If being cute were an Olympic sport (or) Fun with homonyms

These are the Fuwas (fú wá), mascots of the Olympic games. Aside from taking cute to a whole new level, there’s some interesting (and even more cute) symbolism and word-play involved, all of which, it could be argued, makes the Fuwas just that much more “Chinese.”

Mandarin is a language of homonyms; compared to English, there are way more words that are pronounced the same, and there’s a rather limited number of available syllables. Chinese culture is full of phonetic word plays, allusions, and even superstitions (door numbers on the 4th floor are often changed because the word for “four” (四; ) is pronounced the same as “die” (死; ) but with a different tone).

You’d think all these homonyms would make it harder to communicate, but that’s not necessarily so. First, Chinese language and culture emphasize the context of statements in order to understand their true meaning, placing more emphasis on non-verbals and less emphasis on literal meaning than we do in English (this is a perennial point of culture stress).

Second, when people need to clarify the meaning of a word during a conversation (and they often do because of all the homonyms), they’ll use their finger to trace the character on their palm (yeah, big help for beginning language students!). Or, since most words in Chinese are made with more than one character, they’ll say “[example word]’s [character].” For example: 国家的国; “nation‘s” guó, as opposed to any of the other “guo’s.” We use this almost on a daily basis, and it’s part of the routine of sharing our names.

The Olympic Fúwás are a fun example of Chinese homonyms in action (“fú wá” means “good luck doll”).

Note that the names for each are double-syllables: Beibei, Jingjing, etc. What they did is take each syllable in the sentence, “Beijing welcomes you” (北京欢迎你Běi jīng huān yíng nǐ), and double it. The characters for three of the Fuwas don’t match the corresponding characters in the sentence. They used homonyms instead to give those names more meaning.

The blue one, Bèibei (贝贝), is a fish. She represents the aquatic sports. Instead of using Beijing’s “bei,” her name borrows its character from “treasure” (宝贝). She’s gentle and pure, and represents prosperity. “Fish” () is pronounced the same as “surplus” and “remainder” and is a traditional Chinese symbol for prosperity.

The black one, Jīngjing (晶晶), is a panda. He represents weightlifting, shooting, judo, and stuff like that. Instead of using Beijing’s “jing,” his name uses 晶 (jīng), which is from “crystal” (水晶). Pinyin.info says you could get something to the effect of “Sparkles” if you were translating “晶晶” into English. Jīngjing is an honest, optimistic, and happy panda, despite (or maybe because of) the gun.

The red one, Huānhuan (欢欢), is the Olympic flame. He’s enthusiastic, extroverted, and passionate, and represents ball sports. 欢 (huān) means “joyous” or “pleased” (as in the “pleased to meet you”), and keeps the first character in “welcome” (迎).

The yellow one, Yíngying (迎迎), is a lively, vivacious, and healthy male Tibetan antelope. He’s the track and field mascot, and keeps the second character from “welcome” (欢), which just means “welcome.”

The green one, Nīni (妮妮), is an innocent and joyous swallow of good fortune (the bird, not the verb). If they’d just doubled the character for “ni” from the sentence (), it just would have said “you you,” as in, “Not me-me, but you-you.” Instead they chose a different “ni,” which means “girl” and is used in a girl’s name. But this Fúwá also alludes to Beijing because the character for “swallow” () is used in Yanjing (燕京), an old name for Beijing. She’s the gymnastics mascot.

Wikipedia, which – of course – we can’t access in China, has a nice overview with additional info on their personalities, attributes, corresponding elements, and symbolism. Pinyin.info goes into a little more detail.

And speaking of interesting symbolism, that panda with the gun (a.k.a. Fúwá Jīngjing) is an officially approved image.

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