Over all the games of China there invariably hangs a 14-foot-long portrait of Mao Tse-tung. His big face is benign but serious, paternal but unyielding, a wart the size of a hockey puck is on his chin. He is the Ubiquitous Spectator.
No man in the history of the world—not Alexander the Great, not Napoleon, not Charlemagne—has governed so many people at one time. None has ruled with quite such perfect omnipotence, none with such intimate and pervasive influence. The 800 million citizens of the People's Republic of China find themselves more often under the gaze of Chairman Mao's painted eyes than under the rays of the sun. It is likely that they utter the words and thoughts of Mao more often than they speak their own.
Sport, like everything else in China, is inseparable from Mao Tse-tung. At times his portrait, looking interestedly down on a schoolboys' Ping-Pong match or a soccer game between factories or a swimming meet between communes, is accompanied by the austere faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin or (somehow shockingly) Joseph Stalin. More often Mao looks upon the games alone, for it is the cult of the Chairman which permeates, even seems to motivate, each basket that is scored, each volleyball that is spiked, each 100-meter dash that is run.
During our travels in China last summer my companion, Photographer Jerry Cooke, and I had been guided to the edge of perhaps 10 dozen packed-dirt basketball courts and volleyball and badminton courts. We had been taken to view track meets in rain-puddled schoolyards, mass calisthenics in vacant factory lots and vast rooms full of absolutely savage Ping-Pong players scarcely as tall as the table. We had seen volleyball games on cold cement playgrounds in the capital city of Peking and watched tiny kindergartners performing their miniature daily dozen with thumb-sized dumbbells in a leafy Peking schoolyard that had been the imperial silkworm garden during the Ching Dynasty. We had watched women scullers racing on the poetic waters of old West Lake in Hangchow and we had witnessed a children's mighty tug-of-war very early one morning in a stadium off the sun-dappled Parisian streets of Shanghai.
September 23, 1973
We had, I suppose, observed a few thousand Chinese men, women and children earnestly—most earnestly—at play. Through our translator, Mr. Li Chi-yuin, we had talked to perhaps a hundred. What did it amount to? Where did it lead?
Well, I inquired of each person I interviewed why he participated in his chosen sport. Now listen to a few Chinese athletes answer, for this is the voice of sport in the Middle Kingdom today:
At Tsinghua University, the MIT of China, in Peking, Chien Soong-yao, 26, majoring in chemistry, is captain and high scorer of the chemistry department basketball team. He says he plays games because "I have a strong desire to take an active part in the construction and defense of the motherland, according to the precepts of Chairman Mao." Miss Huang Ying-min, 13, a shy, somber backstroker from an island village in Chekiang province, was working out in the glistening aqua waters of a pool in Hangchow in preparation for the provincial championships. She says, "I swim to build my health and defend the country and advance the socialist revolution." Ni Chueh-chen, 26, stamp-press operator and Ping-Pong champion of a foundry in the Nan Yuan people's commune outside Peking, says, "I play Ping-Pong ball in response to Chairman Mao's call in terms of improving our physical fitness and increasing production." Miss Pan Yai-chuan, 19, a radiant girl who sculls off Orioles Singing in the Willows Park on West Lake in Hangchow, smiles with almost holy sweetness and says, "I row whenever I can in order to build up my size for the defense and building of socialism. Only if our level of health is rising can we construct a better country." On a volleyball court in Peking, a short walk from the ancient Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People, Miss Lei Tse-wei, 14, a strong, thin young lady with the fire of competition in her eyes and perspiration on her brow, says, "I practice volleyball all I can for the sake of the revolution." A tiny Ping-Pong player, Ma Liang-tse, 11, working intensely on his smashes in a primary school classroom in Shanghai, says in a frail voice, "I play to improve my physical condition and to bring fame to Chairman Mao." And Ching Yen-li, 74, of Shanghai, who leads a daily group in the practice of wu shu, the ancient and noble Chinese exercises that range from a sort of slow-motion ballet to violent and exhausting pantomimes of self-defense, says, "Chairman Mao has issued a call for the nation to improve its physical fitness, and this is true for old people, too. Though wu shu is thousands of years old, it is now applied to the work of advancing the socialist revolution and defending the motherland...."
And so on and so forth...everywhere, everyone.
On the surface, the extravagant sentiments of these modern Chinese appear to be the frightened dry rot of totalitarianism with overtones of para-militarism, echoed mindlessly for the benefit of the Ubiquitous Spectator, perhaps done in fear that the Chairman's 14-foot face is eavesdropping with its three-foot ears. Yet there is no outward atmosphere of trepidation or anxiety in China. Children sing, old men laugh, life and hard work go on as they have timelessly. The bland baggy sameness of their egalitarian clothes (men and women both), the shorn rural look of their haircuts (men and women both) and the measured, satisfied tempo of their millions of bicycles (men and women both) combine to make a tranquil but oddly impenetrable atmosphere of patient calm.
Nothing in China is simple. At the end of our trip Cooke turned to an ancient Oriental art form he knows well and uses often, the Japanese haiku. It is a poem containing exactly 17 syllables. Cooke wrote (in five lines rather than the usual three) thusly about his confusions in China:
speaking Mao on sport.
but what in mind?
Mystery on a Bath-Water Morn
Like Marco Polo we came to China from foreign lands and knew not what to expect. What alien views? What hospitality? What dangerous games?
Cooke is a man of versatility and vitality, a linguist with five languages well learned—alas, not Chinese—Russian born and internationally educated. I was less cosmopolitan. Raised in Minnesota, I spent the summers of my youth weeding onions and hoeing corn, courting the daughters of marginal farmers and playing second base for a team fielded by a furniture store. I had grown up in a land of Golden Gophers, silos, bowling alleys and kick the can in the evening.
Cooke and I entered the formerly forbidden territory of Communist China in mid-June of this year with a high-spirited delegation of American basketball players plus chaperons, coaches, dignitaries, etc. It was a mean and muggy morning when we rattled the 90-plus miles through wet green hills from Hong Kong to the border, where our visas were stamped with maximum dispatch and minimum warmth. Together with the giants of the basketball teams we walked along railroad tracks beneath the famed ugly corrugated iron arch into China. The sentries, in baggy khaki, were unsmiling but also notably unarmed. Things dripped and steamed in the bath-water morning. There were cicadas strumming in the trees and, occasionally, bright blossoms. Inside the rambling, whitewashed Shum-chun Station we saw our first portrait of Chairman Mao. It was a gentle, romantic pose of the Chairman standing in transcendental tranquillity on a beach, a sea breeze licking gently at his coat-tails. This was the same man who had denounced us all as imperialists and running dogs barely three years before, but there was no menace now. Soon Cooke noticed that the Chinese symbols on the men's room door were accompanied by the word GENTS. "Aha, cultural shock crashes and recedes at the men's room door," said Cooke. Red China with GENTS seemed a little less alien.
We could be forgiven for being baffled about what mysteries might await us in the Middle Kingdom of China. Americans more than any others had been excluded during the last 25 years. Even since the Red Bamboo Curtain rose dramatically for the U.S. Ping-Pong team in 1971, fewer than 7,000 Americans have been let in—and an arbitrary and diverse group they are: David Rockefeller; Shirley MacLaine; some hydrologists; some Long Island schoolteachers; some physicians; some swimmers; a woman sexologist who kept asking startled commune peasants about what part oral sex played in their lives; John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist; Barbara Tuchman, the historian; Richard Nixon; a few Congressmen and their wives and a number of journalists on their own.
Our business in China, of course, was to explore the environment of sport as best we could, as much as we were allowed. None of the visitors preceding us had paid any real attention to China's games and we could guess almost nothing in advance. We could only wonder in terms of sport as we knew it in America, big and successful sport. Would there be a Chinese Joe Namath? Casey Stengel? Secretariat? AstroTurf? Automatic pinsetters? Instant replay, campgrounds, off-track betting, second basemen playing for furniture stores? On a more worldly scale we had to wonder if Chinese sport would resemble the Olympic athlete factories of Russia in the '50s, the swarming frenetic enthusiasms of Japanese sporting hordes in the '60s, the dogged production line of athletics as tooled by the East Germans in the '70s.
At Shum-chun Station we boarded the one o'clock train for Canton. It was an impressive mode of travel, perhaps two dozen air-conditioned cars, black-green plush seats, beige lace curtains, polished wood, green tea served in fine white china mugs. We slid soothingly along for two hours, watching through a rain-streaming window the stunning mosaic terrain formed by the countryside's ancient agriculture, seemingly unchanged for 4,000 years. Men clad in breechclouts and wide round straw hats still tilled the fields in the rain, urging their water buffalo through mud. The rice paddies were a blinding green, the villages built of ageless gray stone and soft-brown tile. And then, in the eternal China of the Tang and Sung and Ming dynasties, we saw a basketball hoop and a backboard set on the weedy limits of a village. A single little boy threw a jump shot into the basket as we rushed by on the way to Canton.
On Trying Vince Lombardi for Treason
Cooke glared at the huge blocky concrete Peking airport terminal and hissed, "The Russians taught them this." It was here, after a 1,400-mile Ilyushin II 62 flight from Canton, that we met our hosts, a bowing, smiling, repetitiously handshaking group of fellows with immaculate white teeth and gray tunics. They were from the All China Sports Federation. The American basketball delegation arrayed itself in stuffed chairs and sofas around the terminal's mammoth, echoing, empty lobby with its 30-foot ceilings and thick marble columns. We were served a bland yellow soda pop that had a vague citrus flavor. And here Cooke and I met our constant companion, our ears and our voice for China, a stocky, sunny-smiling fellow who said, "How do you do? I am Mr. Li. That is spelled L I. I will be with you always while you are visiting the People's Republic of China."
Nearly all we heard in China came through the English-speaking lips of Mr. Li and nearly all that we said was passed back through him in Chinese. Mr. Li is 37 years old, father of two little boys, a passable (though beatable) Ping-Pong player, a government office worker for the Sports Federation in Peking when he was not interpreting, a bike rider to work and, he said ruefully after we knew him, the owner of a "fairly healthy ulcer." Mr. Li was also an intense and enormously involved fan of basketball though, like most Chinese spectators, he rarely uttered a sound and often seemed lost in Confucian thought at the basketball games we attended together. Yet once during a very tight game between the Chinese and American women's teams, Mr. Li broke a long and pensive silence to speak with a groan, "Oh, when games are close I am under great tension and my stomach twists like knots. I love fine competitions in basketball but, you know, Mr. Johnson, I find them hard to enjoy because of my nerves and my stomach knots."
From the airport we sped into Peking at high velocity, rumbling in great private buses past darkening fields and a few peasants who stared. We were like royalty skimming untouched through the hoi polloi—and so we would be feted throughout our stay, with busboys pressing free bottles of beer on us in hotels and people leaping up in packed public buses to demand that we take their seats. It was during the rushing ride into Peking that I casually asked Mr. Li a social banality, simply to fill a silence. "Do you think your Chinese men's team will defeat our men's team?"
Mr. Li smiled, his eyes crinkled and he replied, "Oh, no, our level is far below yours. We will not do well...but we will learn much, I am sure. And we will make closer friends of our two nations, of course, and that is what these games are for, is it not? Friendship instead of victory?"
I said, "Don't your teams care if they win?" And Mr. Li replied in what sounded like a dialogue balloon rising straight from the Chairman's own painted lips: "Not so much. Our philosophy of sport is friendship first, competition second, you know. There is something to be learned from winning but there is much to be learned from losing, also. We feel that the final score of a game is a matter of interest for a few moments, while the friendships developed go on for years, many years." He said this with expression in his voice, gestures with his hands, the light of a disciple in his face. Cooke and I both smirked inwardly. "I don't think they really believe that stuff," Cooke said, and yet as we burrowed deeper and deeper into Chinese sport our cynicism dissipated. Gradually it became more apparent that somehow sports victories in China are not only not celebrated much publicly, they are almost a matter of embarrassment.
For example, at one point we suddenly realized that in all the schools and universities we visited, we had never seen a single sports trophy or pennant. I finally asked a coach at a middle school in Shanghai where they kept their trophies. He said, "It is true that sometimes we are awarded modest banners for winning, but I do not know where they are. Perhaps in a desk drawer. We consider friendship first, learning good technique second, victory banners third or perhaps even less." In Peking I spoke to a small Ping-Pong player, whom I had been told was the undefeated champion of his school. He dug his toe into the floor when asked how many times he had won. "Sometimes I come close to losing my matches," he said.
Perhaps the ultimate posture of modesty in Chinese de-emphasis of victory was displayed by a swimming coach in Hangchow, one Chin Ling-chuin, 35, who was speaking about his own past as a competitor. "I swam freestyle and I competed in the national competition a few times," he said. "Perhaps I won the championship of China then, but I do not really remember."
Cooke remained incredulous, and I with him. Neither of us could fathom such spectacular disinterest in the virtues of beating the opposition. One hot afternoon, as we watched a typical thundering-herd brand of basketball on a dirt lot at the Hangchow Red Flag Paper Mill, the game halted briefly, and at random I pointed at a man I wished to interview. His name was Huang Chao-keng, 30, a worker in the mill maintenance shop. He was perspiring and breathing heavily. "Your team is ahead by 20 points," I said, "and you will win this game certainly. Does that make you feel especially good?" Mr. Huang spoke in gasps. "Yes, very good, for I find that much of my tension is gone if I play basketball after my shift is over." "No," I said, "I mean will winning today make you feel better than losing today?" He frowned and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose." He gestured toward the court. "Generalissimos sometimes win wars and sometimes lose wars. Why should winning be better than losing when one side must always lose and one must always win?" He took a deep breath. "If we emphasize the friendship rather than the competition and the learning rather than the winning, then sport—or war—is the same good thing for both sides. It is very simple." Huang, the maintenance shopworker, smiled beneficently, then trotted happily back to his game.
Cooke turned to me and said, "Do you know what they would have done with Vince Lombardi here? They would have tried him for treason." He paused, then added, "I guess maybe they really believe that stuff."
Peking Sunday and Ming Ping-Pong
It was just light on our first morning in China, 5:15 a.m. We rose from our beds in the Hsin Chiao Hotel, which is large and middle-aged with a kind of Kansas City comfort, and we stepped into the street. Despite the sweeping gray-ness of the fiat massive concrete boulevards, a misty golden light suffused the morning. Already there were many bicycles gliding along at a measured rate, undisturbed by the rising cacophony of army trucks that roared past, packed with the khaki-clad soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, horns honking maniacally. Around us were piles of sand and stacks of bricks: construction material, we had been told, for a huge and desperate building project. The Chinese were busily laying out a grand maze of tunnels beneath all of Peking to allow for a vast emergency evacuation of the city in case of nuclear attack. It was said that in less than two hours four million people could be hustled to the country safely through this underground labyrinth.
As we walked past the artifacts of our catacombic age we saw an old man dressed in gray calmly, gracefully, stoically performing his morning wu shu. His eyes flicked toward us once, but then he went on quietly with his slow and lovely moves. He was in the gentle tai-chi phase of wu shu, the classic exercise popularly (if inaccurately) known as Chinese shadowboxing. The old man moved like a specter from a thousand years ago, performing atop the burrowings of this frightened era the imperturbable timeless postures—Grasp Sparrow's Tail, Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain, Wave Hands in Clouds, Golden Cock Stands on One Leg, Step Forward to Seven Stars and on and on.
We strolled on down the wide street. Cyclists stared at us. Ahead, far ahead, we saw the graceful roof of a pagoda. Soon we saw a small boy leaping and spinning, posing in various acts of swashbuckling derring-do. He held a short frail stick in his hand as if it were a sword flashing in the long shadows of the early morning. He was practicing the more theatrical and volatile school of wu shu that involves weapons, kicks and fists. In his concentration the boy did not see us. A man, perhaps his father, standing nearby to coach the child, did, though. He spoke quietly to him and the two mounted their bicycles and departed.
It was a little after six now, and in a park near the pagoda we saw perhaps a hundred people gathered beneath low trees practicing wu shu as cheeping flocks of swallows dipped and swooped about and above them. A couple of dozen people performed in silent unison. No cadence was called for, the intricate routines were well known. Several dozen spectators looked on. They did not smile. They stared with an almost harsh intensity. A number of them followed us. It was only curiosity, but it made us nervous.
We walked along a flowered path that to our great surprise and ultimate awe led to the official soul of Red China, the famed Gate of Heavenly Peace Square, a mammoth 98-acre space flanked by the Great Hall of the People (another blocky Muscovite design) and the mystical reddish walls of the Forbidden City, where emperors since the Ming Dynasty 500 years before reigned in elite splendor and quasi-divine omnipotence.
Now four or five scattered white canvas umbrellas had blossomed on the vast pavement of the square and queues of patient Chinese had begun to form by them. These umbrellas belonged to photographers out to catch the crowds of tourists in from the provinces to see their monumental Mecca and to pose stiffly for their photographs.
Dazed by the immensity of it all, we wandered around for an hour or more, trailing a thin line of spectators. Then we departed along a street that was arched and shadowed by tall leafy trees. This had been Peking's embassy row. Its large mansions, courtyards and lovely driveways are occupied today by Chinese workers. As we walked we glanced into one courtyard and saw a woman hanging clothes, a man in an undershirt smoking a cigarette and, well, perhaps here was sporting China at its epitome—two small boys in ragged trousers and unbuttoned shirts, their faces so intent they were almost grim, slashing, slicing, cutting, hammering away at a Ping-Pong game. They were playing on a sun-dappled stone-based table, a wondrous thing, topped by cement, which looked to date from the dynasty of Ming.
Lovely Little Grenadier
One day, shooting pictures at a stadium, Cooke shouted to me, "Come here! She's magnificent!" His face was beaming as he crouched to photograph a small, frowsy, sweating girl, firm and determined and almost mystically transported by the mission at hand. She was tugging at a pair of long rubber reins, stretching them, grunting unashamedly, squeezing her eyes shut with the agony of it all, straining as if pulling those rubber straps kept the earth in its proper orbit.
At last she stopped, and her face was aglow with sweat and honesty and her stiff straight hair stood up as if the wind were blowing. Her cheeks were flushed, and she was puffing as she told me that her name was Li Chin-lin, and she was 13 and she was practicing for her specialty event—throwing the hand grenade.
The hand grenade? Yes, the hand grenade. Miss Li spoke in a slow, husky, very serious voice. "I began throwing the hand grenade in 1970, and now I am the district champion. I practice throwing it for three hours every day. I hope to continue in sports all my life." I asked her if she hoped to participate someday in the Olympic Games, and Miss Li replied with utmost seriousness: "Yes, I have heard of the Olympic Games. I would like to participate."
I felt called upon to tell her that hand-grenade throwing was not yet an Olympic event, but the young Miss Li seemed untroubled by this. When I asked her to show how she performed her specialty, her delight in her sport seemed impervious to any outside influence. The hand grenade, an official Chinese event that is included in national fitness requirements for schoolchildren, consists of throwing a small potato masher-shaped item about eight inches long and weighing in Miss Li's class 300 grams. The technique, quite graceful, even balletic, includes a brief, solemn, meditative pose, then six quick springing steps to a line at which point the straightened arm arcs over the shoulder like a catapult released and flings the grenade as far as possible. Li's best throw was over 50 meters, she said proudly.
Once she had thrown, I asked her what she considered the secret of her success. She did not pause in her reply. "It is the blasting power of my muscles," she said. I asked if I might feel her muscle and she obliged, offering me a tense bicep that was quite impressive and seemed fraught with blasting power. I asked her how she would react if she were ever required to appear before multitudes at the Olympic Games, representing China at that august competition in the finals of the hand-grenade throw. Li replied quietly, "I am confident of my blasting power."
Great Wall, Great Talker
Don Klein, a Boston-based China-watcher who traveled with us in China, said, "If I were living in China and had a choice, I'd try to make my career in the sports bureaucracy. They have the cars, the prestige, but when policies change they aren't so vulnerable, so visible, so endangered as officials in political, educational or cultural agencies."
The Cultural Revolution of the late '60s smashed across China like a violent windstorm. Its targets were "revisionist" officials who were accused of weakening the philosophies of Mao. No one outside China knew what was happening then; no one is absolutely certain even yet what did happen. The universities were all but disemboweled, and today there is a tragic air of decay and dry rot on Chinese campuses. Many of the best professors and finest students were permanently removed from the academic scene and sent to the country to work the fields. At the time of the Cultural Revolution the celebrated Chinese Ping-Pong team, which had swept every world title in the matches of 1965, suddenly disappeared. For two world championships, 1967 and 1969, no word was heard. Chuang Tse-tung, three times the men's world champion, was feared dead, perhaps murdered by the fanatical Red Guards for having his own "cult of personality," stimulated by his fame as a champion. But Chuang and the entire team reappeared in 1971, hale and hearty (in the case of Chuang, hale to the point of having grown a bourgeois potbelly). Since then Chuang has been named a member of the super-prestigious Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Ping-Pong team has logged tens of thousands of miles as the top bananas in China's world-traveling troupes of sports diplomats, though the country no longer dominates world table tennis as it did.
One day Cooke and I were being driven in a car at high speed with a full honking horn along a bicycle-glutted country road outside Peking. We were bound for the green treeless mountains we could see far off to walk the Great Wall of China and to observe the Ming Tombs. With us was our interpreter, Mr. Li, and an energetic, engaging fellow with a fresh coxcomb haircut. He was from the All China Sports Federation, department of mass sports, and his name was Tung Yiwan. His eyes shone vividly as he spoke and there was a distinct ring of evangelism in his words, for Tung was with us to explain the broad scope of sport in China as seen from offices in the monoliths of Peking's bureaucracy. As the landscape outside began to harden and rise from sweeping rich fields to small rocky foothills, I asked Tung how the Cultural Revolution had affected sport. He spoke quietly.
"Let me start at an earlier point than that. Sport in China changed greatly since the Liberation in 1949," he said, "for it has spread to reach the masses. As you already know, sport and physical culture are an integral part of national policies in China and are intended to serve socialist construction and advance the Revolution. There are two basic ways this is done, through mass sports inside China and through our appearance in international competition. My department is in charge of organizing sports in factories, communes and schools, spare-time schools and such."
The car was now climbing narrow roads through sharp-peaked mountains, honking, ever honking, at men and women pedaling laboriously up with loads of straw, jugs of fertilizer and baskets of green beans and tomatoes. The terrain was dramatic. This was not far from a place where the hordes of Ghengis Khan won bloody territory after breaking through the Great Wall in the 13th century. Tung went on: "Our world competitions are important to us. The Ping-Pong ball successes were a direct result of a call issued from the Sports Federation to speed up our improvement in world levels of Ping-Pong ball. At that time we held a tournament with 300 of our best selected players to get new members for the Chinese team."
We were not far now from the famed Chu Yang Kuan pass, which dated from the third century B.C., only a few more minutes to the Great Wall. Tung went on, "Yes, we are trying to develop the best sportsmen that we can. There are 800 spare-time schools where children start at eight years of age and attend two to three hours every afternoon for the purpose of building their athletic skills. These things are under my department. We do hope we can win some good titles, some more world titles for China and for the advancement of the socialist revolution but, of course, it will always be within the philosophy of friendship first, competition second."
Our car fled around a sharp corner and there before us stretched the Great Wall, 2,000 years old and perhaps 3,000 miles long. In 1867 the world-traveling Comte de Beauvoir wrote of the Wall: "This fantastic serpent of stone, its battlements devoid of cannons, its loopholes empty of rifles, will be stored in my mind like a magic vision." Cooke had a more practical reaction: "Well, the Russians didn't teach them this."
Later in the car the mystique of antiquity was still strong in our minds, but the irrepressible Tung returned us firmly to modern China. "I will tell you about the Cultural Revolution of 1966," he said with a warm smile. "In terms of sport the Cultural Revolution was intended to bring better education to the people about physical culture and sports. There had been a tendency, particularly in some universities, to put an extra value on the winning of victories in games. There was a tendency to compete for fame only, to play with the purpose of winning championships only. Strong efforts were made to criticize the men who advanced these revisionist philosophies. Now, it is true that sports were interrupted for a time to concentrate on the Cultural Revolution. For a few years there was a temporary stop in most organized games and tournaments. Oh, it is true that people continued to play in the streets and commune fields and schoolyards. But now things are much better than before the Cultural Revolution. People have a better understanding that they can promote their health and thus build socialism through sports."
Once more we were descending from the mountains onto a fine broad plain, green and rich, landscaped with many trees along its fields. We were nearing the great necropolis where 13 of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty lay buried in their tombs. This used to be untouchable land, so sacrosanct that to set foot upon it meant death. Today it is being farmed, and even the famed Sacred Way of the Spirit with its silent stone sentries—kneeling elephants, horses, camels, glowering warrior-emperors—is alive with tractors, trucks, bicycles, all the traffic of workaday China.
As we drove in I asked Tung if there had been much violent change done to the Chinese sports hierarchy during the Cultural Revolution. He replied a bit elliptically, "The tendency of seeking fame and championships alone was certainly not so dangerous as the political line pursued by certain swindlers and revisionists in the universities and the followers of the wrong ways of Liu Shao-chi. But all of us decided that it was best both politically and in terms of sport to return to the line as defined by Chairman Mao."
We had now arrived at the tombs set in a broad natural bowl surrounded by gentle mountains. We prepared to enter the tomb of Emperor Wan Li, who died in 1620. Of the emperor's own design, it had been built at the cost of eight million ounces of silver. Tung went on. "The idea of bringing up super sportsmen was one thing that the Cultural Revolution wiped out of our sports life. Now the emphasis is on training the overwhelming majority of the people, yet at the same time encouraging the development of players of world competitive level. We hope to do both, but the most important thing is to emphasize sport for the masses rather than for the elite."
As if ordered by a Central Committee nonrevisionist, just as we were about to enter the tomb a young man ran by us lazily dribbling a basketball. He crossed the parking lot and began shooting at a hoop and backboard that had been erected not 50 yards from the sacred site.
"See?" said Tung with a radiant smile. "That is what I mean when I say sport for the masses, not the elite. We even play games on the tombs of kings."
"Is Babe Ruth Still Alive?"
Much of China seemed to blur into a moiling montage, antiquities and new socialism, now opaque images, now lucid memories, inscrutable stuff and some things inspiring, a total immersion in the sporting culture of this unknown place. Let me simply list some items, some disconnected scenes that cannot be logically married, yet give a sense of China when they are taken together:
An old, old man, a professor of hydraulics at Tsinghua University in Peking, spoke perfect English and said that he had spent quite a few years long ago at MIT and Cornell University. "Tell me," he asked, "is Babe Ruth still alive?"
In a schoolyard in Hangchow the school coach, Yueh Shing-chang, 40, was a rather sad-faced fellow with seams in his cheeks. He wore a clean, wrinkled white shirt and his baggy trousers were held up with a frayed belt. The students of the school were assembled to do calisthenics as called out by a scratched record squawking from an amplifier in a tree. I asked Yueh about sports when he was a boy, and he replied in a low voice that was hard to hear: "There were no sports to speak of then, not before the Liberation in 1949. There were no banners given. We had one ball at my school; perhaps it was a basketball, I do not know. We lived near a reservoir, but no one swam. We were so very poor; we had no energy to play, only to survive. My father and mother were beggars My older brother and my older sister were sold by my parents to craftsmen from other provinces. I have never seen them since. I tended oxen for the local landlord. I begged also. We suffered from illiteracy then, but my older brothers saved money and sent me, the youngest, to middle school. We ran some races then. In the 100-meter dash my best time was 11.1 seconds. It is not a very good time, is it? But sports were not practiced when I was a child."
In Canton, Kuo Chien-hua, a most authoritative leading member of the local sports federation, spoke in wonder about the superior physical condition of the American basketball players and their "superb stamina" compared to the Chinese. I said, "But, Mr. Kuo, that is not so surprising. Nearly all of your best players smoke many cigarettes a day. I have seen them." Mr. Kuo frowned thoughtfully and replied quite seriously, "That is something we had not considered. Do you suppose smoking has affected the stamina of our players? We had better look into this more fully." And he pulled out a notebook and wrote himself a note.
We visited a sporting goods store in downtown Hangchow. I bought two Double Happiness Ping-Pong paddles for $5.50 each. Among other things displayed on shelves and counters in the store were basketballs, volleyballs, badminton rackets, jump ropes, pneumatic pump needles, relay race batons, stopwatches, starters' guns and blank bullets, numbered bibs for competitors, whistles, harmonicas, bugles, dumbbells, Chinese chess pieces and an embroidered silk wall hanging showing Chairman Mao in a buttoned-up tunic playing Ping-Pong.
In a Shanghai park above busy Huang Po River Harbor, Ma Yuen-kue, 53, a shop clerk, and Chang Wan-ping, 69, a retired civil servant, were doing wu shu exercises together one morning. I asked them how long they had practiced wu shu, and Ma replied, "There was almost no wu shu done for health before the Liberation. I do it now to keep myself cured of my duodenal ulcer and tuberculosis." Chang, his face a wreath of wrinkles, said, "Historically speaking, wu shu used to be more valuable for self-defense than for personal health. Before the Liberation men practiced wu shu to defend themselves against rascals in the streets of Shanghai. Our security was not good then," Ma said confidentially. "There were hooligans and gangs then, much fighting and often broken glass in the cinemas. Wu shu was needed for safety." Chang said, "Of course, the self-defense use of wu shu is now canceled, for there is no need to defend yourself against people who are your friends." Not far from Ma and Chang an ancient man, bald as an eagle's egg, was methodically beating himself on the head with a stick. There was, in fact, a discolored spot where he had been striking himself. Chang explained that the fellow was 94 years old and that the stickbeating greatly helped the circulation of blood through his head and inner ear.
The coach of the Chinese men's basketball team is a jaunty jock named Chien Chen-lai who played for years on national all-star teams. When he was asked how one could send him a letter, he grinned and said cockily, "Just address it: Chien Chen-lai, People's Republic of China. They know me."
The sports magazine in China is called New Sports. It is a monthly, and almost impossible to find. At last we ran across a two-month-old copy at a remote commune deep in the south of China. As we and our hosts sipped Tsingtao beer, Mr. Li browsed through New Sports and translated the contents for us. "Aha, here is an interesting story by a woman high jumper about her practice and her experience in using material dialectics to analyze a sportsman's strengths and weaknesses. It is titled Going Much Along a Road of Being Both Red and Expert as Charted by Chairman Mao.... The next story is called Great Attention Is Paid to the Mass Sports Activities.... Then we have The Diary of a Ping-Pong Ball Player in the 32nd World Championships.... Here is a fine story on sports programs in a factory with three shifts.... This is titled A Worker Who Persists in Physical Training.... This one is called A Demobilized Man in Factory Plays Leading Role in Sports There.... Here is an entire section of short articles, testimonials you could call them, about people's experiences with friendship first, competition second. Then there is one on volleyball tactics and one on improving one's jumping power.... And there is An Essay Discussing the Amount of Energy Necessary in Certain Sports. This is a biological treatise, you'll find...."
Somehow the conversation turned to marriage in China. It was said that the average age for marriage is 25 for women, 26 for men, and that this was "very, very much encouraged by the state," although the legal constitutional age at which marriage was allowed was 18. Our host explained, "We have learned that people work better, learn more and are in better health if they wait to be older than 18 before they marry. An 18-year-old, we feel, is not well-built enough for marriage." Clearly a case for a biological treatise in New Sports.
Polite Noises from Monks
Spectators in China are an intent, almost scholarly lot, about as bland as their dress. One day while the U.S. basketball team was scrimmaging in Peking's 18,000-seat Capital Arena we walked through corridors under the stadium and up onto the floor. Ahead of us the arena seats were dead empty and we stood for perhaps five minutes watching the practice, aware only of a coach's whistle, the thump of the ball, the echoing shouts of the players. We thought we were alone in the big gleaming stadium when suddenly an American 7-footer rose high and viciously thrust the ball down through the hoop. From our backs there immediately rose a low surprising sound. "Ssssssaaaaaahhhhhh!" Startled, we turned. There were 5,000 people seated above us watching the practice.
At the actual U.S.-China games there was never a seat empty in any stadium, and every morning before a game long queues wound up to the box-office windows. But during the game the cackles and boos, the shrieks and leaps out of seats characteristic of the Western world were missing. The Chinese were almost always mum, emitting small polite noises when they were astonished by a play, occasionally applauding politely like opera buffs when something was done well by either team. They never booed, never whistled, never rose to their feet.
Only once did I see a Chinese crowd show bad manners. In Hangchow the Chinese fielded a hulking awkward young man named Mu Ti-tsu, who stood 7'3" and weighed 270 pounds. He was dinosaur-like, almost a freak. His hands were huge, delicate, gentle, lovely around the basket, but the rest of his massive body worked only with the deepest concentrated thought. His knees hit together when he ran, his thick arms dangled, his great out-turned feet slapped like canoe paddles. In amazingly uncharacteristic behavior the spectators hooted and shouted and laughed aloud, some with tears in their eyes, during the few minutes poor Mu played. But he did not seem to mind, and he waved with dignity at the guffawing applause from the crowd when he returned to the bench.
The Chinese spectator is, perforce, woefully underentertained. It is difficult to get any total statistics, but outside of Peking, which has two indoor arenas with a total of 33,000 seats and an outdoor stadium accommodating 100,000 (for a population of four million), the paucity of stadium seats in China is surprising. For example, Shanghai, with a population of over eight million, has a single indoor arena with 5,500 seats; Hangchow, with 750,000 people, has one with 5,000 seats; Canton, with two million people, one with 5,500 seats. Indeed, for all of China's 800 million people it is likely that there are fewer than one million stadium seats (compared, for example, with 1.68 million seats available to fans of the 26 National Football League teams alone). The People's Democratic Republic as of today is not a land of spectators.
A visit to the Pearl River Delta, where an entire village has adopted swimming and a mass plunge may involve 30,000 people.