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Ancient script, traditional motifs, cuddly cartoon characters—the Beijing Olympics' iconography is carefully calculated. And in China, it's everywhere
On a late afternoon in March, the crowded corridors of Shanghai's largest counterfeit-goods market are buzzing. Tourists and locals browse three stories of stalls overflowing with fake iPods, Samsonite luggage, clothes from "Juicy Couture" and "Donna Karan"—even caps and jerseys for the Minnesota Twins. For all of the brands mimicked here in Shanghai's hub of commercial lawlessness, though, there is one brand that is conspicuous for its absence: the one for the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. "We cannot sell that," explains a vendor of fake Nike and Adidas running socks. "The police say it will destroy the reputation of the Olympics."
The identity he's talking about has two primary elements. One consists of a set of five blandly playful, cartoon-teddy-bear characters called Fuwa (the name translates roughly as "Lucky Kids"), which cavort on posters, banners, and memorabilia. The other component, and most widespread, is the Olympics logo: a stick figure who appears to be frozen in the act of fleeing, atop the words "Beijing 2008." "Chinese Seal, Dancing Beijing," as it's known, is the official emblem for the August games.
The emblem contains two politically charged components, neither of which is immediately recognizable to those not familiar with Chinese characters or the country's art history. The dancing figure at the center of the emblem is based upon the Chinese character ? (jing), meaning "capital," often used as simple shorthand for Beijing (??, literally "north capital"); it is rendered in a style evocative of China's ancient seal script. The logo is made to look like a Chinese block seal—a stamp still used to mark official approval on documents. In concert, those two elements strongly imply an official seal designed to the specifications of the propagandistic demands of the Chinese government and its corporate partners.
Ubiquitous throughout China, "Dancing Beijing" is the perfect visual metaphor for three decades' worth of alliances forged among the Chinese Communist Party and the world's largest corporations. Supermarkets have stacks of products that bear the seal, including a leading brand of ramen noodles, at least three kinds of beer, and the multiple varieties of Coca-Cola. On the prosperous avenues where expensive restaurants advertise the fact that they accept Visa, the Olympics logo has been added, as if in official endorsement of the credit card by the Chinese Communist Party. The giants of China's state-owned utility sector, including State Grid (the state electrical company) and China Mobile (the mobile phone operator), send out billing statements that include the "Dancing Beijing" logo "stamped" next to the companies' own symbols.
But the Olympics logo was never intended to be a mere sign of corporate partnership. For several years, it and the Fuwa have been for sale in their own right as part of a mass merchandising campaign unparalleled in modern Olympics history. There are at least three licensed Olympics merchandise shops within a block of each other on the busiest section of Wangfujing Dajie, Beijing's pedestrian-only, 700-year-old shopping boulevard. T-shirts, caps, and stuffed versions of the five cuddly Fuwa are available at all of them. Those shoppers interested in higher-end items can visit the Beijing 2008 Olympic Flagship Store, a long, poorly lit space where customers file past cases stuffed with goods, and a giant inflated Fuwa stands guard over $1,000 bejeweled commemorative plates decorated with more of the cutesy creatures.
It's only a 15-minute walk to Tiananmen Square from the flagship store, and five minutes more to Zhongnanhai, headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party and government. There, shortly after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, then-leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the Party apparatus to begin preparations to host an Olympics—any Olympics—to help repair China's battered image. Twelve years later, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) awarded China the 2008 summer games, and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the 29th Olympiad (BOCOG) announced the competition for the design of an official Olympic emblem. Of the 1,985 entries, only one—"Chinese Seal, Dancing Beijing"—invoked China's ancient past and current aspirations to the satisfaction of the cultural officials and the State Council (something like a U.S. presidential cabinet) that chose it. And even then, the government meddled: According to media reports, the conservative, government-run Chinese Artists Association was asked to work with the logo's original designer, Beijing-based Guo Chunning, along with Guo's colleagues at Beijing Armstrong Visual Identity Corporation, to "adjust" the design by making the individual strokes stronger and more solemn.
Not since the "rising sun" of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics logo has an Olympics emblem incorporated so many politicized double meanings. Then again, when it came to selecting a uniquely Chinese icon, what choice did the Party and its designers have? China's most notable contribution to design over the past century, the muscular propaganda poster art of the Cultural Revolution, would have been inappropriate for an Olympics that's intended to improve and update China's international image. The obvious option was to leapfrog the recent past that China wants its citizens and the world to forget, and refer to the country's ancient traditions.
In ways both subtle and crass, the cuddly Fuwa are the perfect products of this divide. In a 2005 interview with the Beijing Times, the Fuwa's designer, Han Meilin, explained that the creatures were inspired by a folk artist's depiction of five babies representing the traditional five Chinese elements that constitute the world (the wu xing), such as water and fire.
Han gave each of those babies a color taken from one of the five Olympic rings, then outfitted them with headgear reflecting traditional cultural motifs that reference—directly and indirectly—China's imperial past and politicized present. For example, YingYing, the yellow Fuwa, wears Tibetan antelope horns and a headpiece reflecting designs of the indigenous cultures of Western China; HuanHuan, the red Fuwa, wears a flaming headpiece explicitly derived from the Buddhist murals in the Dunhuang grottoes.
Only the most educated Chinese will recognize the cultural appropriations at work in the Fuwa. Still, there is no denying the didactic role that the Fuwa and other Olympic iconography took on as the games drew nearer. Most notably, in early March, a series of four Olympics-related posters began to appear in the public spaces of China's largest cities, papering the walls of subway stations, the fences surrounding construction projects, even the lobbies of apartment buildings. The most striking of these broadsides is dominated by the word ping an (roughly, "safety") rendered in highly stylized calligraphic strokes that used the colors of the Olympics rings.
(Our attempts to determine whether this is an authorized use of the Olympics colors were rebuffed by both the IOC and BOCOG.) On another poster, a traditional Chinese knot, often found hanging from the rear-view mirrors of cars in China, encourages automobile safety as a "collective hope."
The two remaining posters, simply bearing traditional symbols of good luck, wouldn't be worthy of comment except for the small blue shield logo placed on the bottom of both. To a degree unmatched by other Olympics logos or graphics, this shield, which is also rendered as a block seal, contains subtext intended for the Chinese to the exclusion of outsiders. Laced through that stylized shield are three iterations of the character ? (ren). In use, a single instance of the character translates as "person"; but three instances of the character—as on the shield—collectively become the character meaning "the masses" or "the people." A reader of Chinese will easily recognize that the shield is really a clever rendering of that character, and the message—security as collective responsibility—is unmistakable.
For centuries, Chinese culture has deemphasized the individual's societal role in favor of the collective, and so, from the standpoint of the average Chinese, that sentiment is not so shocking or objectionable. But neither is it intended for the consumption of foreign guests. Unlike "Dancing Beijing," the shield is not for sale on a glitzy plate at the flagship store. Instead, it can only be found on propaganda posters and—come August—embroidered into the uniforms of the 80,000 security personnel who will be deployed throughout Beijing to police the first Chinese Olympics.
View the BusinessWeek slide show of innovative structures built in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.