Reflections from 一 to 龠

Chinese Moveable Type at the Beijing Olympics: What Did It Say?

Chinese Moveable Type at the Beijing Olympics: What Did It Say?

During the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, audiences around the world bore witness to what appeared at first to be an animatronic display of oversized Chinese moveable type characters. From one moment to the next, they undulated hypnotically like the surface of a lake, only then to freeze into discernible shapes and configurations, such as the character he (和), meaning “harmony.” Quite suddenly, this crescendo of wonder and spectacle lifted off to even greater heights, all thanks to the final “reveal”: these carefully coordinated movements had been controlled, not by a computer (which would have been impressive enough), but through the orchestrated knee-bends and bodily elongations of 897 separate individuals, each ensconced inside his or her own respective Chinese character.

Only after the initial wonder began to subside did a new curiosity set in for me: Which Chinese characters were they, and what was being “printed,” exactly? Perhaps because of the “surprise ending” on that August night, it seems that no one has bothered to find out. And so, working with my research assistant Youjia Li to compile as many high-resolution photographs of the ceremony as I could find – and there are surprisingly few – I have set out to “read” the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, quite literally.

Rather than go it alone, I’ve decided to reach out here to the web community, to see what we can find together. Do you notice anything interesting? Do you by chance have any more high-resolution photos that show the rest of the characters? Do you notice any errors in my infographic? Any and all insightful comments will be cited with gratitude in my forthcoming book on Chinese information technology.

Please click here to download a high-resolution version of the infographic.



  1. Well, some interesting things. They are traditional characters. Also, some get repeated a whole lot, like 嘎 (which is part of my Yi name), 阿 (阿嘎 is what my fictive nieces and nephews call me) 髮,爾, etc. Also, I think =軟盤 should be “floppy disk” not “software.” OK, I’m going to stop now. Please stop me.

  2. I also enjoy all the “sneezing” going on here, repeated twice in just this small region. And something jumps out at me at G7 through G4 with 價格昂貴 (“extremely high prices”). Seems like quite a strange “coincidence” to appear in what must have been a carefully orchestrated opening ceremony. Or might it be that the spectacle of the moveable type performance awed, not only the audience, but also the coordinating committee? Could it have distracted the coordinating committee enough to give one or two wily individuals the free space to “play around” here? Where, if anywhere, can we locate intentionality in all this? If it were straightforward – say, random characters in radical-stroke/dictionary organization, or an identifiable passage of, say, the “Great Learning” – the story would be open and shut. But this is neither readily intelligible, nor completely random.

  3. And definitely, Steve: I will change that to “floppy disk.” Thanks for catching that.

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