XIONG Huan 熊欢

The Chinese women’s soccer team celebrates a championship.

In Chinese sports, not only is the phoenix (the symbol of women) rising, but it is also waggin’ the dragon (the symbol of men). The ascension of Chinese women in sports has aroused world interest and acclaim. After the Chinese Communist Party won national power and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Communists promised that a new China would embrace gender equality. Since then, “Women hold up half the sky” 妇女撑起半边天 has been more than just a slogan made popular by Chairman MAO Zedong 毛泽东. Chinese women’s sports have been promoted, and Chinese women have made outstanding achievements on the international sports stage.

Women in Elite Sport

The first Chinese female athlete to break a world record and leap into world sports history was ZHENG Fengrong 郑凤荣. Zheng, at the age of twenty, scored a high jump of 1.77 meters, beating the previous mark of 1.76 meters. The new record, set in 1957, was the first women’s world record for the People’s Republic of China. The jump made Zheng the first Asian athlete to break a world track and field record since 1936. Dubbed “a spring swallow” who awakened Chinese sports, Zheng sent a message to the world that China was no longer the “sick man of the East” 东亚病夫.

Table 1: Comparison of Chinese Olympians by Gender

Year 1992 1996 2000 2004
Women 132 200 188 269
Men 118 110 93 138
Percentage of women competitors
52.8 64.5 66.9 66.09

Table 2: Comparison of Chinese Olympic Gold Medalists by Gender

Year 1988 1992 1996 2000 2004
Women 2 12 9 16.5 19.5
Men 3 4 7 11.5 12.5

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 women participants in Olympic Games and the number of medals they have won 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 (see tables 1 and 2).

Women and Sport in Ancient China

Through most of China’s recorded history, racket games were popular among women. A Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) scroll painting, Grove of Violets, depicts elegantly attired ladies playing chuiwan, a game combining elements of modern billiards and golf. According to the Wanjing (1282), the players took turns striking a wooden ball and sending it into holes marked with colored flags. The ethos of the game stressed fairness and harmony among the players.

If Marco Polo (1254–1324) can be believed, the Mongol dynasty produced a royal heroine comparable to the Greek girl Atalanta, who raced against and defeated a number of suitors. Princess Aiyaruk was said to have owned more than ten thousand horses, winning one hundred at a time as she outwrestled a long line of doomed suitors.

Allen Guttmann

Why the Phoenix Rose

The outstanding performances of Chinese sportswomen have many people wondering 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 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 an open-door policy and the reinstatement of Chinese membership 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 as part of its determination to raise the whole standard of Chinese elite sports, and in the belief that women’s involvement in elite sports would be evidence of gender equality in the new China. Sports would be instrumental in showing the advantages of socialist gender policy. 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 self-realization. This suppression caused contradictions in Chinese women’s sports: concern and cruelty, hardship and enjoyment, conformity and individuality, obedience and defiance.

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.

However, just as the Chinese economy has acquired new characteristics as it has become more market oriented, 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” 全民健身 is a new value, one that gives women more access to and meaning in sports.

Stars of Half of the Sky

YANG Wenyi 杨文意, one of the Five Golden Flowers in China’s swimming pantheon, was born in Shanghai on 11 January 1972. She began training as a swimmer at the age of six and joined the Shanghai municipal team in 1984. Two years later, she became a member of the national team. Yang Wenyi was the first Asian swimmer to break a world record when she set a new mark in the women’s 50-meter freestyle in a national event. She broke the world record again in the 1992 Olympic Games.

XIE Jun 谢军 is a female chess player who made history when she dethroned Maya Chiburdanidze of the former Soviet Union at the 1991 world chess championships, breaking a longtime Soviet dominance in world chess. She also challenged Russian great Anatoly Karpov in a six-game series, the first time in the game’s history that a woman’s world champion challenged her male counterpart. Xie Jun was widely known for her optimism and vivid attacking style. Her success did much to popularize international chess in China and throughout Asia. She is now an official of the Beijing Sports Commission working with chess players and athletes in other sports.

FU Mingxia 伏明霞 became China’s youngest world champion at age thirteen when she won the 1991 World Swimming Championships. The next year she became China’s youngest-ever Olympic champion, winning the gold medal for the 10-meter platform event. She won titles in the next two Olympic Games and became a star in the world of international diving.

The “Golden Lilies”

As women’s participation in sports has expanded, it’s been necessary to change our notions about female beauty. As the extract below illustrates — from Mary Isabella Bryson’s Child Life in China (1890) — bound feet were once a sign of wealth and considered highly attractive in China.

But the most important part of a young girl’s dress in china is her shoes. Such tiny shoes they are, of coloured silk or satin, most tastefully embroidered, with brightly painted heels, just peeping beneath the neat pantalette; the feet are supposed to merit the poetical name bestowed upon them of “golden lilies.”…

Three inches is the correct length of the fashionable shoes in which Chinese Ladies toddle and limp, supporting themselves on a child’s shoulder, or by means of a strong staff. Some very wealthy ladies are the possessors of feet which are almost useless, and, as they can hardly walk from one room to another in their spacious mansions, they are not unfrequently carried, especially about their gardens, on the backs of their large-footed attendants. Women whose feet are not quite so small, though still tightly bound, manage to walk occasionally, with great difficulty, a distance of several miles. “Their movements are as the waving [of] the willows,” says a Chinese poet in reference to these tiny feet; but to English eyes the gait appears to be by no means elegant, and bears a strong resemblance to what would be obtained by walking on our heels.

GAO Ming 高敏, known as the “Diving Queen,” was born in the city of Zigong in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. She won eight gold medals in major events such as the Olympic Games (1988, 1992), World Swimming Championships (1986), and the World Cup (1987, 1989). She won more than seventy titles in her career. She was also chosen as the World’s Best Diver of the Year by the U.S. magazine Swimming World from 1987 to 1989.

China had achieved little in women’s middle- and long-distance running until the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where WANG Junxia 王军霞 won the 10K-meter gold medal and broke the world record. One month later, she broke the world record in the same event in China’s eighth National Games. In 1994 she beat a strong field and received the Jesse Owens International Trophy Award, presented to the world’s best amateur athlete, in New York. In 1996 at the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, she capped her career with a 5K-meter gold medal and a 10K-meter silver medal. Wang Junxia is regarded as the best runner in China’s sports history, famously called the “Oriental Divine Deer” 东方神鹿.

Wang Junxia was born into a peasant family in northeast China’s Jilin Province in 1973. As a child she was weak and pale and her family had little to do with sports. It was unimaginable that this running champion would one day become famous for her tenacious spirit and inflexible will, which played a big part in her athletic achievements.

CHEN Lu 陈露 was China’s first star in figure skating. She was born in Changchun in 1976, the daughter of an ice hockey coach and a table tennis player. As a young skater in the early 1990s, Chen demonstrated both athletic ability and artistic potential, out-jumping many of her contemporaries and the world’s top figure skaters. She made an impact in 1995 at the World Figure Skating Championships in Birmingham, England, where she won the women’s singles title to become China’s first world champion in figure skating. She was one of the most decorated skaters of the decade, winning two Olympic medals, four World medals, and nine national titles.

DENG Yaping 邓亚萍 was a table tennis legend. She was born in 1973 in Zhengzhou, Hannan province, where Chinese culture originated. At the age of four, she began to play table tenning under the guidance of her father. At eight she won the national amateur championship. In 1988 she became a member of the National Training Team. Deng Xaping was not only the first Olympic table tennis paddler to defend her title in two straight Olympics, but she was also the only winner of four Olympic gold medals in the table tennis competition in the history of the Olympic Games. Apart from these four Olympic gold medals, she also won six gold medals in Table Tennis World Championships between 1989 and 1997. In total, she has won some eighteen world championships and Olympic medals.

Source: Xiong Huan. (2008). Women in sports: Holding up half the sky. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 93–96. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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