In the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, the first performance was 2008 men beating square drums, and chanting up a line by Confucius: "有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎" – Friend came from faraway, how joyful!
While we were watching NBC's belated broadcast Friday evening, Bob asked me if the shape of the drum was real, like a type of those from ancient China. Though the NBC broadcaster had claimed this, I wasn't sure, as I had never heard of a square drum. Afterward I saw a CCTV5 interview with Zhang Yimou, and learned that the drum was meant to be ‘缶’ – pronounced as "fou."
The earliest mention of 缶 as a music instrument is probably in the Book of Songs (诗经), an anthology of ancient poems compiled by Confucius ca. 600 BC. Several Chinese dictionaries cite the original meaning of 缶 as a type of clay pot for holding water or wine, with a small opening and bigger body. In ancient times, when people worked in a pottery shop, they would tap the pot and sing, and such a pot gradually evolved into a drum-like music instrument.
Given this history, it's unlikely the drum in the Olympics opening ceremony replicated the ancient instrument. Zhang Yimou also mentioned in the interview that, when the drummers (who were army volunteers) practiced for the show, they were originally given round drums. The square drum was a later change. Zhang Yimou did not elaborate the reason, but I had the impression it was due to aesthetic considerations.
The performance was indeed impressive, a great joy for the eye. The grand scale formation with resplendent colors appeared to be a combination of Zhang Yimou's artistic taste and a Chinese tradition of craving for the grandiose.