One of my old Spring Festival rituals has been to travel to Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street and look at the art unveiled there. Usually, the place is decorated with three-dimensional wire-and-cloth installations representing Spring Festival themes and the Chinese zodiac animal of the given year. While there were indeed giant mice to greet visitors this year, most of the traditional art took a back seat to Olympics
propaganda imagery, with the many, many Fuwa and previous mascots popping up everywhere. It was a little bit like going to the mall in Christmastime and seeing Santa shoved aside by SuperBowl merchandise.
Are the Fuwa cute? Arguably, yes, but more so than any Olympic mascots in recent history, the Fuwa seem designed to appeal to children, and, by extension of that appeal, sell toys. (Those who would compare the Fuwa to the Care Bears phenomenon of the 1980s aren’t far from the truth. As such, I eagerly await parodies like this one.) Now the capitalist in me ought to embrace the marketing genius of actually using an Olympic mascot to sell things rather than just stand around looking embarrassingly ugly, but given the disconnect between the cutesy kiddie Fuwa and the “spirit” of the Olympic games, I wonder why we bother having Olympic mascots at all.
One could argue that the mascots are symbols of the country and emblematic of the pride that country feels at hosting the Olympics. To a lesser extent they reflect the Olympics themselves, which the Fuwa do through their colors and through our friend Huanhuan to the left, who allegedly personifies the Olympic flame. Fair enough, but aside from Jingjing the Giant Panda, which of the Fuwa can be visually connected to China by most people?* How is the pride of a great nation adequately represented by dolls?
This is an old debate, of course, and the Fuwa, in their multi-colored plush glory, are here to stay. But the Fuwa do underline two negative trends in Olympic mascots — first, making them so abstract that they have only a thin connection to the host country, and second, opting for multiple mascots** rather than a single one, which needlessly clutters up the imagery. On the latter score we can be thankful that the five Fuwa aren’t nearly as ugly as the three mascots of the Sydney games:
Lastly, lest I be accused of needless Fuwa-bashing, I promise this is all a prelude to bashing the mascot of the 2012 London Olympics, which, if the logo for the games is any indication, promises to be spectacularly bad.
* Chinese may understand the symbolism of, say, Beibei the Fish, but foreigners won’t, and that defies the point of the Olympics as a global event.
** Arguably, this was to avoid the cliché of making the sole mascot a panda or a dragon.