BEIJING - The rumble began slowly, softly, as the 2,008 drummers in silvery robes each worked their hands on the bronze surface of a Fou, the oldest Chinese percussion instrument.
And then the noise increased, rattling the Olympic Stadium, waves of sound soon punctuated by fireworks as the lights on the surfaces of the drums and the rhythmic movements of the percussionists turned the countdown to yesterday's start of the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony into a blend of technology and tradition.
The striking sound and flashing lights were a fanfare for not only the Olympians who would later parade across the floor of the stadium known as the Bird's Nest.
It announced to the world that China, an ancient culture buried in the dust of history for nearly the entire 20th century, was marching boldly into the 21st, its 1.3 billion people taking another first step in their journey from a doormat for the West to the pillar of an Asia that stands ever taller.
The Olympic Games hold such cachet in China that playing host to them for the first time is a symbol of the country's power and place in the world.
Nothing said that more dramatically than the ceremony's final moment, when 1984 Olympic champion gymnast Li Ning lit the cauldron that will burn over the stadium the next 16 days. Li, 43, was carried some 200 feet to the roof on a harness and then circled the upper level before touching his torch to a pipe that fed the cauldron.
"Hosting the Olympic Games has been a century-old dream for the Chinese nation," said Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.
A high-definition scroll opened on the center of the stadium floor, another use of modern wizardry to illustrate classic elements of China. Athletes for the 204 nations - an expected 205th, Brunei, was excluded at the last minute because it had not sent athletes - walked through paint before walking across a vinyl scroll, leaving footprints to mark their passage.
Athletes making history in the Games; the Games marking the history of China.
The production mixed power, impact and a huge cast performing formation choreography flawlessly in what looked like the largest Busby Berkeley spectacular ever.
"One section required that over 600 performers should have uniform expression in their eyes, so they must have exquisite feelings, and they have to work very hard," said Wang Hong, manager of the cultural troupe in the Peoples Liberation Army second artillery corps.
Nine thousand of the 14,000 performers were PLA soldiers, who had endured some rehearsals that lasted 48 hours.
As day turned to twilight, which meant only that the sky turned from light gray to gun-metal gray as the grimy air filled with humidity, 91,000 spectators began enduring six sweaty hours of pre-ceremony and ceremony.
For all its in-your-face grandiosity, there was a muted, monotonal quality about much of the cultural exposition that reached a dramatic climax with 2,008 white-clad martial arts performers. The multiple bursts of fireworks and acrobats dangling from ropes at roof level turned into Chinese cliches through their repetitiveness.
And then came the numbingly interminable parade of athletes, with only the variety of costumes and the big roars for Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and the relentless ovation for a smiling, sashaying China team providing any distracting relief for two hours.
The Chinese, coming in last, put a final humanizing touch into the procession by having Yao Ming walk alongside 9-year-old Lin Hao, a survivor of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan that killed some 70,000 people.
By the time Li lit the cauldron, many of the athletes had been standing three hours in outfits that included dark suits and heavy traditional costumes. No wonder about a third chose to skip the ceremony rather than drain themselves before competing.
NBA players, cheered when their faces appeared on the stadium's video screens, carried the flags for several delegations, including China (Yao), Germany (Dirk Nowitzki), Argentina (Manu Ginobili) and Russia (Andrei Kirilenko). Tennis champion Roger Federer did the honors for Switzerland. Natalie Du Toit, a swimmer who will compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics, was South Africa's flag bearer.
"It's Women's Day tomorrow around the world, so they wanted a woman," Du Toit said.
Nearly a third of the flag bearers were track and field athletes, including Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong, a middle distance runner who carried the U.S. flag a year after becoming a naturalized citizen. Seven years earlier, Lomong had been in his 10th year of living in a Kenyan refugee camp, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan."
LeBron James brought up the rear of the 596-athlete U.S. delegation, second in size to China's 639. When President George Bush's face appeared on the video screen, the reaction was mainly a murmur with a few derisive whistles.
An unruly Spanish delegation briefly brought the parade to a halt by stopping to ham for every camera, the athletes stretching themselves around half of the 200-meter track and interfering with the Bermudans behind them.
The two Koreas did not form a unified delegation, as they had in the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2004 Athens Games. Three nations separated the North from the South.
"The National Olympic Committees were in agreement, but the political powers were not," International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said. "This is a setback for harmony, peace and reunification."
As Li looped the stadium as the ultimate acrobat, he closed a circle that had begun with China's return to the Olympics in 1984 at Los Angeles, where he was one of the athletes who brought home China's first gold medals.