Resurgent China opened the Olympics on Friday with a burst of fireworks at a spectacular ceremony that wove ancient Chinese history with modern wizardry and aimed to draw a line under months of political controversy.
Drums thundered, strobe lights flickered and 14,000 performers poured through the Bird's Nest stadium in a dazzling extravaganza that offered up a vision of global harmony in line with the Games' motto "One World One Dream".
Around 80 world leaders watched the show which celebrated imperial China, and skipped the fraught 20th century, when civil war, the Japanese invasion and hardline Communist rule left the nation mired in poverty.
"Friends have come from afar, how happy we are," an army of 2,008 drummers chanted, quoting the celebrated sage Confucius.
Friday's ceremony caps seven years of work that has reshaped Beijing and sets the seal on an industrial boom that has turned the country into the world's fourth largest economy.
However, the Olympic spotlight has also cast a harsh glare on the vast Asian nation, bringing the unrest in its Tibetan region to a wide audience and showing that China's leadership is not ready to brook any internal dissent.
Deafening firecrackers launched Friday's ceremony before a series of giant fireworks in the form of footsteps were set off, blasting above the heart of the capital, crossing Tiananmen Square as they progressed to the steel-latticed Bird's Nest.
The authorities opened the vast square, scene of a student uprising in 1989, to let people watch the pyrotechnics, prompting thousands of delighted Beijing residents to rush into the esplanade screaming "Go China!".
The Games carry a $43 billion price tag, dwarfing the previous record of $15 billion splashed out by Athens in 2004, sweeping thousands of people out of their homes to make way for a host of state-of-the art stadiums.
National pride at the transformation of China has built steadily and the crowd roared its approval when high-stepping soldiers took the nation's red flag from the hands of a group of small children and hoisted it above the stadium.
The Games are due to be formally opened by the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge. They run until August 24, with 10,500 athletes from a record 204 nations chasing 302 gold medals in 28 sports.
Locals expect Chinese athletes to underscore their country's newfound strength by heading the medals table for the first time.
Friday's show, directed by local film maker Zhang Yimou, reached its climax before the athletes' parade, when a gigantic sphere representing the earth rose from the floor of the stadium, which filled with twinkling starlight.
Signs flashed up warning of the dangers of global warming.
The world's most populous nation has thus far resisted calls to curb its carbon emissions as it concentrates on growth, and its promise to stage a "Green Games" has been belied by the hazy pollution which has clogged Beijing in recent days.
The careful choreography of the ceremony extended well beyond the stadium and 100,000 police fanned out to prevent attacks and protests, while dissidents have been kept out of sight.
Though US President George W. Bush said he was coming for sport not politics, he reiterated on Friday "our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose".
CALL FOR TRUCE
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a video appeal at the ceremony calling on warring nations to honor a traditional truce during the Games. "I call on all those engaged in hostilities to respect it."
Unfortunately for the Olympic ideal of global harmony, the two Koreas failed to agree to march at the opening as a unified team even though they managed that in 2004 and 2000.
The best-known face of Chinese sport, 7ft 6in NBA basketball player Yao Ming, will lead his team at the ceremony.
U.S. athletes chose former Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong to carry their flag around the track. Lomong was a victim of government-sponsored Arab militias who fled Sudan aged 6 and spent 10 years in a refugee camp before settling in America.
China is a major oil investor in Sudan and earlier this year Hollywood director Steven Spielberg quit as an adviser on the opening ceremony to protest at China's ties with the country.
The Games are centered in Beijing, but will stretch more than 2,000-km, with equestrian events in Hong Kong, soccer dotted around the country and yachting in the eastern city of Qingdao.
The sporting action gets into top gear on Saturday with competition underway in 18 disciplines, including swimming and gymnastics, and seven gold medals up for grabs.
Among the early competitors is U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who could become the first athlete to win eight golds in a single Games and the most titled Olympian ever.
Record crowds are expected to cheer on the athletes, with 7 million tickets sold guaranteeing capacity audiences -- a stark contrast to Athens when some sports played out to empty stands.
But as in 2004, the build up to the Beijing Games has been marred by drug taking. A number of athletes have failed tests in the weeks leading up to the Olympics and officials have promised about 4,500 doping checks in Beijing to root out the cheats.