Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China's National Crisis, 1931-45

By Xu, Wei | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China's National Crisis, 1931-45


Xu, Wei, Canadian Journal of History


Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making During China's National Crisis, 1931-45, by Yunxiang Gao. Contemporary Chinese Studies Series. Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press, 2014. xiv, 328 pp. $32.95 US (paper).

China in the 1930s experienced a severe national crisis stemming from the Japanese invasion and the confrontation between the Nationalist and Communist Party. In order to regain Chinese self-respect and international prestige, as well as the morale to resist the Japanese, in the summer of 1936, the Nationalist government of the Republic of China sent a seventy-nine athlete delegation to the Berlin Olympics. Among them were five female athletes and nine women observers. While they fared badly and failed to win a single medal, the debut of Chinese women at the Olympics demonstrated to the world a new ideal of modem womanhood in China: the robust, healthy, beautiful, and patriotic sportswomen.

Yunxiang Gao's Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making During China's National Crisis, 1931-45 is the first scholarly approach to explore the rise to fame of female athletes in China in the early twentieth century. At the heart of this book are the detailed accounts of several key sportswomen in the Republic of China, including the administrators in physical education and sports, the star athletes, the female Olympians, and the athletic movie stars who represented the sportswomen on screen. Special attention is paid to how they performed on the sports field, how they created women's sporting politics within the Nationalist government, how they aligned their aspirations for liberation with Chinese nationalism during the period of national crisis, and how they dealt with stardom and celebrity when entering the fields of fashion and mass media.

The central approach of this book is to highlight the complexity of Chinese sportswomen's interactions with the state and society. The individual athletes and administrators examined here are primarily from basketball, track and field, and swimming--the sports that would exemplify the connections between individual aspirations and the goals of the nation. Through her elaboration of the lives and times of these sportswomen, Gao argues that "the sportswomen could emancipate themselves in a complicated national society and improve nation building through their athletic accomplishments and personal styles" (p. 6). At a time when strong and healthy female bodies were seen as the signals of modernity, progress, and the "civilized" status of a strong Chinese nation, the image of athletic women, Gao concludes, "served as a site where ideological values and political systems constructed and contested notion and state during the national crisis" (p. 16).

One of the great strengths of Sporting Gender is found in the author's efforts to redefine the concept of tiyu or the physical culture in accordance with the social context of 1930s China. Gao challenges the previously dominant linear narrative of tiyu, which attributed the rise of sports in China exclusively to Western- and Japanese-introduced events. …

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