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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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May 9, 2008 7:24 AM

Beijing 2008 Q&A: Jon Brilliant

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Confucius and Mencius. Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong. Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini?

Beijing's athletic, cuddly Fuwa - mascots for the 2008 Summer Games - are making Chinese history.

Since 2005, they've appeared on posters and t-shirts, backpacks and bottle-caps, hats and coins, neckties and airplanes, key-chains and sneakers. There's a Fuwa television show. A Fuwa song.

China's official Olympic ambassadors will greet half a million foreign tourists in August. Long ago, they won over Chinese children.

More importantly, the five Fuwa - a panda, a fish, the Olympic torch, a Tibetan antelope and a swallow - promise a friendlier Beijing and betray China's bid for soft power. According to Jon Brilliant, an American Fulbright researcher, the Fuwa are above all else...propaganda.

Brilliant, who has lived in Beijing and Shanghai, says official portrayals of Huanhuan - the Olympic Flame - particularly recall Mao Zedong, former Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and the father of 'New China.' Historians often refer to the patriotic adulation reserved for Mao during the 1970s as a 'personality cult.'

I recently discussed the Fuwa, propaganda and Beijing's 2008 Games with Brilliant for Blogging Beijing.


What is 'propaganda'? In China? In Beijing?

Propaganda is any material used to coerce people into believing. According to Hannah Arendt, the point of propaganda is to organize people around a fantasy - not to convince them of a fantasy.

Prescriptive art boasts a long history in China, from Confucianism to Maoism. Post-Mao, the official Chinese word for 'propaganda' has been xuanchuan - also translated as 'public affairs.' Xuanchuan is a vestige of totalitarianism in form and function, but today its content is so benign and its aesthetic so corny - xuanchuan is not much of anything anymore.

In Beijing, Olympic campaigns are performing propaganda-like functions. I believe that Beijing's 'Olympic spirit' is actually nationalist spirit and that (don't laugh) Huanhuan is a reincarnation of Mao himself.

What are the Fuwa? What do they represent?

The Fuwa are 'good luck dolls' and Beijing's 2008 Olympic mascots. Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini - together their names form a sentence: 'Beijing huanying ni' ('Beijing welcomes you'). So, they're a living slogan for the Olympics.

There were earlier designs for the Fuwa that were much cooler, but official aesthetics trumped those of their designer, Han Meilin.

People, especially Chinese people, think I'm crazy to be studying the Fuwa. But they are important! They are merchandise as well as propaganda, turgid with political meaning and market strategy. They belong to a form of mass media - the collectible item - rarely used for political ends.

They remind me of Mao badges. They reveal the Communist Party's dream-image of China, a utopian cartoon for Chinese society.


Why have the Fuwa been centrally featured ahead of the 2008 Games?

The Fuwa are everywhere because, in the minds of their creators, they present a good picture of China to foreigners - an innocuous one. The Fuwa are cute. China is widely reviled abroad; it's a strategy to reinforce a nicer image of China.

What 2008 Beijing propaganda have proven most popular or successful?

The Fuwa are ubiquitous, and that's a success in one sense. But the Fuwa have also been targeted by counterfeiters, whose activities have cut the Beijing Olympic committee's profits. I think Adidas' 2008 Beijing ads have been very powerful, although I personally find them disturbing.

Why do you find Adidas' 2008 Beijing ads disturbing?

I look at them and see fascist aesthetics. While I don't think Adidas intended to do so...showing 'the many' organized around 'the one' here in China, Adidas tapped some very ugly totalitarian ideologies. The ads resemble propaganda from China's communist revolution - just as I believe the Fuwa reify Maoist iconomania.

What about the Fuwa television show and other 2008 Beijing films?

I own every Fuwa episode! The opening theme song of the show is an amazing a capella arrangement which I hum all the time. I also own an Olympic etiquette DVD set. It's literally 40 hours of a 'professor' teaching one how to behave in a civilized manner (not spitting etc.).

What is the strangest 2008 Beijing propaganda you've seen?

It's all very strange; I've seen the Fuwa made out of everything from plastic to wheat gluten. But the funniest propaganda I've seen - by far - was a competition to see who could prepare food that incorporated the five Olympic colors (red, black, blue, yellow and green). None of it looked good.

The song 'We are ready' (which debuted last August) is bizarre. It's a defensive anthem sung by an army of pop stars...yikes.

What is your favorite Chinese Olympic slogan?

The slogan for the (Shanghai 2007) Special Olympics was 'Let us celebrate love' - I've never felt so comforted by a slogan. 'Let us celebrate love'! It sounds like an invitation to a Bacchanal. But hey, it's colorful!

Lele, a cow, is the mascot for Beijing's 2008 Paralympics. Was there a Shanghai 2007 Special Olympics mascot?

'Let us celebrate love' was accompanied by a cartoon character: San Mao: the three-haired child. It was cute but sort of equated the Special Olympics with children, which was unfair. I don't think this was malicious, though.

What 2008 Beijing propaganda have proven unpopular/unsuccessful?

The campaign 'ten dos and ten don'ts' for the Olympic Games has failed to some extent. One aspect concerns intellectual property rights. There are fake Fuwa dolls everywhere. That aspect has been completely ignored.

How is Shanghai's Olympic propaganda different from Beijing's?

In Shanghai it's sloppier. You see a lot of fake Fuwa dolls, for example. In Beijing things seem more regimented and the Fuwa are used together with xuanchuan/sloganeering.

Who creates the Olympic images?

Usually one official designer has a team; they create an image. Then it is remade by official artists of much less skill, and by counterfeiters of incredible skill. Authorship has never been a central pillar of propaganda production!

What are China's leaders and Olympic organizers hoping to accomplish through 2008 Beijing propaganda?

They want to cultivate a united front - Chinese of all regions and ethnicities rallying behind the Games and the nation.

What three words best describe Beijing 2008 propaganda?

Nationalistic. Nostalgic. Plush.


(Note: Beijing's selection of five Fuwa followed an intense mascot competition. Originally, organizers planned to pick just one animal. Sichuan's giant panda, Tibet's antelope and Yunnan's golden monkey led the pack.


Newslinks:

'BEIJING 2008: OLYMPIC FLAME REACHES EVEREST SUMMIT'

'Microsoft Breaks Ground on $280M Beijing R&D Center'

'China says Olympics 'basically' carbon neutral'

'Child virus fears spread to China's capital'

'MTV granted Games exclusive'

'Green clothing line for Beijing Olympics blends Chinese, Canadian symbolism'

'Chinese official raps media 'bias' on Tibet'

'China's Everest Olympic torch run is grand - but secret'

'Olympic torch reaches China as Dalai Lama talks begin'

'Beijing must-see: "Tibet of China, Past and Present"'

'Beijing Olympic volunteers corps launched'

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Beijing 2008 Q&A: Jon Brilliant

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