Monday, August 25, 2008
After the fireworks, after the marching of the thousands, the Bird's Nest Stadium becomes dark. There is short wait for silence but it comes. A child whimpers briefly. A piece of paper rustles and then is still. A mobile phone is quickly turned off by its owner. Billions of people all around the world hold their breath. It is as if the planet has stopped.
Then: a single light. It is white, brilliant, a thin beam. It seems to be lighting nothing except a small scrap of floor.
Then: a sound. A note that is as sharp as the pin-point of light, and the circle on the floor widens. Now, another light joins the first, and simultaneously another note begins a short vibrato : blue and then green, a couple of tones higher and then lower. All is harmonious; the lights and then the music dancing around this small shape on the floor.
A timpani drum crashes suddenly, loudly and magnificently, and the floor below opens up. Standing there is a woman in a long red dress. She is not particularly beautiful, but her smile makes every mouth around her ache to smile too; her hair is dark-red and her skin is pale and freckled, and her teeth slightly bucked.
When the note changes to something higher she takes a breath and begins to sing.
She has been training for years for this moment. Just as the athletes have been running, jumping and swimming, so she has been performing athletic feats of her own. She knows how to make her throat move infinitesimally slowly, and she knows how to expel every last molecule of air from her lungs. One note buds, unfurls, and flies from her: a flower into a dove, a rain of petals into a ticker-tape parade of paper. And the world listens. It is powerful and pure and it fills Beijing.
Then the song stops and becomes a murmur, and the light dims and spreads until it catches an old man standing in the shadows. He is a runner, a former athlete. He would have liked to have run for China but spent his most vital years 'elsewhere'. Even though he doesn't run any more he practises Tai Chi every morning in one of the city squares and is lithe on his feet. He is not carrying a football but a large paper lantern.
He chirrups a question and she answers. He asks another and she replies to that too. It is a conversation without words. When she answers the last question he nods sadly and holds out the lantern. Everything must end. For a few seconds their hands touch, and to the people in the crowd the lantern seems to glow more brightly. They wonder if they trust their eyes. Then the man's hand drops to the side and the woman holds the lantern above her head.
The music fades away again to silence and the woman removes the paper covering. Underneath is a single white candle.
Then the light dims too until all that is left is this candle glowing faintly but still quite visibly, and then music again; sweet soft and enduring.
That is how I would have answered the magnificence and excesses of Beijing: with something very simple, pure and authentic that would have cost very little.