China has dreamed of hosting the Olympics for a century, but what will the Beijing Games mean for this Western cultural institution?

In July 2008, the Olympic torch will arrive in Beijing, China, for what is only the third summer games to be held outside the Western Hemisphere in the modern Olympics’ 110-year history, after the Tokyo Olympic Games (1964) and the Seoul Olympic Games (1988). The 2008 Olympic Games will be hosted by China, the least Westernized nation in the world yet to host this most important of international sports events, exactly 100 years after Chinese patriots first exhorted the nation to strive for Olympic achievement with three questions: When will China be able to send a winning athlete to the Olympic contests? When will China be able to send a winning team to the Olympic contests? And when will China be able to invite all the world to come to Beijing for an International Olympic contest?

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games will afford China the opportunity to throw off the lingering humiliation of an old stereotype of China as the “sick man of East Asia” and strengthen its changing image as a vigorous, winning nation. This will be the greatest-ever meeting of East and West in peacetime, and an unparalleled media opportunity for China. Until recently, war has occasioned the greatest meetings between different cultures, but recent Olympic Games have surpassed war. The 2004 Athens Olympic Games, for example, involved 202 nations, a global television audience of around 4 billion, and a total of about 3.5 million people who spectated at the events and used the public transportation system on a daily basis.

In that context, the Beijing Olympic Games should be a moment to celebrate the interconnected global culture of the twenty-first century. When Beijing won the bid, tens of thousands of Chinese took to the streets to celebrate. In the West, however, the reaction has been exceptionally hostile.

When Beijing made its Olympic bid in 2001, typical Western headlines read, “ China Doesn’t Deserve the Olympics” and “Unwelcome Bid from Beijing.” During the bid process, multiple petitions were sent to Chinese leaders, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), multiple national governments, and human rights groups. The U.S. Congress debated a resolution in opposition to the bid. And in the past year, coverage of the upcoming Beijing Olympics appears to have gotten even more negative.

People in the West seem fixated on the question of whether the Olympics will change China. Will they improve China’s human rights record? Will they open China up more to the outside world? Will they bring democracy to China? I would like to turn this question around and ask, Why are we so concerned about changing China, and not concerned about China’s changing us? According to the IOC, the Olympic Games are supposed to be part of a world peace movement, an occasion for cultural exchange and the improvement of international understanding. The assumption in the West seems to be that any cultural exchange should be in one direction, with China learning from the West. Chinese people hope that the West can learn something from China through the Olympic Games, too—but can it? The hopes of the Chinese are wrapped up in their desire to change their image in the eyes of the West.

Combating the Image of the “Sick Man of East Asia”

The first concrete proposal to host an Olympic Games in China was put forward by the Nationalist government in 1946, which proposed to bid for the 1952 Olympic Games. However, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists prevented a bid. In 1979, Premier Deng Xiaoping stated that China should host an Olympic Games when the time was right, and in 1993 Beijing entered the bid contest for the 2000 Olympic Games, losing to Sydney by two votes. Finally, Beijing mounted its second bid in 2001 and won the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

Why has hosting the Olympic Games been so important to China for the last hundred years? The answer to this question begins with label “sick man of East Asia” (dongya bingfu). This label seems to have had its roots in the port city of Tianjin, where the North American YMCA was particularly active. YMCA educators seem to have held a stereotype of sickly, effeminate, overly intellectual Chinese men. A popular story circulated among Western physical educators about a British consul in Tianjin who invited a high Chinese official—the Daotai—to dinner and afterward personally demonstrated for him the game of tennis. When he asked the Daotai what he thought, the Daotai responded that the consul was covered in sweat, and it would be better to hire someone to play in his place.This story made its way from the Western educators to their Chinese pupils and is still widely cited in China today as an example of the corruption of the “old society.” Also bolstering the stereotype of the sickly Chinese was the publication in 1911 of The Changing Chinese by Edward Ross, a prominent U.S. sociologist. In that book, Ross complained that young men imitated the stooped shoulders of the scholar and wore broad-rimmed glasses even when they didn’t need them, so they could look like scholars. He decried what he perceived as a lack of admiration for martial virtues. And perhaps most damning of all, he said that the young men played tennis like girls.

The YMCA stereotype of the effeminate Chinese was merely one manifestation of a stereotype with a very long pedigree in the West. The notion of the clever but physically weak and lazy Asian goes back as far back as Aristotle, who wrote, “Europeans are full of spirit but wanting in intelligence and skill; Asians are intelligent and inventive, but wanting in spirit, and so are always in a state of subjection and slavery.” Western classicists writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose view was shaped by the rivalry between Europe and the Ottoman empire, reinforced that stereotype. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, elite men in Europe and North America were educated in the classics, and thus the stereotype of the lazy and weak Asian was in common circulation among them.

The Western elite even believed that sports had never existed in China, or at least not since the demise of the martial spirit in the Song dynasty (960–1279 ce). That perception was grossly inaccurate, however: many different kinds of sports have existed in China throughout history. A form of soccer was played during the Warring States period (475–221 bce), and playing fields were a standard feature of palace complexes as early as the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce). Polo was important in the Tang (618–907 ce) imperial courts, and wrestling was important in the Song and all subsequent imperial courts. Turn-of-the-century Western observers could easily have looked around and noted the variety and importance of sporting activities, but perhaps because they did not conform to Western definitions of sport, they were ignored. Dragon boat races were popular throughout much of China and were held on a large scale in many places. Wrestling was important in Mongol and Manchu culture generally and was also an important form of entertainment and public display for the court of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12), which maintained a special guard of skilled wrestlers in a system similar to Japanese imperial sumo. The Manchu also displayed their horses and finery in races held outside one of the western city gates of Beijing. In the sections of any major city devoted to street entertainment, such as the Tianqiao district of Beijing, a spectator could easily observe acrobatics, wrestling, and feats of strength and prowess.

And of course the notion of the effeminate, intellectual Chinese is strongly contradicted by the martial arts tradition. Indeed, one can argue that kung fu films, more than anything else, have erased the perception of the effeminate Chinese among young Westerners, who admire Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.

Although the stereotype was not accurate, from early on it was taken to heart by Chinese nationalists dismayed at China’s weakness, and it was written into the narrative of national humiliation that has become the standard national history. Chairman Mao was one of the reformers who took the stereotype to heart. In his first published article, “A Study of Physical Culture” (1917), he complained, “Exercise is important for physical education, but today most scholars are not interested in sports.”Throughout his political career, Mao held to the belief that yundong ( “activity” or “movement”) was the remedy for the passivity and weakness that ailed China. Yundong is also one of the words that can be translated as “sport,” and it was the word used to label the endless political “campaigns” of the Maoist period.

In sum, China’s quest for Olympic glory over the last century was the result of China’s seeing itself through the eyes of the West. Sporting success became a symbol of being a strong, modern nation. Unfortunately, the retreat of the Nationalist government to Taiwan after its defeat in the civil war complicated China’s quest to achieve that success.

The China Question in the IOC

When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where, under Chiang Kai-shek, a new regime was established under the old name of the Republic of China (ROC). The two governments remained in a state of hostility, and each claimed to be the representative of all of China. This immediately caused problems, because neither regime could tolerate the presence of a delegation from the other at the Olympic Games. Finally, the PRC withdrew from the IOC altogether in 1958, and it required three decades of negotiations before the PRC was finally readmitted under the terms of the Nagoya Resolution of 1979. Under the “Olympic formula,” the PRC retained its right to use its name, flag, and anthem, while the ROC was required to use the name “Chinese Taipei,” and a flag and anthem other than those of the ROC.

During the thirty years of conflict over the “ China question” the IOC often silenced discussion with its stance against mixing sport and politics—but that refusal to engage in discussion made cross-cultural understanding difficult. One consequence was that during those thirty years, the IOC rarely managed to get the names of the two Chinese delegations right. In the minutes of the 1952 through 1955 sessions, the People’s Republic of China was called “Democratic China,” and in 1956 it was called the “Democratic People’s Republic of China.” The ROC was often designated “ Formosa,” a Portuguese word first applied to the island by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century. It is not used by Chinese speakers, and the Nationalist Chinese rejected it because it was associated with the native Taiwanese independence movement.

The mistakes in names were symptomatic of larger misconceptions. With the exception of the Japanese, the major figures in the IOC did not understand the history of China and Taiwan. This was even true of China’s socialist allies, who were much more concerned with resolving the problem of the two Germanies.

Will China Change the Olympics?

Over the years, has the West’s understanding of China improved? Today there is a great deal of attention paid to multiculturalism within the Olympic movement, but great practical obstacles to cross-cultural understanding remain.

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, or BOCOG, has stated that one of its goals is to promote Chinese culture to the world through one of its three themes for the Olympic Games: the high-tech games, the green games, and the renwen Aoyun— the “humanistic” or “people’s” Olympics. Renwen is difficult to translate. It is used to translate the English term “humanities” and is composed of the character ren 人 “ human,” and wen ,  “writing, literary pursuits, culture.” A book on the bid, published by the Beijing University of Physical Education Publishing House, concludes that the success of that bid shows that “if the Chinese nation truly opens up her broad bosom to embrace people from all corners of the world, then Chinese culture will now and in the future produce an even greater influence on global development.”

Beijing ’s most important cultural goal is to infuse global culture with Chinese culture, but it is not easy for a non-Western nation, even one as large and powerful as China, to write itself into world sport history. Just to give one example: The Olympic Museum founded at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1991 largely features exhibits from the modern Olympic Games, along with a modest collection of ancient Greek sports art. In 1999, leading up to Beijing’s second bid for the Olympics in 2001, He Zhenliang, China’s IOC member, organized an exhibition titled “5,000 Years of Sport in China: Art and Tradition” at the Olympic Museum.

But he had to argue with the executive board because there were those who felt that sport art in China was not “Olympic.” In the exhibition’s defense, he said:

Times have changed … Can we only transmit Greek sports culture to the nations of the world and should we not at the same time introduce the sports cultures from different sources?

This points to larger questions. How do we conceptualize China’s ancient sports as part of “Olympic” history? How do we make a space for Chinese traditions within this Western institution? How do we envision the Olympic movement as multicultural?

Two years remain before the Beijing Games. If the goal of cross-cultural understanding through the Olympic Games is to be achieved, a great deal of work remains to be done.

Source: Brownell, Susan. (2006). Will China change the Olympics? Guanxi: The China Letter, 3, 1.