Zhang Liyin (third from left) and her tiny mates may beam, but even for them spare-time sports school is no joke
August 14, 1988

When a child is born in china, friends lift their glasses to the new parents and say, "Wang zi cheng long" ("May your child become a dragon"). It's what every parent wants, but it's not so easy to come by. To become a dragon, to become sturdy of mind and concrete of will, the child must be able to chi ku, ("eat bitterness"). And right now, Zhang Liyin, 6, is chi ku-ing by the bowlful.

Standing on a balance beam at a spare-time sports school in Beijing, she poises her arms outward as she readies herself to do a backflip and land on the beam. She's barefoot, with chalk on her hands, and she wears the elite bright-red gymnast suit given to only the best 10 girls in her class of six-to eight-year-olds. But her face shows dread. She can't bring herself to do the flip. Maybe it's because she has had a hard week. A red and purple strawberry decorates her right leg, and a nasty gouge colors her left knee. No matter, there's only so much standing-there-looking-poised a little girl in this school can do before she's in trouble. Liyin is in trouble.

Her coach, a woman in her late 20's, makes her jump from the beam and escorts her to the high bar, where she's told to hang for three minutes. If she falls, she must get back up and start over.

She doesn't fall and is escorted back to the beam. Again, she stands poised, but that's it. She can't persuade her 4'1" body to do the backflip. This time her coach calls her over to the floor-exercise mat in the center of the huge, window-lit room. Liyin knows this isn't a good omen. Her eyes are full of remorse, but the coach isn't angry. She's smiling. Both know what will happen next.

Liyin is told to sit with her legs spread-eagled and her feet propped up on one-foot-high stools. From behind, the coach pushes Liyin's chest and face toward the blue mat until her forehead touches it. But touching isn't enough. The coach sits on Liyin's back, forcing her abdomen, chest and face flush against the mat. All the while, Liyin has kept her feet propped on the stools. She cries quietly but doesn't scream. Her mother, permitted a rare visit to the gymnastics room this day, turns her head. "It's too cruel," she says.

The punishment lasts two minutes and is repeated after a one-minute rest. Liyin is escorted back to the beam, where, without delay, she turns a perfect backflip and lands on the beam.

Next dragon, please.

It's 8 a.m., and Liyin's mom keeps telling the kid how lucky she is, while Liyin tries to figure out a way to hide her rice porridge under her steamed bread. The Zhangs live in a two-room, 36-by-12-foot apartment in the Western District of Beijing. O.K., so the apartment is a little cramped by American standards. Actually, it's a little cramped by sardine standards. But it costs only a small portion of the 230 yuan ($60) Liyin's father, who's a public relations assistant, brings home each month.

The family room is also the dining room is also the bedroom. The Zhangs all sleep in the same double bed, though Dad usually winds up on the floor. The other room is the kitchen, not much bigger than a 747 bathroom. It has a one-flame gas stove, a one-temperature faucet spilling into one bowl on one stand. When the bowl fills up, it gets dumped onto the one-drain floor. The Zhangs share a toilet down the hall. There's no shower or bathtub in the apartment building. To bathe, one must go to the public shower hall two blocks away, but for that you need tickets and sometimes you have to stand in line. The Zhangs don't like to stand in line, so when they feel like a shower, they walk to Liyin's grandparents' house, three blocks away.

All in all, this isn't a bad arrangement, except that's not the reason Liyin's mother keeps telling her she's lucky. She's lucky because in the afternoons Liyin attends a spare-time sports school, a privilege bestowed upon only 260,000 of China's 200 million elementary-to college-age pupils.

When a teacher from the Western District Spare-Time School, one of the eight such schools in Beijing, asked Liyin's parents for permission to enroll her, it was a proposition they couldn't refuse because the Communist Party has decided that sports is one of the best ways to prove that China has arrived in the modern world. China's stunning 15-gold, 32-medal performance in 1984 in Los Angeles, where it made its first appearance in the Olympic Summer Games since '52, reaffirmed the official Chinese view that the Games give the developing country the biggest p.r. bang for its buck. And the spare-time system—a hierarchy of schools designed to produce Olympic champions—has been the backbone of sporting success. Refusing to allow their daughter to contribute to the effort to "bring glory to Beijing city and to China," as one parent puts it, would be unpatriotic, so the Zhangs enrolled Liyin at the Western District school.

Besides, what other road to the Olympics is there? In China there are precious few neighborhood playgrounds. According to the government of the People's Republic, there's one gym for every 3.5 million people. In America the next great Olympic basketball star might be forging his game by himself in Hell's Kitchen, but that sort of thing rarely happens in China. Eighty percent of China's national team members come from spare-time schools, and 90% of Chinese record holders have been spare-timers.

Of course, spare-time students are about as spare time as a first-year medical intern. Most spare-time schools are full of students who live, study and train at the school. Only a few attend a normal school and then come to the spare-time school afterward. Liyin, who's too young for the spare-time-school kindergarten, stays at home during the mornings and goes to the school from noon to six.

A spare-timer can stay enrolled until he or she no longer shows potential to take the next step up. If that potential is deemed to be lacking, the child is asked to leave. It's a system set up to find the one in a million, or in China's case, the one in a billion. One spare-time school, Shishahai, the Notre Dame of Beijing spare-time schools, actually has full-time kids who are still in nursery school. "It's a big, big net to make sure we get the best fish," says one official of a school. "That's the advantage of socialism."

Success is all in the selection process. Like nearly every other spare-timer, Liyin wasn't picked because she could do cartwheels and somersaults. She was picked for her build, her flexibility, her personality and, most of all, her taste for chi ku. She was merely playing in a nursery school class when a coach from the spare-time school spotted her. "She had broad shoulders, narrow hips, straight legs, symmetrical limbs, open-minded-ness, vivaciousness and an outgoing personality," says the coach.

Indeed, after a few days of hanging around spare-time schools, you can guess a kid's sport by his build alone. The volleyball players are uniformly tall and lanky, with long legs and big hands. If you were to take the members of a typical volleyball class and line them up for a group photo, their heights would be so equal it would be impossible to determine who should go in the back row and who should be in the front. "We go into the elementary school classes and pick the tallest children." says Tian Chuanhai, the volleyball coach at the Shishahai Spare-Time Sports School. "It's O.K. if they're skinny. It's easier to develop their physiques sideways than upward."

Wu shu (as "martial arts" is called in China) athletes are of medium height and weight and are exceptionally quick, with loads of shaosa, bold and free movement. They have highly toned muscles and more handsome faces than their spare mates in other sports. Wu shu is the dryland cousin of figure skating: Great talent is nice, but great talent and a striking profile are much nicer. Weightlifters, even at 10 and 11 years old, are squatty and thick-boned. Wrestlers are tested by Shishahai wrestling coach Li Shuyuan for "softness," which is how the Chinese describe finesse and quickness.

During the selection process, the coaches don't even care if a child has never played a particular sport. They're guessing what a kid might be good at. For instance, Bao Yanming came to Shishahai as a promising discus thrower, but he hasn't thrown a discus since arriving there. The coaches who saw him work out with the discus invited him to enroll as a wrestler.

If a child is plucked out of day-care or elementary school, it's possible he could get his entire education in the Chinese sports-school system. Take Liyin. If she continues to show progress at the Western District school, she could be asked to move in full time next year. She would go to school there, study there and live in a dorm there six days out of seven. It's an idea her father has grown to like. "I know we'd miss her," he says, "but with my wife to begin working soon and me so busy, it would be nice."

If she is very good at gymnastics, she could stay at the school until she is 16. If she is terrific, she could be shipped over to Shishahai, where the elite meet to compete. Shishahai is like the other sports schools—it has every facility imaginable for sports: a giant Ping-Pong room with 30 tables and 2,000 balls (for the younger kids, the legs of the tables are cut down); a giant gymnastics room; an Olympic-sized swimming pool; outdoor (read: dirt) basketball and tennis courts; wrestling, weightlifting and volleyball centers; an indoor basketball court; a giant, many-mirrored wu shu room; housing (six kids to a room); a cafeteria and, oh, yes, a smattering of classrooms. The difference is that there's one preeminent spare-time school in each major city, and Shishahai is the one for Beijing. It has the best athletes and the best teachers and offers its students the best chances to travel to competitions.

If Liyin excels at a place like Shishahai, she would be given a hard look by one of the national teams. From these teams come the Olympians. But even if she never advances past Western District, she could still earn a scholarship at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, an entire college for jocks—and jock teachers, jock coaches and even jock scientists.

The Beijing Institute, modeled after Moscow's famous Frunze Military Academy, was built in 1953. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed since then, especially in the field house. Still, to walk into it is to happen upon an explosion of sports, of young Chinese athletes trying to learn, elbow-to-throat, shot put-to-high hurdle. On a vast floor entirely of dirt, institute students are happily at work on their specialties. Short-distance runners are lapping middle-distance runners who are lapping long-distance runners. In all, there are probably 150 athletes jostling for breathing room on the five-lane, 400-meter dirt track. Sprinters try to time their dashes down the back straight to avoid hitting the runners. Any time given a sprinter must factor in how many bodies he had to dodge. It would be easier to clock someone doing the 100-yard dash down Fifth Avenue at 5 p.m.

Around the outside of the track, using every inch, are weightlifters, javelin throwers practicing their footwork, rope climbers, stretchers, squatters, pommel-horse riders, ankle-taping trainers and muscle-kneading masseurs, gymnasts and trampolinists, shot put and discus heavers firing their projectiles into huge nets. The infield is full of broad jumpers, high jumpers, pole vaulters and hurdlers. China is a child grown too big for its clothes, and this is its playroom.

The institute is packed because sports has become one of the chic careers in China. Next to actors, athletes are revered the most. Chinese youth are no different from the rest of the world's teenagers: They want two things—fame and money—and suddenly, sports can give both to them.

All the kids at Shishahai earn a monthly salary—it's euphemistically called a "supplement"—and compete for bonus money. This sort of thing was unheard of 10 years ago, or even two years ago. Two of Shishahai's girl weightlifters, one 15, the other 16, recently set world records for their weight and age classes and were rewarded with bonuses of 300 yuan (about $80) apiece. "I think I'll buy some chocolate," said one.

Ten of the wu shu students at Shishahai have been in martial arts movies, which are immensely popular in China. And one of them, 22-year-old Kou Zhanwen, who runs off to do movies between competitions, is an out-and-out star. In his latest film, First Sword Under Heaven, Kou kills "uncountable" foes, he says, with a remarkable variety of flips, turns, kicks, spinning swipes and impossibly fast sweeps of his wu shu weapons.

Chinese athletes of today have an unprecedented chance to succeed and to gain material rewards for that success. The problem is, they're doing it almost alone. There's no library of dusty film strips for them to consult; there's no reservoir of exhilarating international triumphs from which they may draw spiritual uplift. There's only a huge, black gap in their country's athletic history—the Cultural Revolution—and although its extreme phase lasted only several years, it set back China, which wasn't very advanced athletically anyhow, perhaps 20 years in technique and experience. Liyin and her contemporaries are being asked to make up time.

When her mother sends her to the neighborhood store some mornings to pick up groceries, Liyin will do a cartwheel or two for the clerks' amusement. Sometimes they'll be so delighted with her that they'll give her a dried fish stick. Liyin is a charmer, all right. No wonder it won't be easy on her parents if the spare-time school invites her to move in full-time. Then again, the price is almost too good to pass up. The cost would be only about 20 yuan a month (about $5), which covers room, board and some of the best training in Beijing.

Still, there are more and more parents who are refusing the opportunity to send their children to spare-time schools. As part of China's policy of population control, Chinese couples are given strong incentives to have only one child. The penalty for having more is a substantial fine—usually about 15% of the couple's annual salary—and the loss of some privileges, such as ration coupons for grain and appliances. Under this system, Chinese kids have become exquisitely precious to their parents. Adults may dress in drab blues and grays, but their children are turned out like Prince William. "The child is the emperor of the house" goes a new Chinese saying. And kids like Liyin are the last emperors. Some parents have decided they don't want to give up their emperors for six days out of every seven.

The papers call it the "single-child syndrome," and some people think it's spoiling the kids and hurting China's spare-time system. "Children are going soft," says Yin Guanghuan, the deputy director of Liyin's school. "The people of my generation went through economic difficulties. We learned to eat bitterness. Before them, our parents were in war. Today, now that our economic standards are better, parents spoil the children. Our children do not have as strong a fighting spirit as those of the Eastern European children. Parents must teach them bitterness."

If there's one thing that spare-time students won't do, it's go soft. For kids at Shishahai, the day begins at 6 a.m. with breakfast, followed by four hours of classes and studying until 11:30 a.m. Then there's lunch and a nap from noon to 2:30, four grueling hours of training, dinner until 7, more studies from 7 to 9 and lights out at 9:30. Students are not permitted to leave the campus, except on Wednesday nights, when they may go out after dinner until 9:30, barely enough time to catch a good wu shu flick. There are no TVs allowed in the school, no in-room phones or stereos and no dating. The penalty for breaking these rules is official criticism. Coke, VCRs and Colonel Sanders may have arrived in Beijing, but the honor of China is still the most precious commodity.

At Western District, the regimen is no less demanding. The drills are always timed. For instance, Liyin is required to do 20 standing back-flips in 90 seconds. The parents who keep their kids here do it to teach them chi ku. "We brought our son here to build for him a strong will," says the boy's mother. Lieu Junjie. "At first, my son refused to come here because of the hardships, but we insisted on it. Now he can beat me in arm wrestling." Her child is seven. Liyin's parents want discipline, too. Some days, if the weather is cold, they purposely don't dress her warmly. Says her mother, "We want to toughen her."

But it's not just the sometimes cruel discipline of the spare-time schools that turns some parents off. In a recent poll taken by the Shanghai Evening News, 65% of the city's parents said their children love sports, but only 1.2% said they would choose to send their kids to a spare-time school. Mostly, they worry about the academics at the schools, which are lousy. The better an athlete gets in the spare-time system, the less time he has for hitting the books. Most athletes are too busy training to attempt to go through the rigorous process leading to university admission, and since very few athletes become bona fide stars, they've missed the one thing that helps them get a good job—a good education.

So there are still a few bugs in the system. The party is working on eliminating them. A change just announced will allow a few really good college-age athletes to go for one year to a good school, like Beijing University, without taking the mandatory three days of entrance exams that probably would weed them out. Sort of a Proposition 48 with a Chinese twist.

Perhaps someday Liyin will be one of these special kids; perhaps she will have all things—a good education, a good salary and an Olympic gold medal. But for now, she's just one of the many fish. And every day she's tested to see if she will fall through the net. Today, standing on that beam, was a harder test than most. But she did the flip. She showed them she could chi ku. She is still in the net.

Maybe tomorrow Liyin will "bring glory to Beijing city and to China," but for today, as her father pedals her home through the rush-hour traffic, Liyin is just a six-year-old girl who has fallen asleep against his back.

Even dragons get the nights off.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)