Chinese women have excelled in elite sports for decades, but at long last athletic activity at the grassroots level seems to be taking off, aided in part by a shifting perception of the purpose of sport.

In Chinese sports these days not only is the phoenix (the symbol of women) rising, it’s also “waggin’ the dragon” (the symbol of men). The ascension of Chinese women in sports not only has helped China to win world recognition but also has aroused world interest. After the Chinese Communist Party won national power and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communists promised that a new China would embrace gender equality. Since then, “Women hold up half the sky” has been more than just a popular slogan; it has become a reality of Chinese sports. Chinese women’s sports have been promoted, and Chinese women have made outstanding achievements on the international sports stage.

Women in Elite Sports

The first Chinese female athlete to break a world record was Zheng Fengrong. Zheng, aged 20 at the time, scored a high jump of 1.77 meters in 1957, beating the previous mark of 1.76 meters.

The first Chinese women’s sports team to catch the attention of the world was the volleyball team, which in 1981 defeated Japan and won the World Cup. In the next five years, the team won five world champion titles. Team members were regarded as national heroines. The spirit of the women’s volleyball team inspired millions of Chinese people in the 1980s, and the team’s success brought women’s sports to prominence in the world.

The number of Chinese female participants in the Olympic Games and the number of medals they have won also are evidence of the extraordinary performance of Chinese women in sports. In every Olympics since 1998, Chinese female athletes have outnumbered their male counterparts and have played a major role in raising China’s standing in the gold-medal tally.

The outstanding performances of Chinese sportswomen have sparked considerable interest around the world, and many people have wondered why the phoenix can fly higher than the dragon. To answer this question, we must put women’s sports in the context of the change of political objectives, gender relationships, sports ideologies, and the management system in China.

When the People’s Republic of China was newly established, it needed to develop its economy and strengthen its national defense. Therefore, sports policy sought to train strong citizens to reconstruct the country. It required of its women not only immense patriotic enthusiasm, scientific knowledge, and work skill, but also healthy bodies. The government believed that only when women had healthy bodies would they be able to participate in economic, cultural, and military work and be able to produce and nurture a healthy new generation. Chinese women since then have been encouraged to participate in sports nationally and locally.

With the introduction of the open-door policy and the reinstatement of the Chinese Olympic Committee by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1979, Chinese female athletes had the chance to enter the world sports arena. The Chinese Sports Ministry emphasized that all professional teams should recruit and train women athletes. China emphasized development of female elite athletes because (1) the development of women’s sports would elevate the standing of Chinese elite sports overall, and (2) women’s involvement in elite sports would be evidence of gender equality in the new China. Millions of young girls were carefully selected, tested, and graded for athletic potential, and the best were put through a disciplined, military-type training that included conditions of hardship and injury so the athletes would develop toughness of spirit and body, skill, training, and competition. The so-called sports spirit emphasized Chinese women’s traditional qualities, such as endurance and obedience.

But although China’s female elite athletes were achieving satisfactory results on the world’s stage and making crucial contributions to China’s advances in world sports, they were also suffering from suppression of their self-expression, self-fulfillment, and selfrealization. This suppression caused contradictions in Chinese women’s sports: concern and cruelty, hardship and enjoyment, conformity and individuality, obedience and defiance.

Women and Sports at the Grassroots Level

The emphasis on the political function of women’s sports on the international stage created an imbalance between elite sports and mass sports: although female athletes were successful on the international stage, women’s physical activity at the grassroots level remained at a low level.

Just as the Chinese economy has acquired new characteristics as it has become more market oriented, however, so too has Chinese women’s participation in sports, which now combines nationalism, commercialism, and individualism. Today, women’s sports participation at the grassroots level is booming, as evidenced by the increase in the number of gym sports, park sports, community sports, voluntary sports organizations, and fitness clubs. The concept of sports as a way of life has gradually been replacing the concept of sports as a political tool. “Sports for all” is a new value, one that gives women more access to and meaning in sports.

Source: Xiong, Huan. (2007). Women and sport in China. Guanxi: The China Letter, 15, 5.