During the women’s team sprint at the Rio Olympics on August 12, Chinese female cyclists Gong Jinjie (宫金杰) and Zhong Tianshi (钟天使) of China’ track cycling team did not just display their sporting talent by winning gold, they also showed off some original style by wearing the sprint’s most eye-catching helmets, which portrayed Chinese female masks. Male colleague Xu Chao (徐超) rocked a similar helmet depicting a male mask. The helmets soon became a much talked about topic on Chinese social media.
Besides serving as safety gear, the helmets promoted China by portraying typically Chinese Peking Opera masks that, according to state media, conveyed China’s “national essence” and, in this way, could “show the world” this image of China – as China Daily wrote.
The female cycling helmets portrayed the Peking Opera facial masks of Hua Mulan (花木兰) and Mu Guiying (穆桂英), two legendary Chinese war heroines. Male cyclist Xu Chao wore a helmet depicting the comic Peking Opera mask of Zhang Fei (张飞). All masks were as bright as the flag of China. Red is also considered the most prosperous color in China.
Peking Opera is ingrained in Chinese culture, its stories draw from Chinese history and legends. China has a long tradition of woman warrior literature, of which the saga of Hua Mulan and Mu Guiying are amongst the most famous. Hua Mulan is a legendary woman warrior that has become famous in the West through Disney’s ‘Mulan’ animation, that tells the story of a courageous girl who takes her aged father’s place in the army. Mu Guiying is perhaps less well-known outside of China, but she is an equally famous woman general of the Song dynasty.
Zhang Fei is a famous Peking Opera character, a warrior general who lived during the late second and early third century whose legend is described in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.
Besides promoting China’s “national essence”, the masks also show the creative side of ‘made-in-China’ design. The helmets were created by a Guangzhou-based studio named ‘Incolor’. Designers and studio founder Zhang Dongliang (张栋良) reportedly is a cycling lover who studied industrial design, and who has been painting and rebuilding bicycles for a long time. The helmet design was supposed to “fully embody Chinese elements”, as it was meant for the Chinese team, created by a Chinese studio.
Design studio Incolor also features their three Olympic masks on their Weibo account.
Weibo netizens applauded the design, saying it “shows off the distinctive character of China’s heroes” and praising its originality.
There were also netizens who pointed out that the helmets were already being imitated and sold online (also on Taobao), showing screenshots of someone selling a copy for 288 RMB (±43 US$). “They have no respect for original design,” one angry netizen says.
The female warrior helmets seem to have worked as a lucky charm the female team, as they won China’s first ever Olympic track cycling gold. Xu Chao’s helmet brought him less luck – he ranked 13th for the qualifications of the men’s sprint.
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