Despite the civil unrest between the Guomindang and the Communists, the struggle against the Japanese invasion and the relative poverty of the peasant population, Chinese traditional sports together with ‘new’ sports brought in by ‘foreigners’ continued to survive and (later) flourish. This is as much a comment on the resilience of sport as it is on Chinese society, but it serves to emphasize two important aspects of sport in China over the 1949-1979’s. First, that whatever the Communist revolution led to-such as the emancipation of women (for example from bound feet and concubinage), the freeing of peasants from the land, official rejection of Confucianism, eradication of the bourgeoisie and the mercantile class-it did not (and could not) eradicate the influence of tradition in every area of life.
Second, in adopting western sports such as track and field, China was entering the international arena of sport. This matched in some way the move towards the four modernizations of the post-Maoist era: agriculture, science and technology, industry and national defense. The rapid development of international sport in the final decades of this century has relied heavily on the input of science and technology. But it has also created a modern and fashionable image in the designer clothes market that is influential in setting trends for young people. Thus, as China has opened her doors to the West, sport has been able to present itself as being uniquely Chinese (in traditional sport) and forward looking and modern (in Olympic sport). This combination of tradition and the modern is a constantly recurring theme in China.
In what ways does the Chinese system of sport differ from that of other (former) Communist countries, such as the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic? For all the unrest and even open animosity that existed between the USSR and China in the 1960s, the essential features of the two sports systems were virtually identical, inasmuch as they were both ‘centralized’ and part of a sporting hierarchy that operated from government down to county and district level.
The circumstances under which they operated, however, were different. It is fair to say that by the mid-1980s, when the Gorbachov reforms in the USSR were presaging the political collapse of the Soviet system, China was beginning to realize the need for change to its own system-change that had been assiduously espoused by Deng Xiao Ping (the late, former leader of China). The collapse of the former USSR was a warning against early political reform. If Communism was unable to survive in Eastern Europe, it was because, de facto, it simply was not providing the improvements to living standards that might have been expected to attract popular support.
Deng was a reformer by nature, and his determination drove the government to take a reformist line-the open door policy of 1979/ early 1980s, the four modernizations program (of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense), and the establishment of Special Economic Zones (for example Shenzhen in southern China) are testimony to this. China under Deng first accepted, and has since built on, some measure of co-operation with the West, but although Communism has subsided elsewhere, it still underspins the official policies of the country. It was under the leadership of Deng, following the death of Mao in 1976, that China adopted an ‘open door’ policy, gradually allowing more western influence (largely in the form of trade) into the country, encouraging the adoption of market principles, permitting entrepreneurial activity, all carrying the clear message that reform was possible and even desirable.
Under those conditions, and with the example of the former Soviet Union, the events leading to the clash between the government and those clamouring for reform in Tian An Men Square (and elsewhere in China) in the summer of 1989 were perhaps predictable. The political clampdown that followed Tian An Men did not, however, halt the economic realism that was dominating government policy, and sport has flourished in this new climate.
Also indicative of the future direction of Chinese sport is the decline in non-Olympic sports and, conversely, the increasing importance of the Olympic program. The Chinese National Games (those under the People’s Republic of China, post-1949, not to be confused with National Sports Games that took place in China pre-1949) started in 1959 and, held every four years (with some breaks between 1966 and 1976), have become a very important part of the national and international sporting effort of the country, also reflecting the reformist trend. Knuttgen, Ma and Wu (1990) suggest that the Chinese National Games, held in Guangzhou, southern China, in 1987, already displayed strong moves towards a western pattern. The 7th National Games comprised competitions in forty-three events, thirteen of which were not in the Olympic program.
The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 brought fundamental changes to sport. The government started to pay attention to the health of the general population and promoted sports development. The Party Central Committee issued a directive entitled ‘strengthening work in physical culture and sport for the people’. Chairman Mao Zedong wrote the inscription ‘promote physical culture; build up the people’s health’. 
A centralized sports administration system, based on the pattern of the Soviet Union, was established. Regular programs of physical training were introduced in army units, communes, factories, offices and schools; institutes of physical education were established, research was initiated and sports facilities were constructed or renovated. In 1959, Rong Guotuan became the first Chinese athlete to win a world championship (in table tennis) and, by 1966, Chinese athletes were excelling in sports such as archery, badminton, shooting, swimming, table tennis, volleyball and weightlifting.
After twenty years of controversy and negotiation, the IOC, under Lord Killanin’s leadership, finally recognized the legitimate seat of the Chinese Olympic Committee at the IOC session in Nagoya, Japan, in November 1979, with sixty votes for, seventeen against and two abstentions. The resulting resolution stipulated that the name of the Olympic Committee of the People’s Republic of China would be the ‘Chinese Olympic Committee’ and that the national flag and anthem of the People’s Republic of China would be used in all ceremonies.
Further, the name of the Olympic Committee in Taiwan would be the ‘Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee’ and the flag, anthem and emblem formerly used by them would not be used in the future. Referred to as the ‘Olympic Model’ in China, the resolution provided athletes in Taiwan and mainland China with opportunities for competition in the same Olympic arena, symbolically, as brothers and sisters of one motherland. It was also, in a sense, an early sign of the ‘One country, two systems’ policy, proposed by Deng Xiaoping, and quickly opened the doors of other international sports for Chinese athletes. Taking into account the humiliating experiences at the hands of foreign powers in its modern history, China has been eager for success in international sport, and in particular its Olympic effort has had a significant impact on its sport policies and management.
During the years following the founding of the PRC in 1949, China developed a sports system that was largely modeled on that of the former Soviet Union. Although not an active member of the IOC in the early years, China did have national teams that competed against other Communist countries, as well as being at the top in international table tennis. Sports schools were established at national and provincial level, for those with high sporting potential. In the early decades, the sports schools were concerned primarily with sports performance; the athlete’s welfare and future was in the hands of the state, and there was little need (if any) to be concerned about the long-term implications of full-time commitment to sport.
At the end of their competitive careers, athletes could be absorbed into state industries, college or university study, or sports administration. Unsuccessful athletes returned to their former schools or position, and had to ‘pick up the pieces’ from there. By comparison with Britain’s approach in the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese athletes were given far more state support to enable them to reach a high level and, as with other Communist countries, were often accused by the West of being professionals under the guise of being state amateurs.
One such sports boarding school is located at the Sichuan Sports Skills College, in Chengdu. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the province of Sichuan, signs of government reform were beginning to show. In 1986, the Sichuan Sports Working Team, with the approval of the State Education Commission, became the Sichuan Sports Skills College. Previously, the Sports Working Team catered solely for sports training and performance, but the Sports Skills College took on an educative role, and ten years later it is one of the key sports institutions in south-west China, combining high level sports training with conventional schooling, vocational courses and adult education for its athletes.
Up to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), China operated a scheme of physical tests for students that was a close match with the GTO/PWD, scheme of the former Soviet Union. During the years after the Cultural Revolution this was replaced by a ‘sports level for teenagers’, or physical proficiency test (based mainly on running, jumping and throwing), and which is now part of the National Age Group Norms. At the end of senior middle school (age 18/19), when students were about to enter tertiary education (universities, institutes, senior vocational or technical colleges), they were required to have reached the minimum standard in these physical tests before being allowed to proceed.
Education in modern China suffered a significant setback during the Cultural Revolution when a whole generation of young people lost years of opportunity. During the same period, sport also suffered because the young people who would have become the sports stars of the future were also prevented from developing their talent. Coaches and administrators of sport also lost their futures to the dogma of the time and the whole physical education movement came to a virtual standstill. The years since the Cultural Revolution have seen education become an important part of the government’s reforms.
During the Cultural Revolution the development of sport in China was brought to a standstill. From 1966 until 1970, there was a total absence of competition. From 1971, international competition was resumed, but only involving countries of similar political ideologies, such as Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam. Images of China during the Revolution are of enforced conformity to ideology, intensity, isolation, fanaticism and the ‘thoughts of Mao’. Athletes were persecuted, sports organizations were immobilized and facilities were wrecked.
From 1956 until 1976, China boycotted the Olympic Games, refusing to compete side-by-side with Formosa (Taiwan). Instead, China competed in the anti-American and communist-inspired Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO), held in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1964.
Sport was seen mainly as a means of promoting political ideology. Two daily ten-minute sessions of collective gymnastics were required of everyone; schoolchildren received one hour of sports and physical education each day. Massive competitions were organized and a network was established for the selection and training of top athletes. But isolation brought stagnation and the gap between Chinese and world standards in sport widened.
China was readmitted to the Olympic movement in 1980. Although the US-led boycott (supported by China) prevented the athletes who had gained selection from competing in the Olympic Games in Moscow that year, progress in a number of sports during the next three years was rapid. Third in the team event in the World Gymnastics Championships in Moscow in 1981, the men’s gymnastics team won the title at the next World Championships in Romania in 1983 and took second place at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. The women’s team, second in the team event in Moscow in 1981, took third place behind Romania and the United States in Los Angeles. China’s gymnasts won a total of nine individual medals in Los Angeles-five of them gold.
The Chinese women’s volleyball team, after winning the World Cup title in Japan in 1981, took first place a year later at the World Championships in Peru. In Los Angeles, they won the gold medal. Chinese women’s basketball also developed quickly. The national team was placed third at the World Championships in Brazil in 1983 and won the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games. The Chinese women’s handball team took the bronze in Los Angeles.
International successes were also achieved in diving and weightlifting. Li Yihua won the springboard event at the Third World Cup Diving Championships in 1983 and medals were won by three different divers in Los Angeles. In the absence of most Eastern-aligned countries, Chinese weightlifters won gold medals. In three other sports-archery, fencing and shooting-China also proved that it could compete with the world’s best. In 1984, Zhu Jianhua became the first Chinese track and field athlete to win a medal in the Olympic Games.
Altogether, China’s team of 225 athletes, competing in sixteen of twenty-one sports, won fifteen gold, eight silver and nine bronze medals at the 1984 Olympic Games. Gold medals were won in women’s diving, fencing and volleyball, men’s weightlifting and both men’s and women’s gymnastics and shooting. The medal haul was obviously enhanced by the boycott of the Games by the Soviet Union and its allies. By competing in the Games, China emphasized its political independence from Moscow; by competing with such success, China served notice that it planned to join the elite of international sport. The political sports slogan of the day-‘break out of Asia and advance on the world’-was vastly different to the ‘friendship first, competition second’ concept of Mao.
Although not in the Soviet sphere, China’s socialist government has utilized sport in several ways that should be briefly discussed. Most notable was the ping-pong diplomacy to rekindle diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Participation by the U.S. Table Tennis Team in a series of exhibitions in China launched a series of diplomatic contacts in the early 1970s, culminating in President Richard Nixon’s 1973 visit to the China mainland. In other sports like track and field and tennis, Chinese athletes were neophytes. According to former Premier Zhou Enlai, international meets were held in China more for friendship than for close competition, following Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s directives. As Deng Xiaoping came to power, China’s sports policy changed from solely promoting friendship to seeking victories. At the Fourth National Games in September 1979 in Peking, five political demonstrations were prominently intertwined with sports activities.
Soccer was ‘chosen’ by government sports leaders as the major sport to become professional because it has huge popular appeal worldwide, an established and prestigious World Cup, significant attractions for potential sponsors and a successful club system in Europe and elsewhere to copy. In China’s case, however, their soccer system had not kept pace with developments in the structure of the game elsewhere, even though the Chinese Football Association was founded in 1924 and affiliated to the world governing body, FIFA, in 1931. The relative lack of international experience, though, showed in other Asian countries too, because whilst China has never reached the final stages of the World Cup, even the Asian Football Confederation (founded in 1954), has only ever provided eight countries for the final stages.
In the nine World Cups prior to 1974, only seventeen entries from ten national football associations had been received, and of these, seven were withdrawn, including the one from China in 1954. After its unsuccessful entry in the 1958 qualifying rounds, China then did not re-enter the competition for another twenty-four years, in 1982. It has since taken part in all the subsequent competitions. The period 1958-82 spanned the austere years of China when the country withdrew from the IOC over the issue of the recognition of Taiwan, the years of the Cultural Revolution and the early years under Deng Xiao Ping, 1976-82, when he was establishing the approach that led to the ‘open door’ policies that have become a feature of Chinese government strategy.
From a modest starting point, international success was a distant objective in the early days and, in a sport as unpredictable as soccer, the route to this objective was far from clear. As Zhou comments, simply copying from everyone without regard to China’s own strengths meant that China ‘actually learned very little from each of them and couldn’t combine the skills together’. Soccer in China was in a transitional phase. The obvious and immediate objective of the professional soccer league was consolidation-continued investment from sponsors coupled with continued public interest, i.e. media and live support.
Women’s soccer-perhaps somewhat paradoxically-achieved international success in the Olympic Games at Atlanta, where the Chinese national women’s team gained a silver medal, losing 2-1 to America in the final. Although the pattern of national strength in women’s world soccer is not as clear as for the men’s game, China’s success in reaching the women’s final at Atlanta underlines their determination to raise the profile of the game at home. Given the relative newness of women’s international soccer, China has, arguably, been able to make greater international progress than in the men’s game.
Historians will look back and surely mark the 1949-1980’s as hugely significant in the chain of events that have led to the present position of China as an emerging world superpower. The nation’s status as a superpower is heavily dependent on the fact that it is the most populous country in the world and that potentially it holds the key to the growth of the world economy. But there are other reasons for seeing China as pre-eminent. First, it has the fastest growing economy in the world, sustaining an average annual growth of around 10 per cent over the last decade. Second, it is well placed in the Pacific Rim to stand alongside other economies in the region-South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and even the United States (California, notably).
Third, it has a long tradition as a trading nation from the times of the Silk Road to the nineteenth century links with western countries. And fourth, China has a very distinct sense of identity; even though in much of its history the country has been dominated by others, it has nevertheless remained relatively untainted by outside influences. The long tradition of China has given it a rich and distinct cultural heritage. During this period, China not only developed and refined forms of exercise that were in complete contrast to those in the West, but also developed folk games similar to the European precursors of soccer and hockey.
China has turned its sports system round from a centrally-planned structure to a more diverse, market-orientated system. This is in keeping with the government’s general policy of reform. In sporting terms, the government has been determined to distance itself from its previous role of being ‘sole provider’. At the highest level, this has resulted in the development of professional sport on western lines-with Chinese characteristics. Of course, there has long been professional sport in China, as in other, former Communist countries, where ‘state amateur’ was a euphemism for ‘professional’, in that the athlete received money, housing, food, medicine, and sports clothing from the state, in return for a full-time commitment to sports training and performance.
In China, provincial sports teams are the outcome of the special sports schools and are a regular form of paid employment for those who rise through the ranks of competitive sport. Beyond the provincial team is the national squad that, for the few, leads to Olympic and international glory. There is little doubt that such a system produces gold medals and it is a system that, under different guises, has been adopted in many countries, both East and West. But as the reforms in China, promoted by Deng Xiao Ping, have continued, a new focus has emerged that is introducing professional sport. Commercial sponsorship and ticket sales now provide the financial underpinning to the system that was formerly provided by the government.
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 Christopher Hill. Olympic Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992): 25.
 Yun Jiang. China: a Developing Country, a Developing Role in International Sports (unpublished Paper, Nanjing, 1992): 4.
 Xikuan Zhou. “China: sports activities of the ancient and modern times” Canadian Journal of Sport History, 22 (2), December, 1991: 15.
 J. Riordan. Sport under Communism (USSR, Czechoslovakia, GDR, China, Cuba) (London: C. Hurst, 1981): 9.
 Hai Ren. A comparative Analysis of Ancient Greek and Chinese Spor. University of Alberta, Canada, 1988: 36.
 Qi Xu. “Sport awakening in China” Olympic Review, September-October, 1990: 9.