Amid Beijing’s soft-power push, sporting is making a national comeback.
A spring breeze carries sea spray, pink flower petals, and the shrieking of a soldering gun over the hum of early evening. The sun goes down on a Tier 3 city in South China and the sporting begins.
One day I take a taxi 45 minutes to a tennis complex hemmed in on one side by wilderness and two others by a construction zone to play with a duo of Eastern European expats. They drive luxury vehicles, paid for by their tracksuit import/export business. We head to Pizza Hut afterwards to eat spaghetti and mushroom soup. Both men date older Chinese women.
Another day I meet the softspoken ex-military manager of the school’s security team, his rambunctious companion who speaks completely in colloquialisms, and 13 of their friends to play pick-up basketball. A few of them are obviously ex-college athletes, and they work a variety of post-industrial middle-class jobs. When the games finish they change into designer clothes and hypebeast sneakers.
To walk around some of the public parks in Xiamen during the hour before and after sunset is to bear witness to a human tidal wave of sports activities. The fair weather conditions of the region, the public parks produced by centralized urban planning, and globalized sports culture’s increasingly deep reach into the Chinese psyche make for a frictionless athletics environment.
I work at a brand-new private school, founded by a financial group that has tasked a team of newly promoted administrators to produce very quickly a return on their investment. The pressure on the Chinese teachers to bring about high test scores and word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied parents is extreme. My coworkers thus eagerly embrace the chance to decompress through physical activity. There is visible relief on their faces when they are able to escape the office and exorcise the ghosts of the micromanaging admin teams through sweat and laughter.
Physical exercise has been vaunted for millennia as not only a respite from the repetition of the work day or the humiliation of servitude, whether to a feudal master or the wage relationship, but also as a transcendent act with implications for the structure of social organization. The most conspicuous classical sources are the Greeks, the Persians, and the Mayans, but the importance of sporting as a non-instrumental component of culture that is nonetheless held in high esteem also has strong roots in the Qin and Han dynasties of China. The Han dynasty saw Confucianism inducted as the official state ideology. Of the Six Arts of the Confucian Gentleman, two are archery and chariot driving. This period is also home to the earliest recorded predecessor to modern-day soccer, initially conceptualized as fitness training for wealthy military units and then adopted by court royalty.
Millennia later, late Qing dynasty reformers reinscribed recreational sports culture into the fabric of the new China they were trying to build, a direct reaction to imperial conflict and the discovery of the yawning horizon of modernity. This process continued into the early Republican period, where a nationalistic and eugenicist klaxon call was sounded to improve the bodies of Chinese men and women in order to build up the strength, morality, and fortitude of the body-politic after the events of the end of the 19th century. Calls to end foot binding were a highly visible element of these reforms, but they extended far and beyond. In 1910, a National Athletic Meet was organized in conjunction with the National Industrial Exposition in Nanjing, a duo of foreign-facing demonstrations of modernity. This event was a product of the efforts of the Chinese YMCA and the coalescing of a modern culture of physical improvement, heavily inspired by the translations of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer.
Throughout the 20th century, China’s concerted focus on sports culture was directly tied to its nation-building project, in its revolutionary, socialist, and then reformist modes. China has eagerly embraced the nationalism and Great Power Conflict microcosm of the Olympic Games, and Xi Jinping has sought to establish at least a small part of his legacy as the man who finally develops the Chinese national soccer team.
Chinese soccer has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks. As a tennis player, however, I can relay the more honorable story of Wu Yibing (nicknamed simply 天赋, or Gifted, Yibing) conquering not one, not two, but four of the North American tennis superstars in a string of progressively dramatic upsets in order to become, at the age of 23, the first Chinese man ever in the Open Era to win a title. And he did it in Dallas, Texas, of all places. He hits his forehand with pure and simple technique, hips rotating so smoothly it is hard to tell if he has moved or not, and it is only when the ball bounces on the other side of the court and his opponent looks like they’ve been hit with a gust of wind that one realizes how hard he’s hit it.
Behind the good-humored figure of Wu is the bemusing awkwardness of the outcome of the event. As relations between America and China hit freezing temperatures, the central Texas crowd watched with increasing wonder as this young, charismatic, and quietly nationalistic Chinese man embarrassed the home turf heroes. Wu did not bask in his victory but announced matter-of-factly that he made history for his country and that other young Chinese men would soon be following his precedent. No one spoke about what was happening off the court.
The late social critic and historian Christopher Lasch wrote about the agonistic potential of sporting to serve as resistance against the dehumanizing effects of postmodern capitalism. His was a conservative argument about the ability of sport to produce human bonds forged through an appreciation of rituals executed flawlessly. It was a way of thinking about the potential for leisure time to be a return but also a rupture.
Rupture and return are familiar concepts in China. Even in sports, China is making plans to deliver a new and shiny future. Soccer education has become a standardized part of the national PE curriculum. Private and national academies in table tennis, badminton, and weightlifting continue to receive immense economic support. And overseas sports leagues have seen a dramatic influx in Chinese investment and advertising in response to burgeoning Chinese viewership. At the same time, it is impossible to separate these future-oriented concerns from the dark inheritance of a violent imperial struggle and the nationalism that erupted out of it.
As we play basketball that day, the sun finally disappears under the horizon, briefly scattering light across the court as the birds go quiet in the park beyond. Cement trucks honk at each other and an orange crane stretches its neck over a dusty construction site, conjoined with the silhouette of the basketball hoop. It is hit by one final ray of the evacuating light, shining briefly a wet, wet, crimson.