China launched the 29th summer Olympics on Friday with a glittering opening ceremony combining 5,000 years of its history with a modern firecracker of a show.
Chinese athlete Li Ning lit the Olympic flame
The start of the four-hour extravaganza saw the Beijing sky light up after each section of the show which was a journey through time of the once reclusive country which aims to use the Olympics to showcase its rise to a world power.
China's President Hu Jintao officially opened the Games, slightly varying from the traditional formula by saying: "Now I declare open the XXIX Beijing Olympic Games."
Drummers lined the floor of the National Stadium
"It has been a dream of the Chinese people for a century to host the Olympics," said organizing committee chief Liu Qi in his welcome speech. "I welcome the athletes from all nations and regions of the world."
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said: "For a long time China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the athletes to the Olympic Games in Beijing. Tonight that dream comes true, congratulations Beijing."
The 91,000-strong crowd in the National Stadium, and more than a billion television viewers, earlier saw the hoisting of the Chinese flag which was carried into the stadium by children from China's 56 ethnic groups after 2,008 drummers had started the show.
Dancers perform during the opening ceremony
The trip through China's rich history featured references to ancient paper-making and calligraphy, the Great Wall, opera puppets and China's arrival in the space age.
Performers included famous pianist Lang Lang.
No politics, please
Hu and the communist party's leadership watched in the VIP section along with almost 90 state leaders including US President George W Bush, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Fireworks exploded during the opening ceremony
Directed by Zhang Yimou, the show featuring some 15,000 performers, stayed away from politics with no mention for instance of Mao Zedong, the former communist revolutionary leader, as Chinese organizers had insisted all the way that politics and sport should not mix.
The parade of nations traditionally started with Olympic inventors Greece and ended with hosts China who marched into the stadium behind flag-bearing basketball star Yao Ming amid a deafening roar.
Yao was accompanied by a little boy who survived the devastating May 12 earthquake in the Sichuan province. Rogge said that "we grieve with you" over the May 12 disaster.
Performers danced around a raised sphere
Taiwan received a roaring reception as did the large United States team which is expected to battle China all the way for the top of the final medal table. German flag bearer, basketball star Dirk Nowitzki, was also greeted with loud applause.
Controversial torch relay
Before the concluding fireworks, Chinese Gymnastics legend Li Ning lit the Olympic cauldron with the flame lit on March 24 in ancient Olympia.
The Olympic flame traveled some 137,000 kilometers, mostly by air, over 130 days of international and Chinese torch relay legs, including a leg to the summit of Mount Everest.
The anti-Chinese government protests that dogged several international legs of the relay prompted some International Olympic Committee members to propose curtailing or ending the recent practice of holding international legs.
Security was tight all over Beijing and the international airport closed for the duration of the ceremony for security reasons.
Around 11,000 athletes from a record 204 nations will compete in 28 sports for 302 gold medals at the first Olympics in China and third in Asia, following Tokyo in 1964 and Seoul in 1988.