Manchuria is China's winter playground, a land of snow and ice—mostly ice. It lies in the northeast, tucked up snug against Mongolia and Siberia. Tell a Beijing resident you're heading for Manchuria, and he'll go "Brrrrr." Then he'll ask, "Weishenma?" which, translated, means "Why?"
Manchuria—or Northeast China as the currently preferred nomenclature has it—like many places in the vastness of this country, is remote yet has densely populated urban centers. Its hub is Harbin (pop. 2.5 million, or about the size of Chicago), which is 700 miles from Beijing. Harbin sits on the southern edge of what the Chinese call Da Huang Di, the Great Waste. Beyond Harbin, conditions are too harsh for all but the hardiest folks, most of them farmers.
The streets of Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, are choked with buses, bikes and horse carts. Russian-and Japanese-style buildings loom above the outdoor markets, reminders of early settlers and subsequent occupations of the 1930s and "40s. The promenade that runs by the bank of the Songhua River is called Stalin Park. In winter, when temperatures head for—40° F, the people of Harbin spend much of each day chopping hard-packed snow from the streets, the Songhua freezes over and kids break out their skates. "All our children love the icy sports." says Pan Jinrun, head of the Heilongjiang Province Physical Culture & Sports Commission. "And some become good at them."
A large majority of China's winter sports stars hail from Harbin and other parts of Manchuria. That's to say, a large majority of a select few. While the People's Republic has gained some prominence in summer sports—it won 15 golds at the L.A. Olympics—it won nary a medal at the two Winter Games it has entered, in 1980 and '84. But the hardworking people of Northeast China are fiercely determined. Only murmurs may be heard from the Chinese at Calgary, but there will certainly be louder sounds at future Winter Games.
Before the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, Harbin produced some fine speed skaters. He Gan was one, Liu Fengrong—who was ranked fourth overall in the world among women in 1962 and '63—was another. He and Liu, both Harbiners by birth, are major forces in the renaissance of their sport, he as the national men's coach, she as vice-director of Heilongjiang's sports commission.
"Thirty-five years ago each Harbin school had its own rink, and we were ahead of the world because of our natural conditions." says He looking out over the artificial-ice oval of the Harbin Ice Center. "We had much development in the '50s and '60s. Then the icy sports were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution—a disaster. We lost 10 years. During that period the world began to use artificial ice, and China lagged behind. This oval was completed in 1979, and we have four others like it in the northeast. In recent years our women's speed skating has become very good again, very good. The men's team, I'm sad to say, is still far behind."
Liu agrees that the Chinese women's speed skating team "will be better than at Sarajevo," though she also says. "I don't think there will be a big surprise. No medals."
The objective at Calgary, He says, is to place one or more of the women skaters "within the top 10" in one event or another. "This is the goal set by the state commission. In my opinion, if Wang Shiu Li could squeeze into the top 10 it would certainly be the pinnacle of her career. She's getting old."
It was difficult to watch the 22-year-old Wang zip around the oval at Changchun, a city 145 miles southwest of Harbin where the national team trained, and think of her as old. Veteran, yes: old, no. She has been responsible for China's most shining moments in recent international winter sports competition. At the 1986 World Speed Skating Championships, she was sixth at 500 meters, seventh at 1.500 meters and 11th overall.
Wang is another native Harbiner, the daughter of a construction worker. "I took up skating in school at 10 and quickly learned of Liu and her records," she says. "She became my hero and I wanted to surpass her. The gap between China and a medal is, to be realistic, very wide. But I am hoping, of course."