As the world awaited Beijing’s Olympics opening ceremony, many throughout China were discussing the would-be Olympic Mascots known as the Five Fuwa (Five Friendlies). Yet despite their happy moniker, it seemed as if their luck had turned bad.
The Five Fuwa were designed to signify peace and friendship, but they came to represent many of the recent tragedies China has endured. They were forbidden at the Olympic opening ceremony.
The selection of these high-profile mascots was a top priority, with the project directly handled by the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee (BOCOG) itself. After several years and many different drafts, the final design of these Olympics mascots was chosen and they were destined for fame. Some marketing analysts even predicted that the profit brought by this project could exceed 300 million dollars.
Surprisingly, Zhang Yimou, the chief director of the opening ceremony exercised his authority to suddenly abandon the Fuwa project. Some suggested that the BOCOG lost a golden opportunity with the Fuwa, missing out on an audience of several hundred million worldwide tuning in to the opening ceremony.
The Fuwa wasn’t the only Olympics project to get cut. Even the emblem of the Beijing Olympics had been abandoned just prior to the start of the Games.
What was Zhang Yimou’s Fear?
The original designer of the Fuwa mascots revealed that an early draft of the project centered on a different concept entirely, one that some believed might actually signify bad luck. Concerned that this idea might conflict with the spirit of the Olympic Games, this design was put aside.
Yet this once controversial idea was later modified and eventually chosen to represent the Beijing Games.
The Fuwa mascots were designed to represent five cartoon figures, a fish, a panda, a Tibetan antelope, a swallow and the Olympic flame—encompassing five features of nature—the sea, forest, fire, earth and sky. Each has a two-syllable name in English—Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini. When five of the first syllable from each name were put together they conveyed a friendly greeting—“Beijing Huan Ying Ni” in Chinese, meaning “Beijing welcomes you.”
But observers noticed that the Five Fuwa could carry other connotations as well. The panda, for instance, was said to represent the Sichuan earthquake; the Olympic flame Fuwa represented the protests during the torch relay, the Tibetan antelope represented the Tibetan uprising; the bird Fuwa with its wing-shaped hat is connected with the plague of locusts that spread from Inner Mongolia to Beijing as well as a train crash in Weifang City, Shandong Province, and the fish Fuwa was related to southern China’s flood in June and snow disaster in January. This fish Fuwa endured additional bad luck as a rare Chinese sturgeon died shortly after an exhibit in Hong Kong in June.
Adding to the campaign’s bad luck, the Fuwa designer Han Meilin suffered from two heart attacks as the project was nearing completion. He also disclosed that when he attempted to resign from the judging committee due to poor health, he was forced to stay due to authoritarian pressure. The Han Meilin Art Museum opened in Beijing last month but not a single Fuwa can be seen.
According to recent reports, Han now has a strained relationship with the BOCOG. “Originally I could earn one yuan as a symbolic reward for my design work on the Fuwa, but I haven’t even received this,” he said.
At its heart the Fuwa were simply a marketing campaign aimed making a profit. But as they began to carry meanings other than their designers intended, they became a liability. Insiders say that Zhang Yimou had consulted a Feng Shui master to assess the Olympic opening ceremony, who said not to use the Fuwa and other symbols.
While Zhang was certainly worried about the rain that could have upset the spectacle of his opening ceremony, his larger concern was painting China in a favorable light. As Zhang is a movie director dedicated to the Chinese communist regime, he couldn’t afford having these “bad-luck dolls” upsetting this important spectacle.