Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Introduction of Sports in China

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The Introduction of Sports in China

Article excerpt

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From June 23 to July 15, 2007, China celebrated "Olympic culture" for the last time before the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The 5th Olympic Culture Festival featured 110 physical activities in the form of demonstrations or exercises presented to the public through ceremonies and workshops themed "Sports for All." Chinese martial arts, rope skipping, jianzi, (1) and bamboo dances took pride of place. Paradoxically, the organisers of the Chinese sports movement decided to celebrate non-Olympic activities in order to promote the ideals of fair play, competi- tion, and fraternity that the Games champion. In China today, activities deemed "traditional" appear to have become fully assimilated with sports culture. This mixture of diverse physical activities subsumed under the label of sports seems relatively unsurprising, as a number of Asian disciplines such as judo and karate have also become associated with sports over the last century. This has led to the introduction of new rules govern- ing the practice of these disciplines, as well as the organising of competitions. The confusion between sports and "tradition- al" disciplines is emblematic of the way in which the field of physical activities has been historically structured in China.

It is pertinent at this juncture to review the historic process of introduction of sports in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Contrary to the idea touted by the organisers of the Beijing Games, (2) sports and Chinese physical activities were not origi- nally structured according to the same cultural logic. Literally "imported" by a handful of people moulded by the Victorian era British educational models and North American entrepre- neurial spirit, sports met with considerable opposition when introduced to China in the early twentieth century. This con- trasted greatly with the situation around the same period in Europe, where sports and competitive activity that had been an exclusive preserve began to enjoy massive popular enthusiasm and grew rapidly. The Union of French Societies of Athletic Sports (USFSA), one of the main sports organisms in late nineteenth century France, grew to consist of 350 clubs by 1903 and 170,000 members by 1913, (3) and organised a nation- al football championship as far back as 1896; no national com- petition took place in China, however, until 1910. (4)

A look at the archives reveals lively and highly representative accounts of Chinese attitudes and reticence during that period. In 1914, in a book entitled America through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat, Wu Tingfang, who was an ambassador and minister during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and then Republican China, said:

Perhaps in nothing do the Chinese differ from their Western friends in the matter of amusements more than in regard to sports. The Chinese would never think of assembling in thousands just to see a game played. We are not modernized enough to care to spend half a day watching others play...I much doubt if [sports] will ever be really popular among my peo- ple. They are too violent, and from the oriental stand- point, lacking in dignity.(5)

Introduction o f sports in China: teething problems

In the late nineteenth century, Chinese students returning from the United States and Great Britain brought back sports goods, (6) thus helping to promote a few games among a still restricted circle of people. Apart from such isolated initiatives, the spread and organisation of sports remained under the control of Westerners, in particular members of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), until the 1920s. In fact, right from the late nine- teenth century, (7) the YMCA promoted sports activities in schools and organised a number of national and interna- tional competitions, and acquired a quasi monopoly on sports in China.

Until 1924, when the Chinese organised their national games in Wuchang against the advice of YMCA members, most competitions (inter-varsity meets, national games, (8) or even the Far Eastern Championship Games (9)) were organised by foreigners, especially Americans. …

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