Some 90,000 fans packed the new national stadium – known as the Bird’s Nest because of its steel lattice construction – and cheered the performers.
The choreographed show took seven years to plan, and costs are estimated to have hit a record-breaking $40bn (£20bn).
It began at eight minutes past eight on the evening of 8 August, reflecting the belief widespread in Asia that eight is a lucky number.
More than three hours later, China’s President Hu Jintao officially declared the Games open.
And in a theatrical finish to the day’s activities, champion gymnast Li Ning was winched up to the rim of the stadium carrying the Olympic torch – the end of its journey around the world.
I’ve been deafened by the drums, astounded by the aerial acrobatics and blinded by the cornea-carving light show. The torch is lit in its giant cauldron hanging from the lip of the Bird’s Nest stadium and the 2008 Olympic Games have begun.
But what is it I’ve sat through for hours on a steamy Beijing evening? Was it mass-participation theatre, a pseudo-religious sanctification of sport, a kitsch ‘son et lumiere’ mangling of traditional Chinese art forms? A pyrotechnics-fuelled rock ballet? A modernised courtly pageant or a magnified pantomime of over-produced gimcrackery? The best of Cirque du Soleil-style wizardry or high camp showbiz?
It was any of the above, depending on your taste. Artistically it was a crowd-pleasing mishmash, in the tradition of all such ceremonies. Oscar-nominated Chinese film director Zhang Yimou engaged creative overdrive to trowel significance into the joints of what he built, rampaging across the cultural landscape for his raw material.