The young man hitched bashfully at his gray trousers. He was standing in the village schoolyard. Beyond, in the commune fields stretching for hundreds of acres in every direction, people were working in the hot sun, planting rice or tilling it. There were loudspeakers in some fields, broadcasting the quotations of Chairman Mao. In newly planted fields young girls sat beneath yellow parasols, wooden clackers ready in their hands to scare off birds that might land to peck up the new seeds; human scarecrows.
This was Tang Wang village, about 30 miles in the country beyond Shanghai, and Photographer Jerry Cooke and I and some of the American basketball delegation had sat through yet another typical introduction to our visit here. Beneath portraits of Mao and Marx, while we sipped green tea, the vice-chairman of the commune Revolutionary Committee ran through the statistics of the place: 23,000 residents, 1,787 hectares of land, 1.2 million fish in its ponds, 130,000 chickens, 68 cows, 18 tractors, etc. etc.
Now that was over and Cooke and I had asked the principal of the school if we could interview and photograph the best athlete, the hometown hero. Our idea was to see how such a young Chinese paragon of sport would compare to his counterpart from an American small town. We had been introduced, without much fanfare, to a boy from the school. He was wiry, not tall, had wide thin shoulders and was wearing a white shirt over a red undershirt. He was also wearing a small Red Guard badge (sign of membership in an honorary society to which about half the school's students belonged). His name was Ma Shan-pao, 18 years old, and though he was so shy he could barely speak, he told us through our intrepid interpreter, Mr. Li, that his best sports were high jumping, at which he has cleared 1.4 meters (4'7¼"), and basketball. He also played soccer, volleyball and Ping-Pong. I asked Ma if he was quite good at all these games and he said, "I am not so good as I would want." I asked what were the most points he had scored in a basketball game and he said, "I do not know. Fewer than I would have liked, I suppose."
As we spoke a small open-mouthed crowd of children gathered. Figuring Ma would be too modest to answer for himself, I asked the group if it were true that he was the best player in school, the star. Mr. Li had to translate this question twice, but at last one boy seemed to understand. He said, "He is sometimes quite accurate at shooting the basketball." I said, "Well, don't all of you admire Ma and wish to be a star like him in athletics?" The crowd seemed dubious, hesitant. Another child answered at last, "He does not attract our attention too greatly."
September 30, 1973
I spoke to Ma: "Does your talent at sports make the girls like you more?" This was very puzzling. Mr. Li had to ask twice before Ma riveted his eyes squarely at the dirt at his feet and mumbled, "We play sports to promote health and advance socialism."
I said to him, "Would you say that your talent at sports makes you more of a hero to your friends than if you were not a good athlete?" Ma seemed to find this all but unanswerable also, but at last he said, "We practice all together. No one stands away from the others."
Then I asked Ma who his own hero was and he answered Chuang Tse-tung, China's famed Ping-Pong champion. I asked Ma if he wanted to be like Chuang when he grew older. Ma said, "I will let the motherland and the party make the decisions as to where I can serve the Revolution." With that I let Ma drift gratefully away to shoot baskets in the dirt of the schoolyard.
My idea for somehow digging a small-town sports hero out of the rural land of China seemed to be completely lost in translation. In one last effort to construct an image of such a person, I turned to the school principal and said, "Is Ma really your best athlete?" The principal replied, "He is quite good, not bad at all." I asked if Ma weren't considered some kind of an admirable example of personal success because of his superiority at sports, and the principal hesitated, asked Mr. Li for another clarifying translation, then replied with a sigh, "Ma is a rather accurate shooter of basketballs. But there is no special thought given to good sportsmen. They study in the usual manner. The other students do not pay so very much attention to them except to learn from them more about physical conditioning." I told him that in America many small towns look up to their high school sports heroes as if they were a special breed of mankind. The principal furrowed his brow and focused his eyes far out over the busy fields beyond the schoolyard. At last he smiled rather thinly and said, "This village is perhaps more interested in agricultural production records than in schoolboys' games."
On Being Amateur
Mu Lien-kuei is 24, a strapping 6'8" fellow with great gentle hooks for hands, a rugged forward who is one of the two dozen or so best basketball players in China. Mu had played against the touring U.S. basketball team in Hangchow and Peking with a collection of national and provincial all-stars. (As a measurement of China's level of basketball, the game ranks second in popularity behind Ping-Pong, but the U.S. team, a group of competent but not dazzling all-stars who had never played together before their tour of China, won all eight of their games with embarrassing ease. Their narrowest victory over their hosts was by 19 points.)
Though the Chinese speak somewhat longingly of the day they will reach world levels of the game, there seems to be no officially sanctioned effort to mold and manufacture super-athletes through a full-time commitment of their personal energies. Mu, who easily might become a member of a Chinese Olympic basketball team should that day arrive, said that he comes from a remote province in the north of China where he is a student learning to drive a truck. "We practice two or three times a week, mostly voluntarily," he said. "We are almost all students. We get together for 20 days to practice for provincial and national tournaments, but we only practice half a day and the other half we do our normal study or profession. It is true that we are redoubling our efforts to become world-class players in basketball, but there is always the problem of balancing training and our studies."
I informed Mu that in the U.S. there are many basketball players who do nothing but play the game, indeed make their livings at it. He was nonplussed. He paused, shook his head and said, "Basketball is very important in China to promote our health, but it is not so important that students should give up their studies or their socialist jobs for it. I would say that the tendency in China is toward the importance of amateur sports. I really do not think the day will come when men in China will spend their full days and their lives only playing games. It is not the natural thing for a man to do."
Of Renegades and Traitors
We sat in overstuffed chairs and couches covered with whitish beige slipcovers; this is the routine thick furniture of negotiation and government business in China. Chou and Kissinger used the same kind, so did President Nixon and Chairman Mao. The man I was talking to was bulky, gruff, thick-necked with high-cropped graying hair that had a definite military look to it. He was Kuo Lei of the All China Sports Federation, international liaisons department, and he looked as solid and sure of his substance as the chair he filled. The question I had asked Kuo on this weekday afternoon in Peking had to do with whether Red China would compete in the Olympic Games. This, it turned out, would require an hour or more of Kuo's oratory to answer fully (including the precise dry translations done by Mr. Li). I sipped four mugs of superb jasmine tea during Kuo's reply. Mr. Li finished three bottles of yellow pop and Kuo himself smoked about 10 cigarettes. In rather abbreviated and less flowery form, here is what Kuo said:
"The purpose of international exchanges is to promote friendship among sportsmen. This is the direction of China. This is the correct direction. We think international sports organizations should promote the fullest use of sports for friendship." Kuo then explained the recent history of China's role in regard to world sport. His blunt fingers fluttered eloquently as he spoke, cigarette smoke bloomed in bigger and bigger clouds around his face until it seemed sometimes as if only his mouth existed. Kuo pointed out that the main problem was the "irrational and stupid" creation of two Chinas in world sport, The People's Republic of China and the Chiang Kai-shek government on Taiwan. This "blunder" occurred, said Kuo, after 1952 when Avery Brundage, then president of the International Olympic Committee, recognized "the swindlers, renegades and traitors of the Chiang Kai-shek clique" and let them into the Olympic movement along with Red China, which at that time held official membership on the IOC. This, said Kuo, flew in the face of other international agreements. "China," he snapped, "will never tolerate such a fool's trick. We see through the conspiracy to attempt to make two Chinas by means of sport...."
He went on, waving his hands through the smoke, "We raised protests for many years, but to no avail. So we suspended all contact with organizations that have recognized two Chinas. They retaliated by ordering their members not to have contact with us. They say that members of world sports federations cannot play against nations who are not members."
Kuo cleared his throat, then poked a finger skyward: "In this manner they have excluded 800 million Chinese from the world of sports." More calmly, he said that since the main perpetrator of this "blunder," Brundage, had stepped down as IOC president, "the new leaders need not feel guilty about past mistakes. If they rectify the IOC's two-China policy, we are ready to cooperate." He pointed out that now that Red China has the China seat in the United Nations it is only "realistic and true" for the IOC to follow the "inevitable tide of history" and do as the U.N. has done. And if this should come about? China will be happy to enter the Olympic Games of 1976, said Kuo.
But will China risk humiliation by entering athletes and teams that are not up to top competitive levels, and thus certain of defeat? Kuo did not falter for an instant. "Of course we hope that China reaches high levels of competitive abilities someday soon. But we must accept the fact that China is at a low level in many sports—just as we are low in industry and agriculture. You must understand, China is still a backward nation in many respects. Yes, we are confident we can catch up because such backwardness—in sports or in industry—was caused by the fact that China was staggering beneath the weight of feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism and imperialism for many, many years. For centuries. This we know; this you know.
"Thus," said Kuo with a note of final triumph in his voice, "it is not at all necessary that we be certain of victory—or even of coming near to victory—before we reenter world sports competition. We cannot wait, for example, until our basketball players are as good as yours before we have games with you. We would never be friends through basketball if we did. We see sports as a way of communicating with many countries. We wish to be friends of the world, not necessarily champions of the world."
Park Six and a Jointed Spike
Hangchow was the capital of China in the Sung Dynasty. It is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Marco Polo described it as a place "where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies himself to be in Paradise." Dr. Sun Yat-sen, father of the Chinese Republic, meditated here often, and Chairman Mao himself is said to have a summer home in Hangchow, although no one claims to know where it is. It is a poetic town. Its spiritual center is old West Lake, and the lake and its heart seem to have been there for eternity.
Now we were up at five a.m., scooting in our car along the shores of the lake in deep gray morning light. The water was completely hidden, gone beyond the lip of the earth, it seemed, in the mist. Great willows hung like black lace-torn moss. All was silent. Here and there someone stood on the grassy bank, facing into the endless days of the lake, rhythmically swinging his arms.
We were bound for Park Six. Other sections in the area had lovely names—Orioles Singing in the Willows, Autumn Moon on the Calm Lake. But this was Park Six. Cooke and I had slept lightly that night, for the arboretum in the back of the Hangchow Hotel was filled with tree frogs—raucous, belching, bellowing little fellows whose voices rose like a full zoo symphony in the Chinese darkness. We had also drunk deeply of something that seemed magnificent at the time; it was called fen chiu, a nitroglycerin-colored juice distilled from rice, 160 proof, it was said. We had drunk it over ice, pretending it was martinis.
Now in the dawn we arrived in the mists of Park Six, and here was a wondrous sight, a fantasy we could scarcely believe. Among the black tree trunks on the shore, spreading out like their own shadows in the gloom of the walkways and driveways, we saw a vast and ghostly assembly of people. While most of the ancient city slept, here were hundreds silently moving in the classic slow-motion of wu shu, unreal in the cool smoke of dawn.
I stood rooted for a time near our car. There were people moving everywhere in the mist, trancelike, lethargic, graceful, many in unison though no cadence sounded. They seemed to be dreaming, a floating population, adrift there in the dim morning.
An old woman, her teeth browned or gone, came to talk to me while Cooke crept about amid the silent moving shadows with his cameras. She was tiny, alert and fiery with energy. She wore black baggy trousers and a loose gray blouse, and she said that her name was Mrs. Chiang and that she was 64 years old. She said she came to Park Six every day, rain or shine.
"I suffered from many chronic diseases for 10 years," she said, gazing at me with eyes that glowed. "I could not move at all. Then, on March 17, 1963, I remember the day well, I began coming to Park Six. I couldn't even walk here; I had to hire a pedicab to carry me. I could scarcely move at all then...now I find it easy to climb a mountain, to walk as many miles as I wish. I am light as a child in both foot and mind."
Mrs. Chiang said she had invented many of her exercises herself, "although I absorbed much of wu shu into them. From my ideas for exercises you get 1) better appetite, 2) better state of mind and 3) your sleep is better, deeper, with fewer dreams." She explained that there were several stages to her system of exercise. The major theme behind it all was to "breathe fresh air because after sleeping all night, dirty things collect in your organs and they must be squeezed out. Fresh air does the squeezing out."
She then began to demonstrate each of her exercises and to explain the result brought on by each:
1) Slapping each hand against opposite upper arm: "This helps the motion of cells to begin inside your body."
2) Spread arms, wave them at sides, then wave them overhead while dropping head backward as far as possible: "Now your brain can absorb maximum oxygen. Doing this puts your brain in a very good functioning state."
3) Arms overhead, bending to touch toes, twisting arms inward-outward-inward: "The central nervous system is working better with oxygen thanks to exercise No. 2 and the next thing—No. 3—is to pass oxygen throughout the whole body."
4) Shaking clenched fists: "This is good for high blood pressure, rheumatic conditions and anything that has an adverse effect on the heart. The first improves the tempo of the heart function."
5) Rubbing hands firmly, slowly over forehead: "The veins there are stimulated, and this improves circulation of blood in the head. If you have a headache, it will go away. There is no pain at all, and it also helps the eyesight. Also, some people habitually shed tears when they are in the wind. Rubbing the forehead helps that."
6) Striking top of head with hand: "This heals nose, ear and back of neck malfunctions. It improves listening power and makes you able to fight the flu and to achieve better balance in the brain. It also aids in sleeping well."
7) Rolling neck from side to side: "This stops hardening of the neck."
8) Rubbing stomach vigorously with hand: "This helps digestion function regularly and gets the stomach and intestines systematized."
9) Moving both arms, both legs jerkily, bending simultaneously: "This is good for knee troubles and elbows, too, which is obvious."
10) Swinging arms, bouncing gently: "This is the last exercise...I have skipped many of them.... These last free movements represent a very active resting situation. This is done to return all organs to their original free state."
Later that day in the park next to Back Lake, which is over a lovely gardened hill from West Lake, Cooke and I came upon a small, lithe man and a woman. They stood in a patch of noontime sun on a hill overlooking the water below and Solitary Hill above where Dr. Sun Yat-sen once strolled. The fellow's name, we learned, was Fu Chen-lian. A 26-year-old foundry worker from Shanghai, he was on vacation in Hangchow, his old hometown. The woman, his fiancée, was too shy to speak and would not say even her name. Fu was dressed in a bright blue sweat suit. On a nearby park bench he had laid down a metal wu shu sword along with a bizarre and lethal-looking thing—a chain of metal rods with a point on the end of the last one. It was, said Fu, a "nine-jointed spike," one of wu shu's several types of weaponry.
I sought to discover through Fu what a Chinese workingman does with his leisure time. I hoped to compare his life with that of an American worker with his bowling alleys, televised pro football, pinball machines and softball leagues. So I asked Fu what he was doing on vacation. He replied, "I take my leisurely hours walking at the lake, resting and reading Chairman Mao's works. I go to the park and practice my wu shu and I visit with friends here. I have taken a particular liking to wu shu, although I am very much an amateur at it. My level is not high at all. I do it for Chairman Mao and to increase production because we younger workers have to play an active part in production and we have the best opportunity to stay in good condition."
Fu then excused himself for a few moments to work out with his sword. In the warm noon sun he leaped, whirled, grunted, jabbed with his sword, slashed, stabbed, sliced the air gracefully. Then he returned to talk for a time. A layer of perspiration had collected on his face, and his girl friend gave him a kerchief to mop himself. Fu then said, "I do wu shu almost every day, although when I work the night shift I do not always have time or the will for it. I also play basketball and volleyball and do some swimming, but I am an amateur. I am not on any teams in my foundry. I watch television sometimes with others in my dormitory. I live in a barracks in a room with four other men. We have a radio which we listen to at times. I am paid 75 yuan [$37.50] a month. My girl friend also works in the foundry. We walk in the parks in Shanghai. It is in the parks there that I first learned wu shu."
Fu excused himself once more and returned to the sunny sidewalk, this time swinging his nine-jointed spike. He threw himself into an astonishingly strenuous exhibition, spinning and springing high off the ground, manipulating the menacing, macelike thing expertly, swinging it around his head like a lariat, feinting with it, whirling it, twisting both ends with his wrists. He was slightly breathless when he returned to our conversation and I asked him why wu shu?
Fu replied, "The major aim of my practice of wu shu is for the sake of the defense of the motherland and to promote production. But it is good for me, too. When I first was learning wu shu I found I was very tense in mind. But as I mastered it more and more I became very calm. I find a calm mind and a well-conditioned body are helpful to my part in advancing the socialist revolution."
I thanked Fu and offered him two tickets for the U.S.-China basketball game, which was to be played that night in the Hangchow Stadium. Fu's face lighted up and he said, "That is a pure treasure. I can tell you that for these games between your country and mine there is no stadium in China that would be too large for the people who wish to watch. Thank you, thank you." Then Fu cradled his sword in one arm, picked up his nine-jointed spike in the other hand and, with his small silent girl friend at his side, walked away over the hill.
Sport on Chinese television is a sometime thing, technically backward and nearly always an ordeal to watch—full of propaganda. No one we met in China owned his own TV set. Only one person even knew where sets could be purchased, and those were enormously technical assemble-it-yourself kits that cost $75 each. In order to watch TV, people are required to get together in some public place, a school, a commune meeting center or a factory political education room. There, as a rule, they bunch around, some perhaps 15 yards away from the 14-inch black and white set. Players look no bigger than crickets. Still, it is all they have, and the Chinese say they love it.
One sunny morning after the first U.S.-China basketball game in Peking, a contest that was televised all over China, Cooke and I were ushered through a commune residence for retired workers, a whitewashed set of tiny houses with 6-foot sunflowers sprouting all around. It was called Home of Respect for the Aged and the residents were a fairly spry old crowd, some happily playing Chinese chess in the sunshine, some doing bits of wu shu. One tiny old lady with wispy hair and a wrinkled smile performed a brief agile dance for us. I asked her if she and her friends had watched the game on TV the night before. She curtsied and said, "Oh, yes, of course. We gathered on the benches of the dining room. We sat in silence and respect for the great players from the beginning to the end. When it was over we stood up, all of us, and clapped and clapped. None of the players seemed able to hear us, however."
A locomotive was hooting and grinding in the switching yard across the street. The kids continued their swimming sprints in the aquamarine waters of the pool. This was the spare-time sports school for the Hung Kow district of Shanghai, impressively located at the 40,000-seat stadium, with facilities that were among the best we were to see in China. The spare-time school system in China is the spine of the athletic organization, and even though the physical plant here was outstanding, the function of the school was typical. The deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Committee said that the school had 450 students perfecting their skill at eight different sports with 50 coaches and part-time teachers available. The students were age nine to 16 and came to the school four or five afternoons a week for about three hours. Except for one session when they did "physical labor" (i.e., cleaning and fixing their facilities) they concentrated entirely on their own special sport.
Today at the pool there were perhaps 30 kids swimming. A fountain spurted majestically in the middle of the pool, and before them, on a billboard the size of a small house, was a painting of a soldier in a fur cap carrying a rifle and swimming through wavy green waters with a huge white-toothed smile. Behind him, also with toothy smiles, came half a dozen peasant swimmers, all fully clothed and armed with weapons. A message on this inspirational scene said: PREPARE FOR WAR...PREPARE AGAINST FAMINE...SERVE THE PEOPLE.
Besides the swimmers, hundreds of kids had been assembled for Cooke and me to see. A girls' basketball game was being played on an outdoor concrete court and an intricate badminton drill involving 30 youths was being held on a lot nearby. Within the low oval confines of the stadium a soccer game was under way and perhaps 75 young players were working at a series of track and field events ranging from the javelin throw to the high jump (with the large majority doing the Fosbury Flop). Beneath the stadium were a series of rooms filled with 1) perhaps three dozen lovely little children performing gymnastics, from plain old well-turned somersaults to intricate stunts on the balance beam, and 2) a couple of seemingly endless Ping-Pong galleries absolutely packed with tables and small grim persons savagely practicing China's national game. Their faces shone, their eyes were electric with the passion of their sport and there seemed to be hundreds of them. Again and again their feet cracked the floor with the explosive bang of a rifle shot as they followed through on murderous forehands and killing backhands. It was like some kind of factory.
I asked the leading member exactly how the spare-time students were selected, and he smiled and said, "Oh, we know where the best ones in the district are because we have coaches and teachers everywhere." I asked how they were selected, and he said, "They are picked for their high political consciousness, good studies and a certain level of athletic abilities. Most of them are at the school only for a year or two, but a few are here for the entire six years. Most are trained here, then sent back to help coaches at their former schools."
The Village of Phoenix Nine
"You will find this a specially memorable experience, even historic perhaps. We are going to China's famous Swimming Village," said Mr. Li. He smiled and his eyes crinkled more than usual, although it may have been that he was sleepy. It was six a.m. in Canton, our next to last day in China, a lush hot morning like something in central Florida in summertime, and we were stepping out of our cavernous hotel into a fine rain, tropical in every aspect. Even at that hour in the drizzle the roads of Canton were crowded, a bobbing stream of bright yellow or black umbrellas. There was much honking as we left the decrepit dignity of Canton city and rushed along the narrow tree-lined lanes of the country. Bikes and carts and pedicarts and dozens of pedestrians carrying loaded shoulder poles thronged the roadsides. People drove flocks of geese, there were bustling little markets selling scallions, cabbages, tomatoes, greens, live ducks. We sped past it all, honking so angrily that Cooke finally snapped at the driver, "Please be polite, will you?"
We were going deep into the Pearl River Delta. We rolled for miles, past the famed Whampoa River Harbor, one of China's largest, filled with freighters and junks and busy tugboats. Eventually we came to a village filled with wonderful gnarled trees and low tile-roofed houses built of soft-reddish bricks. We crossed a narrow yellow stream on a three-car ferry shepherded over by a coughing old tug, then drove on through more old villages, past fields of jute and palms and bananas, lichee trees, cotton, sugarcane and, of course, rice. We went over yet another small ocher-colored stream and Mr. Li said, "Rivers cross this country as in a jigsaw puzzle. We are proceeding tributary by tributary to our final destination."
We arrived at another village, this one more thriving than the others. We were about two hours out of Canton. The day was beginning to clear, and the smell of the drying ground and the muddy river was at once rank and rich. We left our car with the horn-crazy driver, boarded a small riverboat and sat in the pilot's cabin sipping green tea as we chugged past a magnificent assortment of water transport: junks with tattered sails and filled with families, rowboats carrying sand for shoreline brick factories, a gay Mississippi-type passenger steamboat, tugboats, small freighters owned by the local communes for hauling produce to market. Here and there we saw a fisherman using the ancient fish traps that dangle by a line from a pole. We moved slowly past a splendid Ming Dynasty tower 500 years old, now grown a rosy pink, with each of its tiers covered with brambles and bushes in the centuries of its disuse. The yellow river glistened in sunshine, for the morning was now almost perfect.
At last, after an hour or so, the skipper, a wiry, wrinkled fellow, muttered something and Mr. Li peered downriver. "There is Tao Chiao ahead," he said. "The Swimming Village of China. There are 39,000 people in the commune, I'm told, and 70% of them can swim. Before the Liberation only 10% could swim."
In the sunlight Tao Chiao was a low, tiled, stone-and-brick cluster of old buildings hugging the shore. As our boat approached, two or three dozen young girls, fully dressed, suddenly ran to the river and dived in. As we drew nearer they swam gracefully, strongly, into the current and waited until we were up to them. Then, grinning radiantly in the sluggish yellow-brown water, they began to applaud, setting up a merry splashing sound to go with their chirping giggles. Cooke and I, like some Chinese princes, puffed out our chests and applauded back. Perhaps a bit more imperiously than we might have liked to admit.
Once on shore we were warmly greeted by the commune's Revolutionary Committee and, without ado, were led to a large swimming pool where about 200 children awaited us in bathing suits. This being the Swimming Village, they of course had arranged a swimming meet especially for us. We nodded and applauded them as they applauded us. We waved and smiled and reached for hands to shake like a couple of neurotic Congressmen run amok on Labor Day. We were led to a 30-foot table at the pool's edge. It was covered with a purple cloth and laden with tea settings. The sun was hot now, and we were given straw fans and round straw hats for our comfort during the races. Oddly enough, the pool seemed in excellent condition (unlike many we had seen), but instead of having the usual lime Jell-O look it was filled with the fine yellowish waters of the river.
As the races went on we streamed sweat in the sun and my attention wandered. I noticed a large two-story stucco building near the pool and was astonished to see that every window was filled from sash to sill with curious faces. Dozens and dozens. I asked about that and was told it was the local straw-fan factory and that the workers had been given time off to look at us. "They are very interested," said Mr. Li. "There have been a few other foreigners here since the Liberation, but you are the first Americans they have ever seen. They will be telling their friends about your visit for years and years."
The meet over at last, we rose, applauded and received in turn from the swimmers some sort of imperial salute as we began a leisurely walk through the narrow stone streets of Tao Chiao. The straw-fan factory workers had now emptied into the town square and we strolled (perhaps we were swaggering by now) past a couple of hundred of them, clapping and smiling. I clapped back, flashed a peace sign at times and waved majestically, my new messiah complex overcoming me. I hoped against hope that my long nose, round eyes and thick mustache would give the straw-fan workers something to remember.
Pigs wandered across our paths with some unhurried ducks and geese that were dyed an unsettling fuchsia or chartreuse to show who owned them. A few baleful homely yellow-eyed dogs trotted about, and we were told they were kept for eating. We walked for a quarter mile or so past a solid wall of factories and then came to a narrow canal spanned by an arched bridge that curved up perhaps 12 feet over the water. I went to the top of the bridge and paused to look up-canal. Chills ran through my spine, numbness set in. For 100 yards up the stream, both banks were packed with people five or six deep. I turned the other way and was astonished to see the same thing there. Thousands of people were gathered. I glanced down into the sparkling brown water of the canal and—lo!—the surface was absolutely carpeted with the heads of children lying on their backs in the water waiting for Cooke and me to cross the little bridge.
There was something absolutely papal about the scene and I raised my hands. To bless them?—well, no, I merely began to applaud. So did they, and the clear hot morning was suddenly filled with this strange ovation.
Then, as if on signal, the smiling faces of the swimmers began to move together, floating like a flowing carpet beneath the bridge and down the canal. Cooke was frantically snapping pictures, and after the last of the water children drifted beneath us he said to Mr. Li, "Please ask them to swim back upstream and do it again. I'd like a few more pictures." And they did.
Reluctantly we descended from the bridge and went off to lunch in an airy bright house, the commune meeting building. We sat at a large round table and ate a sumptuous country meal—a two-foot carp steamed in ginger sauce and greens, slices of ham in a tangy sauce, a baked whole chicken served with its head lying on the plate, its claws neatly crossed upon its breast, some kind of liver served in more ginger sauce (thinking of the dogs, I felt obliged to ask about its origin and gratefully learned that it was pork liver).
We talked about the origins of the Swimming Village and Li Shu-ling, who was a leading member of the Revolutionary Committee, said, "When Chairman Mao issued a call for physical fitness in 1958 we saw that, being surrounded by water and a warm climate, swimming would be our best reply to him. We were encouraged in this by the Sports Federation in Canton. Now we are quite famous and a propaganda film has been made of our village swimmers."
I asked Li Shu-ling what sports there had been in Tao Chiao before the Liberation, and he shook his head and looked very sad, gazing morosely for a moment at the savaged carp upon the lunch table. He then spoke dolefully, looking occasionally at Chao Po-ping, another leading member of the Revolutionary Committee.
"Oh," said Li, "this village was filled with toiling masses then, laboring the day from dawn till night. We worried about food then, not sport, not swimming. Those were evil times, I tell you." And Chao began to speak, also sadly. "The village of Tao Chiao was the headquarters then for a bandit chieftain. A hooligan, a thief, a robber, a man who was even a traitor for the Japanese during that war. He was a local despot, and the peasants lived in mortal terror of the man and his band."
Li picked up the tale, "His name was Phoenix Nine, and his grandfather and father before him had been robber chieftains, too. Phoenix Nine grew rich through the expedient of levying illegal charges on local people. If they refused to pay him, his running dogs would beat them, bully them, perhaps kill them in their beds. There was fear at every doorstep in Tao Chiao. Indeed, there was fear all around, for Phoenix Nine, that vandal, that jackal, controlled all the waterways, too, the canals and the rivers, and no boats could pass with produce for market without paying a fee to his band." Li wagged his head sadly. Chao said, "Can you imagine China's famed Swimming Village in such a state—terrorized by a tyrant, a hooligan? It was so. After the Liberation he escaped the country. Phoenix Nine now lives in Hong Kong, we are told, rich and fat and exploitative as ever."
Li said, "As for sports then, there was only opium smoking among the bandits. That is all I can remember."
Our lunch was finished off with green bananas and lichees, freshly plucked from the fields and orchards of Tao Chiao. We ambled back through the village streets. The crowds were almost as large as before. At the canal we were again led to a table with tea, and we watched a sobersided class of small children learn their swimming techniques in the canal, which was about eight feet from their school. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of ostentatious swimming going on. A group of 20 or so girls suddenly walked past us and, fully clothed, jumped into the canal and began playing a shrill game of water polo. Two old men walking with their hands at their backs veered off the path and descended a ramp into the water. A man came out of a barbershop and jumped into the canal. Chao said casually, "At one time or another, almost every day, everyone in the village—workers and old people, children and even some animals—takes an opportunity to swim."
It was, by this point, midafternoon and time to return to Canton. We walked back to our boat in the river and Chao smiled broadly and clapped me on the back and said, "We have an event for you now. The Swimming Village will swim for you. We have arranged it." Li Shu-ling grinned, too, his face creased like a prune. He carried a bugle in one hand, a red flag in the other, and both he and Chao climbed into the pilothouse of our boat with us and we chugged into the middle of the river.
Chao then said something to the skipper. The boat stopped. Without warning, Li put his bugle to his lips and blew three horrendous blasts, then began waving his red flag furiously. The shore gradually began to move as people gathered at the riverbanks and, astonishingly, in clusters of a dozen here, 25 there, began throwing themselves joyfully, methodically, into the river. Soon there were thousands of black-haired heads in the ocher water, dark eyes shining and smiles lighting the water's surface. The entire river seemed clogged with people, all swimming, all smiling, all drifting in a vast roiling, splashing flow toward our boat. Like an inexorable tide, they paddled closer and closer. The captain frowned and spat out a curse. The swimmers kept advancing. Li and Chao shouted at them. Our own Mr. Li began to yell. They came closer still, thousands of swimmers. Li Shu-ling began to blow on his bugle. Chao grabbed the red flag to wave. The skipper tried to hang out of the pilothouse to see where there was clear water away from the swimmers. The Chinese air was turning blue, with curses perhaps.
At last Cooke, displaying an instinctive aptitude for the proper move, began to applaud. Of course, so did the swimmers, and as they clapped merrily in the splashing water they stopped advancing and, whatever the crisis may have been, real or imagined, things returned to normal on this sunny afternoon.
And as I stood looking down on all the thousands of them in the river, applauding the strangeness of two Americans, I rather foolishly wished that I somehow had the power to—well, to bless them, yes, to bless the people of the Swimming Village.
Through all of Chinese sport there runs a frayed thread of shabbiness, of games played in worn and faded clothing, in threadbare sneakers, with scuffed old balls on dirt courts. China's sports are poverty's games—pastimes that require little equipment, not much space, little grooming, a minimum of the sophisticated technology and shining material that much of the rest of the world has at its command. There is no denying the enthusiasm for sport in China, no gainsaying the massiveness of participation. Perhaps, however, the truest measure of sport in China today is the look of its people. They are healthy, lean and tough, where before in this century most of them were not. Even if China's children are offered only the games of the poor, performed on the seedy playing fields of the deprived, the fact is they are playing games. And where bare survival used to be the only motive for tens of millions, now there is more to live for. Chairman Mao, who is a poet of sensitivity and insight, wrote a verse in 1956 called Swimming. It speaks to the joys of sport and the eternities that are China, and it goes in part like this:
After swallowing some water at Changsha
I taste a Wuchang fish in the surf and swim across the Yangtze River that winds ten thousand li.
I see the entire Chu sky.
Wind hatters me, waves hit me—I don't care.
Better than walking lazily in the patio.
Today I have a lot of time.
Here on the river the Master said:
"Dying—going into the past—is like a river flowing."