While walking through Chinatown last weekend, my friend stopped at a poster and said, “Look, the Beijing Olympic mascots.” She pointed at each one and said its name– “Bei, Jing, Huan, Ying, Ni–” and explained that when you read their names together, they make the phrase “Beijing Welcomes You.”
“That one’s the best,” I said, pointing at the panda.
So I was embarrassed to learn from a Wall Street Journal article that Han Meilin, the designer of the mascots, likes Jing the Panda the least. He originally wanted the mascots to simply represent the traditional Chinese elements of fire, wood, water, gold and earth. Then the Olympics committee made him turn them into animals, one of which had to be a panda.
The article about the 2008 Olympics mascots says that the Fuwa (the collective name for the five mascots) might be the next in a long line of unpopular mascots. Much of the criticism seems to be around the ambiguity of the mascots, because they look like they could be animals, aliens, or children- or some mix thereof. The author of the article quotes a sports blogger who said, “Why do the Olympic mascots have to look like some mutant Pokemon / Telletubbie thing? What’s wrong with a bull dog or a cougar or a sweat shop worker for a mascot?”
What’s wrong with that is that those are American sensibilities (and the sweatshop comment is obviously offensive and incendiary). If you look at the slideshow history of Olympic mascots, you can see that there is a different aesthetic going on, depending on the host country. And next to their hilariously deficient precedents, the Fuwa are really not that bad.
Their name, Fuwa, means “good luck dolls.” The alternative would have been to call them “The Friendlies.” In English. As for their individual names, if you know how to say Welcome to Beijing in Chinese, then you will remember them. Or if you learn their names, you will learn how to say Welcome to Beijing in Chinese. How cool is that?
The panda is a cliché and overused, but for a world event it’s okay and even advisable to include something globally recognized and loved. Apparently one of them might have been “an anthropomorphic rattle drum” (i.e., a human-looking drum). And they aren’t aliens– they have Asian eyes. Two of them do, anyway. Okay, they kind of look like aliens. It’s because they have dark beady eyes and pale faces. This is probably because they had to match the panda, to make them look like a set. Damn panda. But at any rate, why do they have to be something? We never knew what Goofy was and we liked him anyway. They can just be creatures, they don’t have to be anything in particular. They can be a melange of things.
In fact they do a good job of balancing and incorporating many aesthetics and symbolic elements at once. Note, in order: Bei, Jing, Huan, Ying, and Ni. A fish, a panda, the Olympic flame, a Tibetan antelope, and a swallow. Sea, forest, fire, earth and sky. Swimmer, all around athlete, ball games player, runner, and gymnast. And last but not least, the Olympic colors: blue, black, red, yellow, and green.
So you can pick your favorite sport/ color/ earth element/ animal. Hopefully those intersect in one of the Fuwu. Except, of course, those favorites aren’t going to line up so you have to prioritize. What’s more important, your favorite color or your favorite animal? It’s typical modern day multiple choice madness. Better just get the panda.