A favorite piece of expat lore among foreigners in early 20th-century China concerned the Chinese government official who called on some Western friends one hot day just as they were starting a game of tennis. They invited him to watch, so he took a seat in the shade, had a servant bring him some green tea, and sat looking on as the foreign devils sweated and struggled through three sets. What did he think of tennis? they asked him when they’d finished. Replied the Mandarin: “Most interesting. But … seeing that the game is so strenuous, why don’t you hire coolies to play it for you?”
Rodney Gilbert, an acute observer of the Chinese eighty years ago, noted that:
The Chinese … have nothing of our appreciation of sport for sport’s sake. They are beginning to comprehend the Western idea of sport for health’s sake … the idea that a mind is all the saner for being housed in a sound body, but … this emulation … is … only another groping and fumbling in the dark after the secret of Occidental strength, success, and prosperity.
Three or four years after that was written, and while the aforementioned piece of expat lore was still being chuckled over in foreigners’ clubs, Chinese sprinter Li Changchun (from my wife’s home town) became the first Chinese citizen to compete in the Olympic Games. Li was in fact the only Chinese citizen to compete in the 1932 Los Angeles summer games. There is a fascinating story behind his participation, told in a rather good book I have just been reading, Xu Guoqi’s Olympic Dreams. (The author’s name is pronounced “Shoo Gwor-chee,” unless you can do a German “ü”, in which case you should substitute it for that “oo”.) Xu’s book gives deep background to the staging of the Olympic Games in Peking this summer, and offers some surprisingly optimistic suggestions as to the possible consequences.
In remotest antiquity, the period that Confucious (5th century B.C.) looked back on as antiquity, the Chinese were actually quite sporting. Archery, horsemanship, charioteering, and the hunt were considered essential accomplishments of the fully-formed gentleman. Confucius himself is supposed to have taken up charioteering in fact, though we have no record of his success at what, given the condition of the roads in that time, must have been a pretty challenging activity.
Some of that spirit survived into later times. A suitor calling on one of the Tang princesses (A.D. 8th century) was told that the lady had gone out riding. However, as Neo-Confucianism firmed up its grip on China’s cultural windpipe in the twelfth century, and the examination system became the one sure path to wealth and power, the mindset of that tennis-watching Mandarin took hold.
That mindset remained dominant until the humiliations of the 19th century persuaded the Chinese that there was something drastically wrong with their customary ways. Early 20th-century reformers began to promote Western ideas about sport. Mao Tse-tung’s earliest published Thought, an essay in the influential reformist journal New Youth, issue dated April 1, 1917, had the title “On Physical Culture.” To cultivate inner strength, said the future Chairman, “one must build a strong body.” Mao trained himself to be a keen hiker and swimmer — though again, not for pleasure or challenge, but for patriotic reasons, as an aid to “national self-strengthening.”
By the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Chinese were able to field a very creditable 69 athletes. They won no medals, and a distressingly high proportion of the athletes were from the British colony of Hong Kong, but Olympics-wise, the Chinese had arrived. World War Two put everything on hold, of course; and the postwar years were, for China, a time of civil war between Mao’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. China’s team at the 1948 London Olympics were so starved for funds they could not afford to stay in the Olympic Village, and had to borrow money for their return fares back to China. As Xu Guoqi notes: “Given this unfortunate situation, simply taking part in the Olympics was important enough that the Chinese persevered, demonstrating the country’s motivation to stay engaged in the world through sports.”
The next thirty years were bedeviled by political wranglings over the relative status of Taiwan and mainland China as sporting representatives of the Chinese nation. From the point of view of the pure Olympic ideal, this should not have mattered to anyone. As Senator Robert Taft wrote when these wranglings came to an exceptionally rancorous head over the 1976 Montreal games: “If we cannot set aside sports, art, science, and other such activities to be the province of individuals, for the benefit of people, as individuals, everywhere, then I cannot believe that the word ‘civilisation’ has much meaning left.” Alas, the great Republican** was appealing to an ideal long since abandoned, even by the Anglo-Saxon powers. It had been a Canadian government minister (and future Prime Minister), Lester Pearson, who observed in 1949 that: “International sport is the means of attaining triumphs over another nation.” Given the more ancient and fmailiar means of attaining such triumphs, perhaps we should not mind the abandonment too much.
What might the effect of the 2008 Olympics be on Chinese society and culture? Here Xu Guoqi offers many interesting and thought-provoking speculations. Some of them have wider scope than just China. Might the Chinese sports machine, for example, produce sprinters capable of challenging the solid dominance of West-Africa-ancestry athletes, playing havoc with our stereotypes? Will the Olympics do anything to reverse the trend back towards an “examination culture,” in which, says Xu, “young Chinese have become fatter, less active, and overall less healthy, mainly due to a lack of exercise”? Which is a better model for the political fallout from the Peking Olympics: Berlin 1936, Mexico 1968, or Seoul 1988? (Which is to say, from the point of view of the survival of a deplorable government, positive, zero, or negative?) Will the relentless campaigns to improve the manners of urban Chinese ahead of the Olympics bear any fruit? Xu is not hopeful about that one:
Although Chinese living standards have improved enormously, widespread social injustice and a weak legal system have made China a very unhappy society that simply cannot make its population smile no matter how much pressure or encouragement the government exerts.
He is guardedly hopeful, though, that a love of sport, fortified by an Olympic success, might help bring about political reform. This sounds odd, but he makes a good case. China’s sports establishments are as Party-dominated, un-self-critical, rigid, and corrupt as all China’s other public institutions. Soccer, for example, which is a very popular spectator sport in China, is addled with corruption, with some equivalent of the Black Sox Scandal happening somewhere in China pretty much every week, to widespread public anger and frustration. Says Xu:
The real solution to the corruption and other problems that plague Chinese sports is to create governing bodies for sports that are free from government control. To achieve that goal, China needs political reform — and an overwhelming cry for cleaner, better sports might lead to such reforms.
What a thought! — that what could not be accomplished by the struggles and sacrifices of innumerable brave dissidents, might be brought about at last by sports fans! It’s not impossible, though. I once heard George Will remark that he’d written a shelf of books about politics, and just one book about baseball, and his royalty statements told him where America’s heart lies. Perhaps China’s heart lies in the same place. At any rate, I’m obliged to Xu Guoqi for a valuable book that left me with much to think about.
** [A reader corrects me] Mr. Derbyshire: I think that the Senator Robert Taft who talked about the Olympics in 1976 was not the “great Republican” who almost beat Eisenhower for the GOP nomination in 1952, but his significantly less great son, Robert Taft Jr., elected to the Senate in 1970, who was then defeated for re-election in 1976 after one undistinguished term and gave us in his place, the hyper left-wing Howard Metzenbaum.