With a full honor guard, red carpets and military bands, the presidents, prime ministers or top officials of 48 African nations walked one by one into Beijing's Great Hall of the People to shake the hand of Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Later, at the summit's opening, the Chinese leader welcomed the dignitaries and spoke of China's interest in engaging Africa.
He calls this a day that will go down in history, and a continuation of China's efforts for peace, development, and cooperation with Africa.
The Chinese leader pledged to double China's aid to Africa by the year 2009, although he did not say how much that would be. Mr. Hu also said China is prepared to give African nations $3 billion in preferential loans and $2 billion in export credits.
Other aid he announced includes training 15,000 African professionals, and building hospitals and clinics.
The lavish welcome and offers of aid underscore the importance China places on building its strategic influence in Africa, and securing deals for oil and other minerals that it needs to fuel its booming economy.
To African leaders who have long complained of being ignored by Western nations, China's overtures are welcome. At Saturday's ceremony, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi thanked Mr. Hu.
"I know it's a source of satisfaction for all of us to be here in Beijing for this historic summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The summit is a clear demonstration," he said.
A demonstration, he said, of China's determination to intensify relations with Africa. The Ethiopian leader said Africa needs China's support, much as it did a half century ago when Beijing's communist leadership supported African countries' bids for independence from European colonial powers. The main challenge today, Mr. Meles said, is not fighting colonialism, but fighting poverty.
While Mr. Hu and his colleagues beam at this huge gathering of foreign leaders in the Chinese capital, China's actions in Africa have been criticized in the West. Human rights activists say the Chinese have been pouring investment into countries with bad human rights records - such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, both of whose presidents are here for the summit. The Chinese have also been accused of lending money without following international principles on transparency.
China says it is mainly interested in raising African living standards through trade and assistance.