Sports—both traditional and, like women's bodybuilding, daringly new—are changing in China's cities
August 14, 1988

The long rectangular table was set for 30, but because only 10 of us were in attendance, 20 porcelain mugs of steaming tea sat cooling before empty places. There was also an embarrassing wealth of watermelon and bananas and biscuits for our consumption. This was standard procedure during our stay in Chengdu, a city of four million people and the capital of Sichuan, the most populous province in China. Each interview began with one of these formal sittings. Tea and food were served, ignored and disposed of discreetly, never having touched human lips. Information was spewed out as if by rote.

"One of the remarkable changes in China in the last 10 years is that youngsters are getting more and more active in sports," said Zhu Chuando, deputy president of the Sichuan Sports Commission. "There are two reasons for this. First, the Chinese team went to the Olympics in Los Angeles and got a very good result, winning 15 gold medals. Second, in the last 10 years the Chinese economy has been getting quite well, which means there's more spare time for sports. The masses have enough food, better clothes. We still do not have sports facilities to meet the needs of all the people in this province. So the focus is on the youngsters. We need more money from the government to rectify this shortcoming. In other developing countries, one percent of the budget is spent for sports. In China we spend only four tenths of one percent of our budget. But we have hopes this will change."

He did not present this observation with resignation, for the changes in Chinese life in recent years have been palpable. China's standard of living, still low by Western standards, is on the rise, a fact most evident in the cities, where I focused my look at sports in China. The faces on the streets of those cities are generally hopeful; the people's clothing is clean and colorful; the children are well cared for and healthy. New buildings are going up everywhere. Private enterprise has a foothold and is spreading like a fire storm.

That China is also a country in transition athletically was brought home when we asked if it was true, as we had read, that table tennis, the sport that helped open the doors to the West, was declining in popularity. "In the past, table tennis was a big item for spectators in our country," said Zhu. "Now only the highest level of table tennis is of interest. There are complicated psychological reasons for this. We've developed interest in some new sports, and table tennis is associated with the old China."

Of the new sports, which are most popular?

"Bodybuilding and aerobics," he said with pride. "Now that living conditions have improved, the people want their bodies more fit, more beautiful, more healthy."

The surge in sports interest in China, then, goes beyond the government's primary goal of building Olympic programs. We saw this later that morning while visiting a Children's Palace, a YMCA-type facility that is also the training center of Chen Jing, a former acrobatic gymnast and China's bodybuilding champion in 1986. She is very much representative of the new China: a part-time model who has traveled to the U.S. and Europe for aerobics competitions. She recently started her own aerobics and bodybuilding business, charging participants 30 yuan ($8) for three months of thrice-weekly, 90-minute classes.

She is one of a growing number of Chinese bodybuilders. Chen started working with weights in 1986, at which time bodybuilding for either sex was just getting going in China, and the idea of a bikini-clad woman greasing up to compete publicly was scandalous. Two-piece bathing suits still aren't acceptable for Chinese women at public pools. But China has taken to bodybuilding with a fascination that has astounded observers familiar with the modesty of the people.

"This is really very new," our translator, Gao Min, assured us, his eyes nearly popping out of his head as a trio of Chinese women flexed in front of a wall of mirrors. "Ordinarily Chinese women are very conservative. But it's O.K.," he added approvingly. "Very graceful. Very beautiful."

We were introduced to another non-Olympic sport—and one uniquely Chinese—that afternoon when we visited the Chengdu Electric Welding Machine Research Institute to see jian qiu, a game invented on the docks of Shanghai in the 1940s. It is played with a modified badminton shuttlecock, and the rules are similar to those of volleyball, except players use their feet (and occasionally their heads) rather than their hands to propel the shuttlecock over the net. Once a year there's a citywide jian qiu competition among Chengdu businesses for something called the Electric Welding Cup. The tournament is held in the research institute's huge conference room, where one of Mao's most frequently quoted slogans is written in bright red Chinese characters on a large banner: PROMOTE PHYSICAL CULTURE AND SPORTS AND BUILD UP THE PEOPLE'S HEALTH.

Even more interesting than the organized jian qiu games are the informal kick-arounds that occur in the institute's courtyard each morning and afternoon during the workers' 15-minute breaks. They are pure frivolity, the sort of activity that was unthinkable during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. Until two years ago the welding machine researchers merely stepped outside and smoked during their breaks. Then institute director Li Jianquo encouraged them to ivy jian qiu. It took a while to catch on, but now nearly all 400 workers participate, arrayed in ill-formed circles as they try to keep the shuttlecock aloft. "This game is very suitable for scientists," Li told us. "Most people who work in the institute are pen pushers. They need a break but do not want to expend much energy, and this game, which requires so little space, is perfect."

In the two years since he introduced jian qiu to his workers, Li has also seen an increase in their productivity and health. "They come back full of life," he says. "You can see it in their spirit."

A similar spirit was evident at the People's North Street Primary School in Chengdu, which, like many city schools in China, has undergone dramatic changes in the past couple of years. The principal explained how it came to pass that this school of 1,037 students had both indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The school's administrators, frustrated by a lack of funds, started a school-owned printing company in the early 1980s. With the printing profits, the school, which already had an outdoor pool, was able to build a smaller indoor one.

As the principal spoke, a bell rang, signaling a 15-minute recess, and 700 youngsters streamed onto the small dirt schoolyard. It was a tight fit, but then, the Chinese are used to that. Loosely organized groups of 10 to 15 kids began playing a variety of games, such as tag; duck duck goose; one-two-three; red light, green light; and blindman's bluff. "This is very new," the principal said. "Only last year during recess the children would do mass exercises. Jumping jacks and touching their toes, those sorts of things. The children didn't like these exercises. So this year we have tried to think of other ways to entertain them. We're a pioneer school in this respect, and, you know, we've found that they study better afterward."

His pride was understated, but, if one has survived the last half century in China, a certain sense of caution must be ingrained. Policies have had a way of reversing themselves, often abruptly. Clearly, playground frolicking instead of organized exercises was one policy the principal hoped would persist.

The schoolyard cleared, and then a group of older boys and girls came outside for gym class. Leading the way was a teacher who carried a portable tape player—a ghetto blaster, in the American vernacular. She turned it on, cranked up the volume and led her class through half an hour of aerobic dancing to Western rock music. Our final glimpse of the schoolyard was of black ponytails bobbing up and down to the beat.

Wuhan, also known as the Furnace of China, is set on the banks of the Yangtze River in central Hubei Province. It is a grim city of nearly five million inhabitants, whose sole tourist attraction is an eight-story renovated pagoda on a ridge called Snake Hill. When we asked the local sports representative what else there was to see, he thought for a minute before replying, "Nothing." When further pressed, he owned that had we been in town a week earlier we could have seen the farmers' bicycle race, in which farmers from the province pedaled around a course with their bicycles loaded with sand. "We try to limit the speed, because the farmers are not skilled on bicycles," said the official, explaining the sand.

If the farmers aren't skilled bicyclists, almost everyone else in the vicinity of Wuhan is. In the next few days we saw just about anything that could be moved, from slaughtered pigs to refrigerators, toted about town on the backs of bicycles.

This brought home an important point: Most Chinese exercise exhaustively in their day-to-day existence. They bicycle to work; they lay sewer pipe by digging ditches with pickaxes and shovels; they tear up asphalt with mallets and chisels. As a result, we did not see more than a handful of early-morning joggers, for only the privileged few have the time and need to exercise to keep fit. Living keeps most Chinese fit.

We had come to Wuhan for a women's basketball tournament that included the Chinese Olympic team, the top Chinese youth team, a team from Hubei Province and top-or second-tier teams from Russia, Poland, Romania, Japan and Stanford University. The Chinese Olympians were much the best, mainly because of 6'8", 260-pound center Zheng Haixia, a fearsome athlete who could play the Chief in a remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Stanford coach Tara Van-Derveer, whose team finished seventh in the eight-team field, called Zheng "the best women's center in the world."

The tournament was held in an air-conditioned 7,500-seat arena, though the air-conditioning was so suspect that many of the spectators at the sold-out final brought handheld fans. Tickets cost five, seven or nine yuan, a sizable sum when one considers that the average monthly salary in Wuhan is 100 yuan. But this was a special occasion. International competition is a rarity in China, and spectator sports of any kind are far from common. For instance, the next weekend in Shanghai, a metropolis of 12 million, there were no sports events that were open to the public.

Wuhan's basketball court was surrounded by advertisements. So was the mezzanine's facade. Photographers were asked to move if they tarried in front of one of the sponsors' signs. Even the name of the tournament—the Zhong-na Aviation Enterprises Group Cup—sounded like something from the PGA Tour. This, too, is the new China.

The crowd was expressive, at times even loud. At the end of the half a gong, not a buzzer, sounded, and almost everyone filed into the corridor behind the stands to smoke. There were no food vendors, and parched spectators jostled for the attention of one woman behind a folding table who was selling warm soft drinks for two yuan each.

When the game resumed, the fans applauded good plays, groaned at near misses and laughed at plays that were out of the ordinary: balls that teetered on the rim before falling in, peculiar bounces, jump balls between mismatched players. And the spectators loved the three-point field goals. Three-point shooting, it turned out, is something of an obsession in China. The basketball hierarchy there, having decided that the Chinese will never have the speed of the Americans or the height of the Eastern Europeans, encourages players to shoot threes at a young age. To that end, in all games between Chinese teams, a team's three-point baskets become four-pointers after it has sunk four long ones. This has produced a nation of gunners.

Virtually every factory of any size has a basketball court, but few have one as fancy as that of the Wuhan steel mill, which employs 140,000 workers. The factory, which has become profitable with the changes in the Chinese economy, put a roof over its court last year at a cost of a million yuan. The floor is now surrounded by 2,700 seats and is used not only by factory workers but also by teams from all over Hubei Province. However, its main function, as we were told by Wang Jiafu, a factory official, was to serve as the home court of Wuhan steel's "representative teams," the mill's semipro men's and women's basketball teams. (Wuhan steel also has a semipro soccer team.)

This is yet another trend in China's cities. Wuhan steel has supported its representative teams for 1½ years at a considerable cost: 500,000 yuan a year for players' salaries and travel expenses. The players are recruited right out of specialized sports schools and spend one third of their time doing factory jobs and two thirds practicing their sports and going to tournaments against other representative teams. They are paid slightly more than the average worker. When asked if the pay differential didn't lead to jealousy among the workers, Wang said, "No problem. The workers feel pride in our factory when the players win." The head of the workers' union concurred, and there seemed to be no reason to doubt them. For one thing, the steel mill's workers are treated well: The indoor basketball court is just one of four large sports facilities the factory owns; among them, they can accommodate just about any sport. Forty-five percent of the workers take active part in one athletic activity or another. Only five years ago that figure was 30%, and the goal five years from now is for 60% to 70% of the workers to be involved in an organized sport. Furthermore the workers' families are allowed to use the factory's athletic facilities when the facilities are not otherwise engaged, and many children have learned to swim in the factory pool.

There's another reason why these better-paid athletes have been accepted by fellow workers. "We have a problem in China," said our interpreter. "Often there's not enough for people to do, since there are two people to do one job." Factory-sponsored sports teams alleviate that to some degree.

Change was also in the air at the #4 Wuhan Middle School. "The experiment here is to see if we can develop elite athletes outside the spare-time sports schools [page 70]," the principal, Xiao Xongzhang, said. "This is the first year of the program, so it's too early to guess the results. But I think it has a bright future. A lot of parents don't want to send their kids to the spare-time schools, where the students don't study."

We had visited a spare-time sports school and listened to educators lament about how the daily four hours of athletic training sapped the students' concentration, so that all the kids wanted to do in class was sleep. At Wuhan #4 Middle School, where academic standards are so high that an astonishing 60% of students qualify for university, athletic training time has been restricted to 2½ hours a day, an hour in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon. The 42 student-athletes, all of whom specialize in track and field, live in their own dorm, attend separate classes from the other 1,500 students, eat specially prepared meals and in just about all other respects are cut off from the rest of the school. They train six days a week, even during vacations. Their reward? "They have a very good future if they study well," said Xiao. "If they are good at sports, points will be added to their examination scores and a university education is likely." As in the U.S., then, athletic skill in China is becoming a ticket to college admission—a considerable reward in a nation in which only 10% of the students who take the university entrance exams are admitted.

No athletes in China enjoy more lavish advantages than those training in water sports at Shanghai's Competitive Sports Institute. Its indoor swimming complex, built in 1983, has two 50-meter pools, 15 diving boards and platforms and seats for 4,099 spectators. The institute's synchronized swimming, water polo, swimming and diving teams can all train there at once. Deep in the bowels of the building is a room that has eight boards from which young divers practice springing into foam-padded pits and two huge trampolines. An adjacent room houses mats for tumbling and mirrored walls for the ballet training given to both divers and synchronized swimmers.

These facilities—and others similar (though generally less lavish) to them in other cities—will keep the Chinese at the top of international diving for years to come. During workouts in Shanghai, seven-year-olds did handstands and double backflips off the 10-meter tower, entering the water as if sucked into a vacuum. "Chinese people do not have great stamina," says Yuan Xingxong, diving coach for the institute. "But we are quick and have slender hips, which is good for our sport. We look very carefully at body type before selecting our young divers, because if you're too tall, for example, you should be a swimmer. We look at the body size of the parents. And there are other ways to tell."

One of those other ways is to X-ray a youngster's wrists, which the Chinese—and some European sports experts—believe hold some obscure genetic key to a child's future growth. The same procedure is followed with potential gymnasts. The goal of the sports institutes—and every Chinese city has one—is to create elite-level athletes in each Olympic sport, and in a few sports indigenous to China, like wu shu ("martial arts") and tai chi. The athletes at these institutes, most of them of college age but some as young as six, train three to four hours a day and go to classes for four hours. The best of them are selected to train in Beijing with the national teams.

Without question, there is an elitist aspect to sports in China not only at these institutes but at all levels. Much time and effort are expended on the very few who rise to the top at an early age. But that will change. A nation of 1.1 billion people can't create sports facilities for the masses overnight. The people of China, accustomed to the glacial pace of their government, don't seem to expect things to be moving any more quickly than they are. In fact, they seem grateful for the gains that have been made.

This became clearer to us on our final morning in Shanghai, when we visited a public tennis facility, one of only five in this huge city. Of the nine courts available, six were in use, including one that featured a colorful foursome of septuagenarians. One of them had somehow acquired a Boston Red Sox cap, another a San Diego Padres cap. It's rare to see elderly Chinese engaged in a physical activity other than tai chi, and we asked one of the tennis players if he took part in other sports. Yes, he said, he liked to fish for carp, shoot pool and play golf, a game that has recently come into fashion in China. Fourteen courses have been built by foreign investors, and more important, Zhao Ziyang, heir apparent to China's No. 1 man, Deng Xiaoping, is an avid duffer. The discussion got around to the tennis player's occupation, and he hesitantly allowed that he was a government official of fairly high rank who was visiting from Beijing. He declined to give his name but said he was 73. Then he was asked whether sports like golf and tennis, aside from being inherently elitist, weren't also a colossal waste of space in a country with China's population.

He was comfortable with the question. "I do not believe these things to be a waste of land," he said. "A city cannot plan only with buildings. You need open spaces and grassland. We would like to see more golf courses, more tennis courts. But it will be a long time before these sports will be afforded by the people. We are still very poor." He smiled, displaying broken teeth. "Come back and see us again in a few years. I think you will find that many things have changed."

Many things already have.


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