BEIJING Resurgent China opened the Olympics on Friday with volleys 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, firecrackers exploded and 14,000 performers flowed through the Bird's Nest stadium in a dazzling extravaganza that presented a benign image of China and offered up a vision of global harmony echoing the Games' motto "One World One Dream".
In a heart-stopping climax, Li Ning, a Chinese gold medal-winning gymnast, was hoisted high above the stadium on wires. In slow-motion, he simulated racing around the rim before setting the giant Olympic cauldron ablaze.
Around 80 world leaders watched the pageant which celebrated the achievements of imperial China, totally ignoring 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 opening 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.
Pounding drums launched the show on a hot and humid evening before giant fireworks in the form of footsteps blasted 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 doomed student uprising in 1989, to let people watch the pyrotechnics, prompting thousands of delighted Beijingers to rush into the esplanade screaming "Go China!".
The Games carry a $43 billion (20.5 billion pounds) price tag, dwarfing the $15 billion splashed out by Athens in 2004, and run until August 24, with 10,500 athletes from a record 204 nations chasing 302 gold medals in 28 sports.
Befittingly for the world's most populous nation, Friday's ceremony unleashed wave upon wave of humanity into the arena, revelling in past glories, like the invention of gunpowder, but also more modern triumphs, like putting astronauts into space.
The show's careful choreography extended well beyond the stadium and 100,000 police fanned out to prevent attacks and protests, while dissidents have been kept out of sight.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued an appeal at the event calling on warring nations to honour a traditional truce during the Games, but his message went unheeded with fierce fighting in Georgia during the day involving Russian forces.
Further denting the Olympic ideal of 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 91,000-strong crowd saved its largest roar of the evening for the entry of the Chinese team, which is confidently expected to top the medals table for the first time and was headed onto the field by towering basketball player Yao Ming.
Yao was accompanied by a young boy who survived an earthquake in the southwest of the country in May which killed some 70,000.
"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games," Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said. "Tonight that dream comes true. Congratulations, Beijing!"
There were also big cheers for the United States, North Korea and Iraq, and a thunderous applause for Taiwan, signalling a further sign of a thaw after years of icy relations.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since their split in 1949 amid civil war and insists the self-ruled democratic island must one day return to the fold.
U.S. President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin all stood and waved as their teams entered the stadium.
The Games are centred 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.
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.