Olympics Memory: Beijing's Many Mascots Get An Un-Friendly WelcomeS

As the London Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, greet visitors with their expressionless, chilling, cyclopean stares, we remember the controversial unveiling of the previous Summer Olympics mascots. In this excerpt from Tom Scocca's Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future, we learn the origins of the five smiling creatures known, briefly, as the Friendlies, and how they were forced to undergo a change of name (and in one case, of gender). Beijing Welcomes You is now available in paperback, from your favorite bookseller.

The public face of the Beijing Olympics was five faces. In tribute to China's populousness or its bureaucracy, the organizing committee had come up with a team of five cartoon mascots—a new Olympic record. The Cold War superpowers had gotten by with single mascots, Misha the Bear against Sam the Eagle, in the boycotted and counter-boycotted games of 1980 and 1984. Barcelona had the indolent doodle of Cobi the sheepdog; Atlanta the focus-grouped disaster of Izzy, the shape-shifting blob. Athens had indulged in a pair of fleshy Olympian god-cartoons, Athenà and Phèvos.

But Beijing would have a mascot for each color of the Olympic rings: the blue one was Beibei, the fish; black was Jingjing, the panda; red was Huanhuan, the Olympic flame; yellow was Yingying, the Tibetan antelope; and green was Nini, the swallow. Not that they were exactly animals (except for Jingjing, who was an exception in other ways, too). They were animal-themed, totemic. There was a great deal more to them than met the eye. Their names, taken together in the correct order, made up the phrase Beijing Huanying Ni—Beijing Welcomes You.

The mascots had been brought out three months behind schedule, but they made up for lost time through sheer ubiquity. Their images adorned billboards, taxi partitions, phone calling cards, notebooks, cell-phone charms. Sheet-metal versions of them danced on the surface of the pond in a local park, frozen in mid-caper. They had their own animated TV series. The buildings of the future might be scaffolding and dust, but the mascots were ready.

The design of the mascots was credited to an artist named Han Meilin. Han had survived persecution in the Cultural Revolution to become a treasured artist of the Chinese establishment, working in every medium and every scale. Elderly and short, he was a Picasso for the current age, if Picasso's most famous innovation had been an ink-painting technique that produced animals of unparalleled fluffiness. While working on the mascots, he had suffered two heart attacks, the Chinese press reported.

In fact, Han alone had been unable to satisfy the Olympic organizers. A committee of eight artists and designers, convened to help him, concluded that the organizing committee's design suggestions—an assortment that included a tiger, the legendary Monkey King, and an anthropomorphized rattle drum—were unworkable, and a subcommittee of the committee was formed to come up with a new plan.

The subcommittee decided to come up with a different set of mascots, five in number, inspired by the five Olympic colors and the five elements in traditional Chinese cosmology—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. The artists wanted a dragon, but their supervisors on the Olympic organizing committee vetoed it: the dragon was a sacred mythic animal, and it couldn't be seen on a team with any secular creatures. In addition, the organizers had consulted Chinese experts on Western attitudes, who declared that Westerners did not like dragons and associated them with evil. "We thought it was a pity," said Chen Nan, one of the designers.

Western sensibilities, or Chinese ideas about Western sensibilities, haunted the Olympic planning. Beijing would show it could respect foreign values, no matter how alien and inimical. The more alien and inimical, the more satisfaction was to be had. Westerners would never be comfortable with China's love of the dragon. The dragon had to go.

The panda, conversely, was added by fiat—"because foreign friends were so much in love with the panda," Chen said. Chinese people loved pandas, too, but might find a panda mascot a little trite or generic. Nevertheless, foreigners would expect a panda. A golden-haired monkey was kicked out to make room.

On it went. A phoenix was too sacred, a crane was too skinny, a black- and-white magpie conflicted with the panda's color scheme. Chen suggested a swallow—the shayan, technically the sand martin. Yanjing, or Swallow Capital, was one of the ancient names for Beijing, surviving as an Olympic-sponsor beer brand, and in a few other incarnations.

Tibetan antelope conservation had been in the news while the committee was working, Chen said. The fish and the Olympic flame came naturally from the Chinese elements of water and fire. The organizing committee's judges kept suggesting changes. "Some were government officials, some were athletes, some were kids," Chen said. One person told them the characters had too many symbolic features; another decided there wasn't enough symbolism. Someone thought the characters were too reminiscent of Japanese or Korean toys; someone else thought they were too traditionally Chinese-looking. Eventually, the designers decided to attach meaningful symbols to the mascots' heads, as needed, till each one was wearing a headdress of ludicrous size.

Jingjing the panda and Huanhuan the Olympic flame were male characters, and Beibei the fish and Nini the swallow were female. Yingying the antelope had been conceived as a girl, but had been given a sex change when the designers learned that only the male Tibetan antelopes had horns. Beyond his transgender status, Yingying was freighted with politics: the Tibetan antelope, according to the official materials about the mascots, was a "symbol of the vastness of China's landscape." He was an ethnic palimpsest; the crown of his headgear was based on a roof design from the western region of Xinjiang, minus its traditional Islamic crescent; his ear ornaments were of Tibetan design; his hair was curly, Chen said, because baby antelopes have curly coats, and "people in western areas tend to have curly hair."

* * *

Collectively, the mascots were known as the Friendlies, and for all the fine-tuning, people despised them. At least, people professed to despise them. One side effect of China's restrictions on dissent was that people tended to be extravagantly outraged about those things that were safe to criticize. Negative consensus spread rapidly through the Internet, as long as the target was small enough—a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, for instance, or a set of aggressively cute, big-headed Olympic mascots.

None of the complaints seemed to depress the sales of the mascots, or the proliferation of homemade or counterfeit versions. Still, the complaining people won one victory, over the name. "Friendlies," they said, was an embarrassment to China. First of all, it was English, not Chinese. Second, it was not a real word in English. And third, it resembled, in English, the phrase "friend lies," or the word "friendless."

To hold all parts of this critique in mind at once, one had to simultaneously disdain the use of English, cling to a punctilious standard of English usage, and propound a wholly imaginary set of principles of English wordplay. No native speaker of English would see "Friend Lies" in "Friendlies," unless suffering from an Oliver Sacks-grade cognitive abnormality. But the distaste for English and the oversolicitious English grammar standards were not, for the Chinese, unrelated; the worst sticklers were people who in their hearts believed that the English language was absurd and incomprehensible. A related attitude could be seen in certain Chinese-run Western restaurants, where salad would arrive as a heap of intact, full-sized lettuce leaves: salad was inherently inedible, so why try to make it possible for people to eat it?

So after less than a year, "Friendlies" was stricken from the official mascot materials and merchandise packaging and replaced with "Fuwa," meaning "Lucky Babies," which is what they had been called in Chinese characters all along. People hawking bootleg ones at tourist sites, where the mascots had become as commonplace as postcard books and fake Rolexes, continued to call them "Olympic babies."

Trailing along behind the five Fuwa was a sixth mascot: an anthropomorphic figure with an oversized bovine head tilted at an angle that made it look quizzical or melancholy. It was principally pink and white, but with one green arm, one yellow leg, one yellow ear, and a mismatched pair of green and blue horns. The harlequin treatment I took for a cartoonist's decorative whimsy, till I saw it was accompanied by the logo for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, which would follow the Olympics. This was Fu Niu Lele, the Lucky Cow, and I realized with a combination of dismay and delight that her color scheme was intentional and significant. Lele was not put together like the normal mascots. She was different.

Olympics Memory: Beijing's Many Mascots Get An Un-Friendly Welcome

Reprinted from Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Tom Scocca.