-- An hour or so before the performance begins, the actors begin to gather around a bank of makeup tables and lighted mirrors. Some are already in costume, with tissue folded carefully around the neck and sleeves to prevent the heavy silks and brocades (they are quite elaborate) from being smeared. Others wear robes or what looks like surgical scrubs. Their hair is slicked back, some braided, some under nets or skullcaps, and many have plucked not only their eyebrows but their hairlines to make their foreheads look higher and more imperious. They can increase the size of their eyes that way as well, creating dramatic brows and carrying the black eyeliner far out to the sides.

Many of the actors start with a base of white or even pale pink, expertly and evenly sponged over the entire face. Typically, the eyelids and up under the brows are shadowed in dark rose or red, and red dots painted into the curve of the nose to emphasize the corner of the eye. The lips are shaped into a bright, scarlet moue. The most stylized paintings may have flames of red and gold and black or loopy clown eyes. All this the actors draw freehanded and immaculately.

The festival kicks off with a salute to Beijing culture, nine days of mostly free and family-friendly offerings including demonstrations of face painting in the Peking opera style, martial arts, dragon and lion dancing, kite-making, seal-carving and calligraphy, plus an open-air market with handicrafts and mementos. The Inner Mongolian Chorus will make its first appearance in the United States, performing traditional a cappella music on the Millennium Stage. Musical prodigies from Shenzhen, pianists He Qizhen, Zuo Zhang and Zhang Haochen, all younger than 18, will perform two classical programs, including one with 97 other young pianists (with a little help from National Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin, in a program titled "100 Pianos").

Throughout the festival, the Kennedy Center will be adorned, inside and out, with contemporary arts and even a fashion exhibition, "The New China Chic." For nearly a fortnight, the Terrace Gallery will become both a showcase and a shop featuring clothing and accessories by 16 prominent Chinese or Chinese American designers, including Vivienne Tam, Shanghai Tang, Jeffrey Chow, Anna Sui and Vera Wang.

The entire building will be decorated by Tim Yip, Oscar-winning art director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," with huge hanging banners along the Potomac River facade, lanterns and elaborate paper cuttings, all in the auspicious color of red. Contemporary sculptures by Chinese artists, both traditional and avant-garde, will be installed throughout the center and the grounds. Eight contemporary Chinese films will be screened (free tickets required), and photographic exhibits of Shanghai and Beijing will line the Hall of States and Nations Gallery.

-- The Shanghai Acrobats are a lively and self-possessed troupe that takes to somersaulting through hoops and vaulting over one another in simultaneous waves from both sides of the stage, slipping through with seemingly effortless ease and extreme good humor. The pyramids of men and boys, the towers of hats tossed and piled atop the jugglers' heads like the "500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins," the girls with those preternatural hip joints that seem to rotate 360 degrees -- no longer unfamiliar to Americans, perhaps, but breathtakingly exact.

The China National Acrobatic Troupe was founded more than 50 years ago, and its repertory includes more than 100 programs -- acrobatics, aerial acts, farce, magic and vocal imitations. The performances (free but tickets required) feature plate spinning, hoop diving, umbrella juggling and so on.

But no celebration of Chinese culture could be considered properly inaugurated, or propitious, without a display of fireworks, that beautiful and characteristically fleeting art. On Saturday night, pyrotechnic choreographer Cai Guo-Qiang will unleash a program created specifically for the Kennedy Center, an eight-minute, three-sequence suite with displays from nine barges. Called "Tornado," it will feature visions of flying fire dragons and kites, and the climactic whirlwind reaching up to the sky should be visible for quite a distance.

-- The terra cotta warriors really are amazing, standing eternally vigilant in their graves and staring with a peculiar despair into eternity. There are 8,000 or so figures -- archers, foot soldiers, charioteers and horses, officers, etc. -- many still in tiny pieces awaiting reconstruction. They rise in waves from the earth, some rows fully exposed, some still buried up to their knees, others fallen onto the backs of their comrades. The horses, too, some rearing, some seeming to be struggling to get their legs free of the muck. There were about four major facial molds for the heads, and they were painted to look more individualistic -- research suggests there were at least 17 colors -- but it's all faded off, and oddly it's just that blank-eyed expression that's the eeriest part. Each statue weighs between 440 and 680 pounds; the legs are solid but the bodies are hollow, which helps (or did help) keep them upright. Not only that, but according to scientists, they must have been baked at something like 800 degrees, nobody is quite sure how. They're also larger than life-size, so they would have been quite intimidating to even a spiritual opponent.

Qin Shihuang, the emperor who had them constructed, became a prince at 13 and immediately began assembling two armies, one for this world and another for the next. He succeeded in overthrowing his seven rivals and uniting the country and also ordered the construction of the Great Wall, his country's most famous landmark. But two years after Qin's death, a peasant uprising set fire to his tomb complex. It burned underground for three months, collapsing the timbers that held up the ceiling. It gradually vanished and was rediscovered only about 30 years ago by a farmer who brought up some fragments while digging a well.

Although his tomb was nearly forgotten, Qin -- pronounced "Chin" -- left another mark on history: He gave his name to the nation of China.

Three of the Qin statues, two soldiers and one of the great horses will be on display in the North Gallery throughout the festival. The impact of their discovery has been dramatic, not only in sheer archaeological and artistic terms, but as symbols of a great imperial vision of the nation from more than 20 centuries ago. They have become icons of the culture and popular subjects for theatrical works, including two rather different pieces here.

The Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, headed by Artistic Director Doudou Huang, arguably China's most influential choreographer, will perform "Symbols of China," a four-part suite inspired by weiki (an ancient board game similar to backgammon) and martial arts as well as the terra cotta warriors. Another piece on the program, "Bronze Bell Music and Dance: Six Dance Imageries of Zhou Dynasty," is set to a score by composer Tan Dun, inspired by the ancient imperial chimes. Tan is best known here for the Oscar-winning score to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the operas "Marco Polo" and "Peony Pavilion."

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, making its Washington debut, will perform "Fantasia on Terra Cotta Warriors," set to a three-movement piece by Peng Xiuwen, the renowned 20th-century Chinese composer. Tan Dun's work is represented here, too, with "Fire Ritual."

In fact, Tan's music runs like a motif throughout the festival: The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has Tan'smultimedia piece called "The Map, Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra" on its program, and the Ying Quartet -- siblings Janet, David, Timothy and Phillip -- will perform Tan's "Three of Eight Colors" as part of what it calls a "dim sum" tasting menu of small Chinese musical delights. A Tan composition is even on the program of the Hong Kong Festival of 250 Drums on Oct. 8.

Shaanxi province is, as the Kennedy Center's Adams points out, the cradle of puppetry. It's a personal favorite -- she has several puppets on her office wall -- and she had shadow puppetry on her short list from the beginning. However, high-level puppet companies, like the opera troupes, often perform only beloved vignettes or excerpts from famous works, snatches that might not be easily understood by American audiences. So Adams commissioned the prominent Chinese American artist Ping Chong to create a piece for the Shaanxi Folk Art Theater to premiere at the festival. "Cathay: Three Tales of China" uses traditional shadow puppetry and multimedia effects to evoke the nation at three stages: during the imperial splendor of the Tang Dynasty, in the struggle to survive during World War II and now in the midst of the country's building boom and luxury tourist development. Shaanxi Folk Art Theater will also present a more traditional short-scene program of folk tales aimed at younger audiences, such as "The Crane and the Turtle" and "The Bear and the Flowers."

The 1957 classic play by Lao She, "Teahouse" -- performed by the Beijing People's Art Theatre in its first appearance in the United States -- also employs the vignette tradition to suggest cultural changes. Set in Beijing, it chronicles the 50-year rise and decline of the institution of the teahouse -- a gathering place that might be society hall, gambling den, political hangout, formal business office and sometimes brothel all rolled into one -- in three crucial periods: the 1898 coup d'etat by the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, which embarked on a harsh modernization policy; the 1918 chaos of the warlord regimes; and 1947, after the Japanese occupation of Beijing.

-- The dancers' costumes had extraordinarily long sleeves made of chiffon that they unroll and whirl in great loops like gymnasts' ribbons (and surely were the source of those routines) before recovering them into their bodies. Actually, the sleeves don't "unroll" so much as they seem to launch themselves from the dancers' wrists, becoming banners, tidal waves, clouds, even weapons.

"Dance in China, especially modern dance, is really at its zenith," says Adams, and she has assembled a showcase of the nation's most electrifying troupes, classical and contemporary. Many are both in one: In fact, one of the festival's most sought-after tickets has to be the National Ballet of China's performance of "Raise the Red Lantern" (See story, Page 26) a full-length ballet created by Zhang Yimou, director of the critically acclaimed film of the same title (and also of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers"), which folds the pas de deux convention in with elements of folk dance, classical Chinese opera and acrobatics. The score, by Tan Dun's old classmate, Chen Qigang, and the dancers' technique have been widely admired.

The National Ballet's repertory nights offer a blend of traditional, modern and capital-R Romantic pieces: "The Yellow River," set to Ying Chengzong's "Yellow River Concerto"; a duet set to a Richard Strauss song; Fei Bo's "Remembrance," a new work that won the choreography prize at the 2005 Helsinki International Ballet Competition; and Act 2 of "Giselle."

Here again is a mini-motif: The "Yellow River Concerto" is often called China's national anthem: It was based on a 1930s cantata and rewritten as a concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It is also being performed as a concert piece by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, along with a piece celebrating the different characteristics of women composed also by Chen Qigang.

Here is another: Both the Shen Wei Dance Arts, a New York-based troupe known for an almost brazen tendency to combine traditional Chinese dance with formalized opera, theater, even the visual arts, and the Beijing Modern Dance Company have choreographed works to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The New York Times has called Shen Wei's choreography "something to write home about in the dance world," praising his "painterly, mathematical and idiosyncratic" vision. (The other piece in the program is a stately, meditative one called "Folding," inspired by the drapery of costumes set to the sounds of Tibetan Buddhist flutes and Tavener's "Last Sleep of the Virgin.")

The Bejing Modern Dance Company's production, an avant-garde work called "All River Red," by husband-and-wife choreographers Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo, portrays the violent clash of conformity and radicalism. It's part of a three-company program titled "Trilogy of Modern Dance," also showcasing the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and the City Contemporary Dance Company of Hong Kong.

-- Wu Zetian is the only woman emperor in Chinese history, a beautiful and shrewd lower-level concubine who slept with one emperor and then his son when he ascended to the throne, eventually marrying him and replacing the former empress. After her husband suffered a stroke, she took effective control, forming a secret police squad and eliminating her enemies. When her husband died, she put two of her more malleable children on the throne as puppet rulers but seven years later claimed it in her own right and duly acquired, as one temple guide put it, "hundreds of male concubines and boy toys."

Some historians point to Wu's reign (from 690 to 705) as a time when women were given unprecedented freedom and respect, the military was downsized and the scholarly class encouraged. She raised Buddhism to a favored place and presided over the building of many beautiful temples and shrines. Finally -- at age 80 -- she retired in favor of her third son.

Strong women, especially in noble and often martial situations, are a common subject in Chinese theater. One of the most popular scenes is that of the warrior maiden who faces down many times her number of soldiers, using fantastical acrobatics and elaborate choreography to turn aside their spears and swords -- a theme familiar from Zhang Yimou's magical-realism movies. The China National Peking Opera Company, returning to the Kennedy Center after 25 years, presents "Female Generals of the Yang Family," inspired by the history of the Northern Song Dynasty in the 10th century. According to the play, She Taijun, the centenarian dowager head of a family reduced to widows, leads her female army to avenge the death of her son. Their military maneuvering explodes into an acrobatic display straight out of Yimou.

A more up-to-date group of female warriors, in a musical sense, is Red Poppy, an all-women percussion band that plays eclectic arrangements of Chinese music on more than 40 Western and traditional Chinese instruments. Since 1999, Red Poppy has played across Asia, in Canada and South Africa and inspired a host of out-of-the-conservatory women's groups that pop up in trendy nightclubs from Beijing to Chiang Mai.

-- Along the Lijiang, that is, the Li River, the scenery is truly fabulous, lined with those huge and weirdly abrupt limestone mountains, some humpy, some sharp as molars, that jut up into the sky only a single scanty field's distance from water's edge. Early on, the tallest peaks are wreathed with scraps of fog like torn clouds. Men poling bamboo rafts are dappled with the shadows of hawks soaring overhead. Water buffalo, ducks and geese, skinny yellow dogs and occasionally horses gaze without interest as boats go by; and every once in a while herds of mountain goats appear on the sheerest of slopes.

Not only is the pen an instrument of representational art in China, as with the great watercolor scrolls of mountains and natural marvels; it also turned writing into an art -- or rather several, as there were quite distinct styles, some pared down and almost palpably curt, some ornate and mannered, that were used for official correspondence or meditation in different eras.

Wang Xizhi, considered the greatest calligrapher in history, created a flowing, cursive style used for poetry that itself became a discipline. His preface to a 4th-century collection of poetry was considered so beautiful by the Tang Emperor Tai Zong that he ordered the original buried with him. Professor Sun Jinbgo of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing has created a lacquer mural inspired by the Lan Ting Xu, as the preface is called. It, and a second mural of musicians, are being presented to the Kennedy Center as a permanent gift from the Chinese government in recognition of the festival. They are on display in the new China Lounge on the box tier of the Eisenhower Theater.

Eve Zibart's mother, a professional dancer, was born in Shanghai to American parents.

Women warriors: The China National Peking Opera Company's "Female Generals of the Yang Family."Shaanxi Folk Art Theater specializes in shadow puppetry and will perform a traditional program as well as a new piece. The members of the all-women percussion group Red Poppy pound on more than 40 traditional and Western instruments.Young pianist Zuo Zhang joins other prodigies for two performances.Festival visitors can see three of China's centuries-old terra cotta warriors.Choreographer Doudou Huang is artistic director of the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble.