The Kennedy Center's Festival of China, which ended this past weekend, was, first of all, festive -- and a big improvement over past efforts to organize large, multidisciplinary arts series. The center's grand spaces, already red, were made even more so by huge crimson banners and cutouts. A photography exhibition turned one of the stately halls into a temporary gallery space and attracted crowds before and after performances. And on the terrace level, two terra cotta soldiers and a lone horse stood frozen just as they stood more than 2,000 years ago, when they were placed in battle formation to glorify the remains of the Emperor Qin for all eternity.

You couldn't enter the center without knowing that something different was going on, a big change from earlier efforts at festival-making that were anything but arresting. Compared with last spring's "A New America: The 1940s and the Arts" festival, a desultory rehash of mostly familiar American work, the Festival of China did most of the basic things right. Like the best of the Kennedy Center's festivals, the 2002 Stephen Sondheim celebration and last year's Tennessee Williams overview, the Festival of China was focused and attractive to audiences and critics from beyond the metro area. But it was also broad and ambitious, and took on a subject far larger than the work of a single artist.

The China survey, a $5 million effort with four years of planning behind it, went a long way to making up for the all-too-casual, inflationary use of the term festival in recent years. In the past two years alone, besides the 1940s festival, there have been "festivals" devoted to the Masters of African American Choreography and the art of France, plus regular festivals devoted to Japan (during cherry blossom season), children's multicultural books, new plays and a rather meaningless "prelude" festival that includes performances by the National Symphony Orchestra. This is a bit like declaring a party every night.

A festival, properly conceived, is an intellectual bargain. It demands from the audience extra attention and focus, and it returns to them, ideally, a chance to go deeper into a subject, to learn, compare and hold in the mind, for a while, several similar things, each potentially illuminating the other. Too often, the Kennedy Center's festivals haven't fulfilled the center's end of the bargain. Much of the '40s festival was just a label slapped onto the regular, humdrum offerings of the center's usual suspects. Attending the National Symphony? A little Aaron Copland on the program? Then it must be part of the '40s festival -- and so the minuscule tag line on the concert program confirmed. Which reduces the idea of a festival to a ticket-selling gag, revealing the cynicism that infects so much of the professional arts world.

But the Festival of China took on a worthy subject, and an urgent one, and did so on a scale appropriate to the topic: 53 performances, 874 artists, more than 26,000 tickets sold, a month of events. A week doesn't pass without new evidence that once the fear of terrorism has been downgraded to a chronic neurosis, the fear of China will rise and take its place as Americans' primary geo-political obsession. With America's debts soaring and China's economy booming, it makes sense to get to know China a little better. It will own much of what is worth buying, here and throughout the world; and many of us may end up working for China in one form or another. Or so says the conventional paranoid wisdom.

China also has special status in the imagination. It is a civilization vastly older than our own, with long centuries of cultural efflorescence that put to shame anything the United States has yet produced in terms of refinement and subtlety. And China, once victim to the depredations of Western colonialism, has also colonized Western art effortlessly; yet we remain strangers, uncertain and often bewildered, in their fields of creative endeavor. Western music, ballet, theater, have been fully absorbed into Chinese society; but the Peking Opera, which appeared as part of the festival, remains intractably foreign to most Western ears.

Given the particular power of China as a subject, the festival's principal failing was that it refused to grapple with anything beyond the art of China -- and at times it even seemed to relinquish critical control over the events to the Chinese government. "The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China present . . . " was printed at the top of every program and press release. Perhaps this "cooperation" should make us nervous.

In an interview, Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser said Chinese contributions were limited to covering the costs of bringing over Chinese artists. Those costs are substantial, especially when full opera, dance and theater companies are on the schedule. The Kennedy Center also lowered its ticket prices to attract a broader audience, and the luxury of cheap tickets has to be made up for with fundraising. The result -- many sold-out performances, and an average of 94 percent ticket sales (85 percent is the standard) -- is admirable.

Kaiser said the Chinese government put no particular restrictions on the content of the festival. But perhaps it didn't need to. The festival simply ignored the important political issues of the day, or focused on subjects unlikely to offend the Chinese government's sensibilities. In at least one case, an event was simply turned over to the Chinese government to orchestrate as it wished. The Post's Peter Marks described the opening night gala, a black-tie affair organized by the Ministry of Culture and the city of Beijing, as "part spectacle, part commercial." An exhibition of glossy photographs, called "Charming Beijing," displayed in the Hall of States, was purely propaganda photography, suited only for the soft lies and hard sell of a tourist brochure or travel magazine. The photographers, noted one Chinese American visitor, managed to photograph the city without the slightest hint of the ubiquitous smog.

One can't criticize the Chinese government for this because propaganda is fundamental to what governments do. They take credit for artistic production, as if there were no difference between the state and culture. The bigger concern is that the Kennedy Center allowed them to do it. Despite the presence of Chinese-born emigre artists on the roster -- who might have greater freedom to criticize their homeland -- there were only the barest hints of darker political truths throughout the month-long festival. Shen Wei, a New York-based choreographer who left China because of limits on his creative growth, used some Tibetan chant in a piece that was otherwise a slow meditation on a very abstract idea of spirituality. Ping Chong, a Toronto-born multimedia artist, used puppets to hint at stresses in China's new and booming urban life. But that was about it.

Tibet, Taiwan, the lack of religious freedom or democratic rights, the unresolved obscenity of Tiananmen Square, these were not to be given serious consideration. It fell to some committed adherents of the religious meditation practice Falun Gong to raise the red flag about the Chinese government's involvement, but their concerns didn't get much press. How can you argue with art that is relentlessly focused on the positive presentation of a rich and dynamic culture? It isn't polite.

The result was the odd sense that in a nation of 1.3 billion people ruled by a closed and authoritarian government, there is no contemporary dissident creativity. No underground theater. No counterculture. No outsider art. Which isn't true. It is often difficult for mainstream arts organizations to make contact with the fringe -- and getting fringe artists visas to travel can be a problem, too -- but exhibitions of unsanctioned visual art from China have been touring the world for years. That would have been a small gesture, at least, toward filling in a big gap in the festival's overview. And a welcome relief from "Charming Beijing."

The absence of the political isn't just an oversight. It's a loss of a point of entry, a perspective that can make something as bewildering and overwhelming as China a bit more manageable. Artists often eschew overt political references because they believe politics creates simplistic conflicts and limits the deeper, spiritual significance of art. Perhaps they're right, though there's hardly a work of art that doesn't become more meaningful when its political context is known. And when encountering the art of another culture, the supposedly limiting political simplicities are a godsend. They are a first thread to be teased at, and a thread that untangles other things.

One was thankful, for instance, that politics helped give an initial perspective on the Beijing People's Art Theater production of "Teahouse." Granted, the politics here were all safely in the past, and the play, premiered in 1958, was originally sophisticated propaganda, meant to demonize the ugly past that the glorious communist government had supplanted. But for an American viewer, the play's political transparency grounded it long enough to build sympathy for the characters. A sprawling work by playwright Lao She, "Teahouse" covers the tumultuous 50-year period that saw the end of the Qing dynasty, the Japanese occupation and the civil war that led to Mao's final victory. Among its myriad small messages about life in an unstable world, there is a plea for the nobility of protest over quietism. This message becomes clear not through the humor (which was lost on most Western audience members), nor through the often opaque web of interpersonal relationships. It became clear, rather, through the simple opposition of people to power, a message that is sufficiently universal to cross the cultural divide.

For better and worse, anyone who takes art seriously is well grounded in what might be called anthropological suspicion. We are chary when it comes to drawing too many specific conclusions about art that is deeply foreign. Often it seems we are limited to basic (and deeply unsatisfying) responses: Art shows us that other people are exactly like us; or art shows us how deeply strange and unknowable the other is. In between those two conclusions, both of which shut down any real effort at understanding, is a world of dangerous possibility, of supposition and tentative understandings, theories that may need discounting, gleanings that will be discarded as we come to know more. Watching a fable enacted by the Shaanxi Folk Theatre's shadow puppets the morning after "Teahouse," it was tempting to think, when a bird fights with a clam and the fisherman eats them both, that one was reading from the same book of fatalistic political wisdom as Lao She's hapless pawns of 20th-century Chinese history.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. That uncertainty is at once the pleasure, the frustration and the challenge of grappling with art from another world. By putting those two works on the same festival, the Kennedy Center made it possible for a little speculation. If it comes back to the subject of China -- and so far it has only scratched the surface -- it would be good to see the same avenues for thinking opened up into contemporary Chinese society, into the politics and habits of the heart that are not sanctioned by the Chinese government. A good festival, like a good performance, leaves one wishing for more. Now that the Kennedy Center has taken the idea of a festival seriously, the next step is to think beyond the simple goal of merely presenting a series of top-quality performances.

The next festival should be curated, just as an exhibition of painting is curated, by exploring themes and suggesting a thesis. The opportunities for both artistic and academic collaboration beyond the insular walls of the Kennedy Center are enormous in Washington. The recently ended festival included a few after-performance discussions. Perhaps the next one could be held in conjunction with a conference of top scholars of Chinese art and culture. That alone might amplify the themes that the overview approach can only hint at. With audiences now able to take the idea of a festival seriously, the Kennedy Center should be sure that future festivals are more than just a series of events that people dip in and out of. It's a matter of doing more of what it has finally begun to do right: focus, concentrate and treat art as a serious opportunity to learn.

The China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble opened the Kennedy Center's ambitious but politically safe festival with "Time of Peace and Prosperity." A relentlessly positive presentation of Chinese culture: Above, the China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble performs on the festival's opening night at the Eisenhower Theater; right, the National Acrobatic Troupe, also on opening night; and below, puppetry by the Shaanxi Folk Arts Theater.