IT IS one of the world's great cultures; more accurately, it is many of the world's great cultures. China is the oldest continuous civilization on the globe, a nation of more than 50 ethnic peoples and 1,500 dialects -- more than 100 languages in the province of Fujian alone -- whose traditional arts, costumes, music and metaphors embrace an almost inconceivable variety. Even in the age of video and satellite television, much of Chinese art remains mysterious to American audiences, even as its quality, particularly of its dance and multimedia art, is reaching new heights.

But not here. Throughout October, an unprecedented number of China's finest performers and visionaries, nearly 900 in all, will be on stage at the Kennedy Center. The Festival of China, four years in the making and featuring an extraordinary lineup of the most acclaimed dancers, musicians, actors, acrobats and puppeteers, is the single largest celebration of Chinese performing arts ever hosted by a single institution, even in China itself. Painstakingly assembled by Kennedy Center Vice President Alicia Adams, the schedule includes eight premieres and more than a dozen free shows as well as an open-air marketplace, exhibits and family activities, and a glimpse of what has been described as "the eighth wonder of the world," the terra cotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shihuang.

I traveled to China last year and was fortunate to see not only the warriors but several of the country's performing companies; the following "postcards" from some of the cities I visited were taken from my journals of the trip.

In conjunction with the festival, Adams has helped many of the troupes arrange appearances in other U.S. cities -- in some cases, fairly extensive tours -- because she believes that as the nation's capital of performing arts, the Kennedy Center should also serve as the doorway into America for artists from other nations.

For Festival of China schedule details and dates, see Page 36. Tickets for the performances, where needed, are available at the Kennedy Center box office, by phone at 202-467-4600 or online at

The performances by the China National Peking Opera Company and the Beijing People's Art Theatre will have supertitles, and others will be interpreted for visually or hearing-impaired patrons. Two weeks' notice is requested to arrange for the aids, but the Kennedy Center will try to accommodate those with less time; call 202-416-8727.

Clockwise from top left: National Ballet of China's Meng Ningning in "Raise the Red Lantern"; the Inner Mongolian Chorus; a performer in an elaborate costume and makeup; and

Shen Wei Dance Art's version of "Rite of Spring."