Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics: Cultural Symbols and Messages

Torch holder, 2022 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony © Presidential Executive Office of Russia / CC BY 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Beijing is the first city in the world to have hosted both the summer and the winter Olympic Games - one in 2008 and the other one this year. China held the 2022 Winter Olympic Games from the 4th to the 20th February, in conjunction with the Lunar New Year. This event was a major milestone for the country, and China took the chance to introduce its most distinctive cultural elements, through the Games’ logo, mascot, and ceremonies. On the other hand, the country used the event as a platform to communicate its values and make the world change its perspective towards China since the last Olympics.

The cultural references are clear in the multicolored logo, inspired by the Chinese character 冬 (dong) for“winter”, which was reinvented to represent a skater at the top and a skier at the bottom. This logo has a relatively modern look compared to that of the 2008 Olympics - the logo was inspired by a red Chinese seal: a fusion of a man dancing and the character 京 (jing), which stands for the name of the host city Beijing.

Left: Beijing 2008 olympics logo © Inferrinizzard / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Right: Beijing 2022 olympics and paralympics logo © 維基小霸王 / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Another important element in the design of the Games is the mascot. Chosen among over 5 thousand submissions from all over the world to represent the 2022 Olympics, this year’s mascot features one of the best known symbols of China - the giant panda. This is certainly not surprising, given that this is the country’s national animal and was also one of the five mascots of the 2008 summer Olympics - known as the Fuwa. This year’s panda mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, is a reference to the Chinese character for “ice” (冰, bing). It symbolizes vitality and strength, and it also represents children or youth in general. Meanwhile, its body shell - reminiscent of an astronaut suit - is meant to represent the latest technologies and thus the modernity of the country (Olympics official site, 2022).

Cao Xue, the creator of the mascot, also designed the one for the Paralympics Games - named Shuey Rhon Rhon. In this case, the characters in the name respectively mean “snow”, “to include” and “to fuse”: it epitomizes both the winter Olympics and the need for inclusion for people with disabilities in society. In this case, the mascot is a cultural element traditionally associated with celebration, brightness and prosperity: the Chinese lantern.

Another example of the highlighting of cultural elements can be found in the official posters of the mascots, where the wallpapers are replications of Jianzhi (剪纸), the works of art made with the ancient technique of paper cutting.

Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Bing Dwen Dwen and Shuey Rhon Rhon © Cao Xue and Jiang Yufan / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

On the topic of inclusion, these Olympics Games have been classified as the most gender-balanced Olympic Winter Games ever, with 45% of participants being women, featured in more than 53% of the Beijing 2022 events (IOC,2022). In fact, gender equality was an element pointed out during the lighting of the Olympic flame: the two skiers Dinigeer Yilamujiang (to represent men) and Zhao Jiawen (to represent women), lit up the cauldron together, sharing the torch.

This ceremony’s theme was innovation: as seen above, for the first time in the history of the Olympics, the cauldron featured a giant snowflake, made of many little snowflakes bearing the names of the 91 nations taking part in the Olympic Games this year (Wu, 2022). With less people physically attending the opening celebration due to the coronavirus (a fifth of attendees in 2008), the performance focused on lightning and images, through the usage of 5G, machine vision and AI, to demonstrate the technological advancement of the country, but it also insisted a lot on green development and the aim for a greener future. The whirling design of the torch was meant to represent dynamism and vitality, but also depicts the shapes of the skiing courses and one of the main historical icons of China, the Great Wall. Furthermore, this year’s opening and closing ceremonies both started at 8 ‘clock, since the number eight is considered good luck in China. This element had also sparked a lot of curiosity during the last Olympics, due to the choice of starting the opening ceremony at exactly 8 pm on the 8th of August 2008.

Gender equality wasn’t the only message highlighted by the ceremony: China’s respect for history and generational legacy was also referenced. This was illustrated during the final stage of the celebration which featured seven torchbearers, dating back to the 1950s: the torch was passed from Zhao Weichang (speed skater) to Li Yan (short track) to Yang Yang (short track) to Su Bingtian (track and field) to Zhou Yang (short track) and finally to Yilamujiang and Jiawen, both of whom were born in the 2000s.

Another fundamental detail of the ceremony was the reference to the national unity between all ethnic groups, represented by Yilamujiang - born in Xinjiang and a member of the Uyghur community., Hispresence was also a rebuttal to the Western diplomatic boycott of the winter games over allegations of human rights abuse against the Uyghurs. In fact, despite China dismissing these accusations, various human rights groups have protested against what they defined the “Genocide Games”. Beijing’s reaction this time was dramatically different from that of 2008, when it promised human rights improvements and three locations were designed as protest zones (Huang, 2022).

Taking the cultural and political references from this year into account, we can surmise that China’s stance towards the rest of the world has certainly changed. For example, in 2008, a mass program was launched to teach Beijinger basic English to help tourists in need during the Olympics. But, this year, ahead of the games, English words on the capital city’s subway signs were replaced with pinyin. Furthermore, Beijing rejected some health protocols recommended by the International Olympic Committee, and instead drove its own strategy against the virus outbreak, considered more efficient (Huang, 2022).

In conclusion, besides representing a milestone in sporting history and an occasion for all countries to compete fairly, the Olympic Games are also a chance for the host country to be under the international spotlight. For Beijing, this meant on one hand, communicating important values such as gender equality and a greener future. On the other hand, it also meant promoting understanding of Chinese culture and symbolic elements whilst referencing blunt political messages, such as those against the boycott from the human rights movements. From the Olympics, especially seeing the different approach between 2008 and 2022, we are able to see how China has confidently taken up space in the international community.

Valeria Medeghini holds a Bachelor in Intercultural Mediation from the University of Milan, where she graduated with a dissertation on the environmental impact of the Belt and Road Initiative." She’s been studying Chinese language and culture since high school, but she is also passionate about international relations and China’s policies for sustainable development. You can find her on Instagram and LinkedIn

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Abreu, Danielle, Gavin, Mike, (2022) China Sends Message With Unconventional, Controversial Lighting of Olympic Flame., NECN.

Huang, Yanzhong, (2022) China courted the world the last time it hosted the Olympics. Not now., The Washington Post.

International Olympic Committee, (2022) Beijing 2022 facts and figures, 2022., Official site.

Wu, Xueli, (2022) More than just an opening ceremony at this Winter Olympics, Wu Xueli, China Daily.

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