This week’s post about an artifact from our collection, is a short follow-up to an article we published a few weeks ago, and reveals the surprising international origin of the Shanghai cult sneaker brand Warrior’s Chinese name.
Warrior sport shoes first gather mainstream attention across China, when in 1956 the classic Warrior WB 565 was specifically designed for China’s national men’s basketball team participating in the Olympics. During the 1960s & ‘70s the brand became the standard footwear for many Chinese athletes in various disciplines and a nationwide high-end fashion product. Today it is still remembered by millions of Chinese who wore Warrior’s as schoolchildren during the ‘80s & ‘90s and the brand has now become a cult classic, celebrated as part of the guó cháo (国潮), literally "national hip," retro fashion trend.
The origins of Warrior actually go back to 1927, when the Yichang Rubber Products Factory (义昌橡皮制物厂) was founded in Shanghai’s Yangpu district by Yuan Shusen, Xue Mingsan and Yang Shaozhen.
Shanghai, at that time, stood as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, blending Eastern and Western cultures within its Chinese section, the French Concession, and the International Settlement.
One novelty that the Westerners introduced to Shanghai in 1928, and which became immensely popular among the Chinese, was the Spanish ball sport “Hai-Alai”, a variation of the Basque pelota. Similar to squash, athletes play in a walled-off court and use a special racket with which the ball can be captured and swung back with tremendous force. The game, which today is entirely forgotten in China, was called the “fastest sport in the world” and balls could reach a speed of over 300 kmh. As a fitting translation for this new sensation, the Chinese name huí lì qiú (回力球), meaning “returning force ball”, was chosen for Hai-Alai. More on the unlikely success story of a Basque ball sport in 1930s Republican China in our previous post here.
Returning to the topic of Warrior shoes, in 1930 the Yichang factory was renamed to Zhengtai Xinji Rubber Factory (正泰信记橡胶厂), relocated, and by 1934 started to produce the first Warrior sports shoes. The trademark was apparently formally registered in 1935 and as we can see from the print advertisement in our collection and other historic documents, its full Chinese moniker initially was Huílì qiúxié (回力球鞋, sometimes with alternative spelling written 囘力), named after the popular Spanish game and actually translating to “Hai-Alai Shoes”!
In the late 1940s and after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the brand name was increasingly used in its shortened form of just Huili (回力牌). The two simple characters today look and sound just as iconic as they did then, yet the connection to the once so popular sport Hai-Alai has been lost to history these days. But now you know and can impress your friends with this little factoid, no matter if they are from China or elsewhere. After all, Warrior shoes nowadays are not only popular in China but true to their name and international origin have returned to represent a force in fashion around the world.