Aussies were furious about the sight of kangaroos. The hosts always ask: 'Aren't we more than that?' But if we present something [too abstract] in the ceremonies, the rest of the world would ask, 'What's that'?'
Still, China believes it can reconcile the tastes of audiences at home and abroad through two straightforward approaches: a big budget and mind-boggling technology.
Bocog, the Olympic organising committee, has allocated US$100 million to back Zhang's production of both the opening and closing ceremonies, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Games' official auditing firm. The sum was more than double that for the Sydney opening ceremony, said Sandy Holloway, chief executive officer of the Sydney organising committee.
Zhang has also secured the services of a few top-notch lieutenants. Cai Guoqiang , a New York-based award-winning contemporary fireworks artist, promises to deliver a pyrotechnic wonder.
Chen Qigang , the European-based composer whose repertoire spans eastern and western musical traditions, is busy conceiving scores.
Among the lieutenants, the name of Yu Jianping , a veteran People's Liberation Army engineer, has raised the most eyebrows. He was a key technology designer for China's first two manned space missions.
Now, he is taking care of the gimmicks and gadgets for the opening ceremony and is assigned to ensure their smooth running.
Yet no matter how considerate, careful, innovative, hi-tech and well-drilled Zhang and his colleagues are, observers say they are unlikely to emerge unscathed from the wrath of critics the morning after.
'No doubt it's going to be a smooth project,' said Zhang Yiwu , a professor of Chinese cultural history at Peking University, who was summoned this year along with dozens of other experts to advise the director on design.
'But I can easily foresee the criticism after August 8, 2008. There is a disparity in taste between the Chinese and western audiences. It would be extremely difficult to please both simultaneously. I sympathise deeply with Zhang's job. It's one of the most difficult in the world.'
Feathering the nest
The 'Bird's Nest' stadium, which will hold the main track and field events, is the centrepiece of the Olympic facilities. Here are some of its vital statistics
Cost, in yuan: 3.5b
Weight, in tonnes: 45,000
Seating capacity: 91,000
Total length of steel beams: 36km