During the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, little-known Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang shattered the myth that Asian athletes couldn't excel in track events. Mr. Liu won the gold, and tied the world record, by running the 110-meter hurdles in 12.91 seconds.
Euphoric Chinese audiences dubbed him the 'yellow bullet' and celebrated him as a new breed of Chinese hero: the global champion.
More such heroes could be on the way this summer in Beijing. As China seeks to assert itself globally, Olympians have the compelling ability to show that Chinese are among the best in the world.
Traditionally, hero making has been the job of the state -- and most state heroes are idealized former leaders and soldiers who exemplified the Communist ideals. But in an era of reform and commercialized media, China's emerging icons are looking less like heroes of the state than heroes of the people. From athletes to nimble and wealthy entrepreneurs, today's Chinese heroes are exalted for both global achievements and peoples' ability to relate to their success.
One such person is Jack Ma, a 43-year-old former teacher who is considered a hero by many in China because of his success in the country's fast-growing Internet business. 'Many years ago, all of the heroes were made by the government,' says Mr. Ma, CEO of Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group. 'Today, people make you a hero. The things you achieve make you a hero. That is a huge change.'
The Chinese state used to be good at creating heroes, the centerpiece of any successful propaganda machine. The 1960s gave birth to Lei Feng, a celebrated revolutionary soldier whose selfless actions were described relentlessly in school lessons and propaganda posters and have even taken on a mythical quality. To this day, the Chinese phrase huo Lei Feng (literally, living Lei Feng) describes any selfless Chinese person.
Communist heroes were usually idealized, perfect people, and, more often than not, dead. According to legend, Mr. Lei died in 1962 at the age of 21, after being hit by a falling telephone pole.
But China's government hasn't been very successful in creating current-day cultural heroes the population, especially younger people, can relate to. While mainland Chinese television programs and movies are filled with heroes, most are dead emperors and military leaders. Many of the living entertainment icons that Chinese admire have been imported from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
A recent survey of about 2,000 people age 18 to 24 in China's biggest cities found that of the top 10 most popular Chinese pop stars, only two were from mainland China, according to research firm Synovate, a unit of London-based Aegis Group PLC. The No. 1 music idol is Taiwanese singer Jay Chou, whose music combines traditional Chinese styles with American rhythm and blues.
Nobody spends quite as much time fretting over China's dearth of modern-day heroes as advertising executives, especially as companies try to use icons to pitch products to China's rapidly growing consumer class.
Matching up Chinese icons and heroes to brands can be a big challenge because there just aren't enough. Often, it seems that the same few icons end up endorsing almost everything. For instance, Mr. Chou, the pop idol, is in Chinese ads for Motorola, Levi's, Pepsi and China Mobile to name a few.
The core problem, according to ad agencies, is that traditionally in China heroes must be winners first and foremost. 'Heroes in the West are the personification of individualism -- people with the courage to challenge convention and strike their own equation,' says Tom Doctoroff, the Shanghai-based North Asia CEO of WPP Group's JWT ad agency. But in China, he adds, 'How they win doesn't matter quite as much as that they win -- especially if they do so for the nation.'
That has been the essence of the iconic success of professional basketball player Yao Ming. The 27-year-old National Basketball Association player is treated as a national treasure. Though he wasn't the first Chinese player to join the NBA, he was the first to dominate in it -- showing that Chinese are among the world's best.
Mr. Yao works as a pitchman for a half-dozen Chinese companies, most of which trade on the nationalistic pride he inspires. When he announced an injury in February that raised questions about his ability to perform during the Summer Olympics, the Chinese public and news media were nearly driven to hysteria.
Mr. Yao's rise stems, however, from the concerted efforts of the state sports system. His mother is the former captain of the women's national basketball team and he was groomed from an early age to be a player. 'The sporting authorities in Shanghai knew of his arrival before he was born,' says Brook Larmer, the author of the biography 'Operation Yao Ming.'
But the sources for potential heroes in China are starting to expand.
Take Mr. Ma, the businessman. He stars in a popular Chinese version of 'The Apprentice,' in which he dispenses advice to entrepreneurs who aspire to be like him. And at public speeches, hordes of people try to shake his hand. They see Mr. Ma as the person who conquered China's Internet space -- and even beat out large foreign players in the market, like eBay Inc. Yahoo Inc. handed over the reins of its Chinese Web site and $1 billion to Alibaba in exchange for a 39% stake in the company.
Yet what makes him different from heroes of the past is that people also can relate to his kind of success. They can conceivably see themselves doing what he has done. 'Jack is not beautiful, and does not have a rich father -- but he succeeds,' Mr. Ma says, referring to himself in the third person. 'That is the Chinese dream.' He adds that 'if I can succeed, then 80% of young people in China can succeed.'
Mr. Liu, the gold-medal-winning hurdler, is seen as both a hero for the nation who wins gold, and a populist hero who embodies the greater individuality prized by younger Chinese. One important factor: The sport at which he excels wasn't chosen by the state. Originally a high-jumper, Mr. Liu made an unusual switch into hurdling at age 15, after his original sports school had given up on him.
He also is admired for the way he conducts himself off the field. Mr. Liu is known as a spunky, everyday kid who exudes a kind of personality that also isn't handed down by the state. On a victory lap through Hong Kong after his 2004 win, he sang for adoring fans.
And more such icons are expected to come out of this summer's Games.
One is Yi Jianlian, a basketball player who built his career in China with the Guangdong Southern Tigers, a private team, after being spotted by a scout while playing a pickup game in the southern city of Shenzhen. His parents, both retired handball players, were reluctant to let him pursue basketball.
Last year, the power forward was the sixth overall pick for the NBA draft -- he ended up with the Milwaukee Bucks. When his team played Mr. Yao's Houston Rockets in December, an audience of roughly 200 million Chinese fans tuned in to watch on Chinese television.
Like Mr. Yao, Mr. Yi (pronounced Eee) knows that his fans in China want winners. 'People all have high expectations, and we do not want to disappoint them,' he said in a recent interview. 'You can't call me a hero at present, but I will do my best in return for fans' support.'
That said, his Chinese fans appear willing to accept that being heroic doesn't necessarily mean being victorious. The Chinese Olympic basketball team, even with the participation of Messrs. Yao and Yi, isn't expected to medal.
In the past, the government might have tried to hide an image of a top athlete falling or failing, says Liana Chang, the senior strategic planner of the Shanghai office of advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy. 'Now people would embrace it,' she says. 'They would say, 'I know what that feels like. That is what makes them a person.''
Mr. Yi's career is being managed, in part, by the William Morris Agency, one of the U.S.'s most powerful image makers. Nike Inc. stores in China already are selling shoes featuring Mr. Yi's own version of the Air Jordan logo, a scorpion that doubles as a stylized 'Yi.'
In a recent Nike TV ad in China, Mr. Yi says: 'You can join the national team. You can win three successive championships. You can become the MVP. But these are not enough, because you can become the next you.'
Even the Chinese government seems to be more willing to show the individuality of the nation's new crop of heroes, at least when it comes to sports, with stories about the human side of athletes. China Central Television, China's state-run national broadcaster, has been producing packages about Olympic heroes.
'It's a shift in how people relate to these public figures,' says Ms. Chang. 'It is almost impossible for a two-dimensional icon to exist anymore.'
在广告公司看来，关键问题是中国传统的英雄首先要是胜利者。WPP Group旗下的JWT广告公司驻上海的北亚首席执行长唐锐涛(Tom Doctoroff)说：“西方的英雄是个人主义的化身，即有勇气挑战传统、实现自我价值的人。而在中国，他们获得胜利的过程并不像获胜这个结果那么重要，特别是在他们是为了国家而这样做的情况下。”
企业家马云就是其中之一。他参与了广受欢迎的中国版《飞黄腾达》(The Apprentice)节目，给那些立志要像他一样的企业家们提供建议。在公共演讲时，许多人都想跟他握手。他们认为马云不仅征服了中国的网络空间，甚至还打败了eBay Inc.等诸多重量级外国对手。为了获得阿里巴巴39%的股份，雅虎公司(Yahoo Inc.)不仅将其中国网站的控制权交于前者，还支付了10亿美元。
去年，这位大前锋成了NBA选秀的第六名，最终进入密尔沃基雄鹿队(Milwaukee Bucks)。去年12月，当他所在的队与姚明所在的休斯敦火箭队(Houston Rockets)对决时，大约有2亿中国球迷观看了中国的电视转播。
广告公司Wieden + Kennedy上海分公司的资深策略规划师阿枪(Liana Chang)说，过去政府可能会试图不让顶级运动员落败的形象为外人所见，而现在人们会接受这样的场面。他们会说：“我知道那是什么滋味。那让他们成为活生生的人。”
易建联的职业生涯部分是由美国最有影响力的形象公司William Morris Agency打理。耐克公司(Nike Inc.)在中国的店铺已经在销售有易建联专属标志的球鞋，那是一只天蝎，同时也是一个个性化的“Yi”字。