What exactly is Fu Yuanhui’s “mystic energy”?
It’s been translated as “primordial powers”, “mystic energy” and “The Force”, but what was swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) really referring to when she said that her “洪荒之力” had propelled her to a personal best?
Fu went from also-swam to one of the great personalities of the Rio Olympics after charming the world in two joyful post-race interviews. Astonished by her own achievements, which culminated in China’s first ever medal in the backstroke, Fu described them not as someone who has received a lot of media training but in the language of the person she is: a post ’95 fantasy geek.
“Only ghosts know what I have endured in the past three months. Sometimes I thought I was going to die. The training sessions for the Olympics are a fate worse than death,” she said.
(While she didn’t train for the fun of it, Fu competed with more joy than anyone — just compare her with Sith Lord Michael Phelps.)
Delighted with her qualifying time, the third fastest in the event, she dismissed a CCTV reporter’s question about whether she would do even better in the finals. “I’ve already expended my mystic powers,” she said.
The phrase 洪荒之力 comes from 2015 Hunan TV’s historical fantasy 《花千骨》, translated in Chinglish as “The Journey of Flower”, a show popular with young Chinese. The story, which has several parallels with Harry Potter, follows the progress of its eponymous protagonist, Hua Qiangu, an orphan who wants to learn magic and martial arts. When Hua’s master, Chang Liu, is in peril, she summons a demon to help, with its powers are ultimately transferred to Hua, Voldemort-style.
Tracing the phrase’s etymology further back, 洪荒 alludes to a mythical Chinese flood scientists now believe took place around 1900BC. A landslide is thought to have blocked the Yellow River, causing a lake to fill for nine months before spilling over, raising water levels by an estimated 38 metres and lasting for two decades. Imagining a lineage back to the people who survived such a flood, the phrase speaks to Fu’s abilities in the pool.
Fu’s real power, however, is her charm, the earnest, unselfconscious glee she took in besting her own expectations, despite finishing third equal. Her upbeat attitude has provided welcome respite from the acrimonious exchanges of other athletes.
The Asia Society’s Eric Fish recently published an excellent article on China’s “hurt feelings” — the phrase used by China’s swimming team manager after Australia’s Mack Horton called Chinese opponent Sun Yang a “drug cheat”. Hurt feelings is a phrase China has used to dismiss criticisms, demand apologies and engender patriotism by casting China as the victim of foreign paranoia and disdain. Chinese success at the Olympics — measured only in gold medals — has previously been seen as a rebuttal to a perceived belief held outside China that it is inferior.
Like the incredible confidence of ping pong champion Zhang Jike, who had to be woken from a nap just ten minutes before his quarter final, and the good looks of Ning Zetao, a hunk of “fresh meat” who bowed out in 16th place, Chinese sports fans are finding much more to admire than athletes’ final placings.
And Chinese athletes are defining success for themselves too. In January this year, on her 20th birthday, Fu published the phrase “人，都应该为自己而活” on her Weibo. “People should live for themselves.”
- Article by Sam Gaskin