Stop picking on Beijing's Olympic mascots.

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 24 2008 11:26 AM

Swifter, Higher, Cuddlier

Stop picking on Beijing's Olympic mascots.

Two Fuwa. Click image to expand
Two of the Fuwa, the Beijing 2008 Olympic mascots 

A front-page story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal examined growing negativity directed at the Fuwa—the Beijing 2008 Olympic mascots. Polls show that a solid 40 percent of Chinese dislike the Fuwa (or at least espouse indifference toward them). Their creator has bitterly disowned them. And they're now being held responsible for all China's woes: The "Curse of the Fuwa" alleges that events such as the Sichuan earthquake, the Olympic torch protests, and recent disastrous flooding are all the inevitable, rotten fruit of Fuwa evil.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Has it come to this? A backlash against innocent little creatures who, according to the official Beijing 2008 Web site, bring "a message of friendship and peace—and good wishes from China—to children all over the world"? It seems "hater" culture has made its way to China, and I for one will not abide it. I hope you'll join me in defending the reputation and honor of these smiley, imaginary beings.

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Known in English as the "Friendlies" (though this is no longer an officially recognized term), the Fuwa comprise five individual entities. Beibei is a fish. Nini is—depending on whom you ask—either a bird or a kite. Yingying is an antelope. Jingjing is a panda. And Huanhuan, the leader of the Fuwa, is a child with flames leaping from his head. Their names, put together, spell out, "Beijing welcomes you."

When my girlfriend and I visited Beijing this past fall, we encountered the Fuwa everywhere we turned. Official Fuwa merchandise shops lined the streets. Fuwa cartoons aired on TV at all times of day. We got swept up in the Fuwa madness and happily bought sweat shirts and cell-phone fobs emblazoned with adorable Fuwa imagery. To now discover that anyone, anywhere, might harbor dark, anti-Fuwa impulses comes as a shock.

Have we forgotten how lame most Olympic mascots are? The 1980 Lake Placid mascot was a live raccoon (which tragically died before the games even started). The 2006 Turin mascot was an ambulatory ice cube. The 1992 Barcelona mascot was an indifferently sketched dog, which the artist claimed he'd drawn while stoned.

Let's not forget the 1996 Atlanta mascot, known variously as "Whatzit," "Whatizhee," or the shortened "Izzy." To this day, I remain unsure what exactly Izzy was meant to embody. The Journal recalls that he was "derided as everything from a 'blue slug' to a 'sperm in sneakers.' " (Izzy also represented perhaps the worst Olympics since Munich. The Atlanta games featured both a terrorist attack and a wave of nauseating Nike/Coke/America triumphalism and were held in a backwater of a town smaller than, I'm not kidding, at least 25 Chinese cities you've never even heard of.)

The deck is stacked against Olympic mascots from the start. They're sort of purposeless. If they have a mission, it's to sell more shlock. That said, compared with all these previous chumps, it's hard to understand why the Fuwa would catch this much grief. The poor things can't even count on their creator for support. Fuwa designer Han Meilin remains stubbornly wedded to his original conception and resents the Olympic organizers' insistence that there be a panda in the mascot mix. "There had to be a panda," the Journal quotes him saying, "even though you'd think the public would have had enough of them." Enough of pandas? Never! One of my life rules is: When you have an opportunity to include a panda in something, a panda should be included. Really, who does not love pandas? Oh, that's right: blackhearted Slate Editor David Plotz. No doubt also an anti-Fuwa-ist.

Take a look at the Fuwa promo cartoon or some dude's Flickr site, where he poses Fuwa dolls playing Scrabble and paying their taxes. Or these illustrations of Jingjing the panda doing judo and aiming a Glock. Tell me these are not among the cutest, plush, anime cuddlies ever created. They convey smallness, and softness, and giggliness, and just the right amount of plumpness, and all the other wonderful qualities we like to see in our cartoon friends. And consider that—unlike many previous Olympic mascots—they possess elaborate, symbolic back stories referencing a wide range of Chinese cultural traditions. Also, you have to admire the entrepreneurial strategy: The Chinese have created not one, not two, but five different merchandisable characters. That's quintuple the licensing riches!

So, why don't all you haters leave the Fuwa alone and move on to the Vancouver 2010 mascots? They involve something termed a "sea bear" and also a sasquatch that looks like a goateed slacker in snowboarding boots. Have at it.