Sneak preview of opening ceremony

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Well, this week, some birds flew out of the bird's nest.
Lots of fireworks too.

On Wednesday there was a dress rehearsal for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and eye-witnesses reported lots of fireworks.

We all know that China will try to wow the world on the 8th. Once they've blasted out the rain clouds with their 'superpowers', they will present an extravaganza on a huge scale, to those lucky enough to get tickets, and an audience of millions (or is it minions? listen next time to the promo for CCTV9 - the English channel's advertising company, and it sounds like an audience of minions).

Raymond Zhou has written for China Daily about possible stories from China which could be featured in the long presentation:

A decade ago, I was asked by a theater operator to describe what kind of stage show could attract a constant stream of audiences in Beijing - a city where a production that runs for a week is considered a success. In response, I reminded him of an old Chinese saying: "Insiders look for mastery of the trade, and outsiders want a spectacle." You can rely on insiders for word of mouth, but you need to also have outsiders to pack a house, night after night.

I went on to provide him with a long list of stage tricks that I had seen on Broadway and in Las Vegas, which I knew could dazzle a Chinese audience. To top it off, I proposed a possible storyline that could weave these theatrics into a single show. But budget constraints nipped that project idea in the bud.

Budget, however, is no constraint for Zhang Yimou, the director of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. He is under pressure to outshine all previous Olympic opening galas in terms of technology-aided pageantry.

What the director does need is an effective "clothesline," or sweeping storyline, from which the high-tech gimmicks can be comfortably hung. That, in my mind, will be provided by China's own rich mythology.

Imagine a giant cosmic egg floating out of a formless chaos, made possible by state-of-the-art lighting and equipment. Of course, it won't take 18,000 years as in the ancient creation myth, but music can help suggest the passage of time.

When the mythological figure of Pangu emerges from the egg, I imagine it will be like the entrance of Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his Terminator movies, only more impressive.

I'm not sure how Pangu will be depicted - a hairy, primitive giant with horns on his head and clad in furs; or a smooth-bodied young man, like the painting of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He won't be totally naked - that's for sure - but his wardrobe needs to make him look really physically formidable. After all, with a swing of his giant axe, he will separate the murky yin of the earth from the clear yang of the sky. And he'll gradually raise the sky by growing taller and taller, possibly with an inflatable costume.

If Zhang brings off this feat, people overseas will realize that China's own story of the creation rivals that of other nations in both imagination and grandeur.

The process of Pangu creating earth is said to have taken another 18,000 years. But he does not simply ride into the sunset after his work is done. Instead, his demise is full of dramatic flair - his breath turns into wind, his voice thunder, his left eye the sun, right eye the moon, his body the mountains and extremes of the world, his blood rivers, his muscles fertile lands, and his sweat flies off as raindrops, while his bones crystallize into valuable minerals and diamonds.

What impresario would not love this?

Famous Chinese mythological figures are often portrayed by Chinese artists. The artwork by an unknown artist depicts Nuwa, the Goddess who patched up a broken sky.

To follow up on the Pangu tale, we have Nuwa, the Goddess who patched up a broken sky. The trouble started with a quarrel between two powerful gods. One of them smashed a mountain that had served as a pillar holding up the sky. The collapse caused the sky to tilt towards the northwest and the earth to slant southeast, engendering fires and floods, and frightening beasts. Nuwa then chopped off the legs of a giant tortoise, which she used to replace the pillar, and gathered stones of seven colors to seal and heal the sky. But she could not move the sky to its original position, which explains why the sun, moon and stars move in the direction of the northwest, while rivers in China flow towards the southeast.

The Nuwa legend has other versions that run parallel with the stories of Genesis, but they are less well known in China. Similarly, the Deluge archetype appears so often that Western audiences will easily see the resemblance. I guess the myth, if used, will be simplified to its barebones - the story of another superhero saving humanity.

Houyi could be a third perfect choice, credited with having saved earth from being scorched by 10 suns. The 10 sun-birds at one time were accustomed to rise one at a time - but as the mischievous offspring of the God of Eastern Heaven, the birds were rebellious youngsters. Houyi, being the God of Archery, was called for rectify the situation. He shot down nine of them.

Houyi did not ride into the sunset either. The God was angry with him for killing his sons, instead of teaching them obedience. He stripped Houyi of his immortality and banished him from Heaven.

I'm not sure whether Zhang Yimou would also want to include Houyi's earthly exploits: he conquered the God of Winds that uprooted crops and tore down houses; he tamed the turbulent Water God so that the latter would not burst river banks and flood farmland; and he stared down one monster after another, each of which represented plaques and other menaces.

It's not difficult to imagine a Houyi that resembles a version of the archer played by Orlando Bloom in Lord of the Ring trilogy. For instance, Huang Doudou, the dancer who provided choreography for Zhang's First Emperor at New York's Metropolitan Opera, has the boyish charm, athletic prowess and balletic dexterity needed for such a role.

Every recent Olympics opening ceremony has presented origin stories from the host country. Of course, there are myriad ways to tell such a story. To depict how China was born, you could also show a giant replica of the Peking Man, dating from half a million years ago.

But I think Zhang will sacrifice some archeological precision for a flight of mythological imagination. The epic adventures of Pangu, Nuwa and Houyi are at once uniquely Chinese and globally acceptable. Well staged, they could be the highlight of China's biggest show.
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