Translating a Design for the Beijing 2008 Olympics – Cross-Cultural Challenges

It epitomised the huge task the Beijing designers faced in coming up with Olympic imagery – how to please all the stakeholders (west and east) for China’s coming of age. How to bring this monumental event to billions of viewers around the world and to see China take its rightful place – in the centre – in the lead. Imagery is all important and in the Chinese space the connotations, the history, the masters are too numerous and too long – the threat of oblivion, the danger of association, the risk of insult. How did they pull it off?

In all previous Olympics gold, silver and bronze had always been used for medals, however the Chinese designers decided to use jade – a Han Dynasty jade disk was replicated. In Han times it meant paying respects to heaven; the IOC had other ideas. The designers employed a jade disk in the centre – different colours of jade for different medals – the price of jade rose. Western goddesses were carved on eastern jade – a fantastic solution; the sculptors, however, did not fully appreciate how to carve them. The IOC told them that their goddesses were too fat and that they better go on a diet; then the bosses thought the medals would be too fragile and wanted to replace the jade with plastic. The design chief, Professor Hang Hai, described it as a nightmare, but they stuck to their guns even after the IOC demanded that the medals be dropped two metres onto concrete to see if they would pass muster, they did – and so they came into being.  This typifies the types of obstacles the Beijing Olympics design team faced.

The Creative Director for the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, Professor HANG Hai presented these fascinating insights in designing for the Beijing Olympics. It was a rare opportunity to see how the iconography of the Beijing Olympics came to be – and with it a peek into Chinese thinking not to mention the clash of ideas from the Western dominated International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Communist Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and Chinese traditions and values.

HANG Hai was an Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Deputy Director of the Art Research Centre for Olympic Games (ARCOG) at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. ARCOG is the only institution of its kind established under the approval of IOC and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Beijing Games. It is also the only Olympic arts research and development centre in China.

Under Professor Hang’s directorship, the team (20 designers) won the tender to design the posters, way-finding systems, tickets, torch relay imagery, medals, and colour and graphic systems.  The audience for his lecture at Swinburne University in Melbourne gained a fascinating look at the blending of old and new, west and east, language and culture and ideology.

His lecture titled “China’s Olympic Games Arts: Research and Design in Cultures-Based Innovation” told the story of a “process of creation that is painful, but I also find it interesting as we keep learning things from our culture.”  He described the torturous process – a design that had to be uniquely Chinese but appealing to an international audience and satisfying the powerful leaders in China as well as the IOC.

It seemed that every idea Professor Hang and his team came up with was ridiculed by BOCOG or the IOC. What colour should symbolise the games – red of course, but “no, that will connect us too closely to the Cultural Revolution”; what about green –“no that would be the colour of Taiwan independence, we can’t have people thinking those thoughts!” and on it went. Patience certainly is a virtue amongst the Chinese.

Chinese people love the dragon, so the design team tried to get the dragon into the design, but eventually the leaders didn’t like it – no head no tail, no beginning no end and we haven’t even started – a bad omen, they said and it was ditched. The phoenix rose from the ashes – this bird never dies and so it was adopted and was swirling in clouds. Lucky clouds with positive connotations in the west and east joined in; clouds are associated with rain – but how to translate “lucky clouds”. You can’t, said the westerners. Oh well, said the Chinese, we’ll just use “lucky clouds”.

The next challenge: how to transpose traditional arts, symbols of Chinese civilisation, and pictographs onto the various sports – the team explored paper cuts, ancient Chinese vessels, tortoise shell and scapula writings, specific characters – their look, feel and meaning. How does one create a look and feel that is uniquely Chinese but also attractive to an international audience of millions which doesn’t read Chinese?

The leaders dismissed many attempts: one was too French,  a later version too peasant-like. A Chinese seal (chop) was “too disabled”.  They finally succeeded with a “ding” – a bronze pot from the Western Zhou period (800 BC) and inside the pot were pictographs or scriptures that recorded wars and sacrifices – a nation’s most important times. Rubbings from the pots were derived; added to this were tortoise shell carvings telling fortunes – all were pictographs on which to base the design.

However, creating the appropriate pictograph for each sport meant a challenge for each and every sport – all have their own federations and bosses to be satisfied – all with the power of veto. Strokes were too narrow or too thick and legs too short or too long. They said that since the PRC was established “we all stood up and don’t need to bow any more” so some designs with characters on their side were not appropriate either. Basketball – “we focused on dribbling the ball between your legs – but the federation reckoned we were idiots, the important part was shooting the basket!” So the team thought they would seek professional insight into the important and typical actions in each sport from experts – their knowledge of sport rose dramatically. “Our attempt at diving – the experts said if you design like this the splash will be too big.” Tennis and badminton are easily confused; beach volleyball – the bosses said to add more sand to the early design, so more sand was added but they still wanted more and then they reckoned the sand was too random! For the Paralympics – extra sensitivity was required. One wonders how they ever made the deadline!

Back to the colours, finally no one could agree so BOCOG said there would be no primary colour – it was a pity thought Professor Han to have no colour uniqueness – and today, indeed, one can’t recollect a distinct colour from the Beijing Games. Colour and image have very strong symbolism to the Chinese people. During the process a French artist assisted and he made a study of silk which has a very unique light efficacy – the design team took up this idea and the Games adopted a tri-colour system in the palette: China red, glazed yellow, scholarly green, palace blue, great wall grey, jade white.

What we, the Olympic audience, witnessed was a cacophony of colour and images. Following Professor Hang’s lecture, we understood a great deal more about the delicate balancing act his team pulled off. The yin and yang of China in the end was satisfied and the Games will remain in our memories for their unique iconography.

Lessons we learnt were that it is important to consult experts in design when creating content for the Chinese market: colours, images, history and culture all need to be part of the conversation.



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