As relaxed as the dragon-boat racers appeared to be, the competition was quite crucial for many of them. Zhou Yungchi, a 45-year-old grandfather who was the captain of the hometown Yueyang boat in the 1,000-meter event, exulted after the second heat, for the mayor of Yueyang had promised 1,000 yuan apiece to those representatives of his city who made the finals, as Zhou's boat had. Zhou is a farmer who lives with nine other members of his extended family, all of whom together pull in the relatively handsome sum of 5,000 yuan ($1,350) a year. Here was a 20% bonus just for taking a couple of months to practice after work for a boat race.
After the races, we made our way south to the Guangdong Province and the city of Shunde, whose women had won the 1,000 meters. It took several days to reach Shunde; the only passage we could arrange was aboard a "hard bed" sleeper, a smoky, fetid overnight train that would make a rush-hour stint on the New York subway seem like a trip on the good ship Lollipop.
The Shunde women had come home on an earlier run of the same train and were already practicing for another dragon-boat meet in Hong Kong when we arrived. They, too, had been promised 1,000 yuan each if they excelled, and although they had not yet received their bonuses, they expressed no concern that the authorities would stiff them. And the authorities weren't likely to. The local sports commission chief, a Mr. He, explained that his annual budget for dragon-boat racing is 340,000 yuan—just short of $100,000. This figure was astonishing, for here was a county allotting the sort of money for dragon boating that much richer U.S. counties dispense to high schools for their entire athletic programs.
The Shunde women rowers demonstrated what the distaff volleyballers first showed, that gender knows no double standard in Chinese sport. Men and women competitors are paid the same daily stipends when they take time off from work to practice, and women are encouraged to compete. "My husband supports me thoroughly," Chen Miaovha, Shunde's 36-year-old captain and drummer, told me, "and all the others' husbands support them, too."
There are two practical reasons why the Chinese treat their female athletes equitably. First, almost half the gold medals in international competition go to women, and the Chinese want to win, whatever, whoever. Second, because most Chinese women marry relatively late and then are done with their reproductive chores in less than a year, China has an edge over more fecund nations: Its women have more time to practice sports and tend to stay at them longer.
While all Chinese counties have sports commissions and some sort of training facilities, most world-class athletes come from the easternmost coastal regions, from an arc that stretches down from Beijing through Shanghai to Guangzhou (and Hong Kong, when it returns to Chinese dominion in 1997). We are used to neatly dividing Third World nations into rural and urban categories, but in China, where every available smidgen of land is planted, this doesn't obtain.
Shunde, for example, may still be 40% agricultural and may still compete in the national peasant games, but it's demonstrably wealthier and more sophisticated than a city of a million people, like Changsha, in the interior. The divergence between coastal and interior societies was most strikingly apparent at two "rural" primary schools. One was in Meiluo County, a backwater in Hunan; the other was Xishan Primary School in Shunde. The children in the interior were dressed like bumpkins, had shabby athletic equipment and could barely get the Ping-Pong balls in play. At Xishan the children dressed very much like Americans, enjoyed first-rate sports facilities and played Ping-Pong with amazing skill. When I was greeting a bunch of little kids at Xishan, the devil made me shout out, "Gimme five!" and, roaring their approval, all the children jumped up, laughing, to give me practiced high fives. In Meiluo County, only one older boy knew who Ronald Reagan was. All of the kids at Xishan could identify Reagan, and some also knew who Gorbachev was. Still, none in either place had heard of Mickey Mouse, Pelé, Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson or Jesus Christ. And at both schools, everybody was studying hard for exams, though you don't get bumped off the school team if you flunk. Make of all that whatever you please.
Americans who visit China tend to limit themselves to touring the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and enjoying the barbecue and miniature golf at the Sheraton. Those sorts of things. What they experience is no more than a boutique China. But there's much more of China that can't and shouldn't be romanticized in the way that many visitors to China ooh and ah about it. Backwardness remains China's pervasive trait. And then there are those richer, more advanced, more open areas where the insidious West meets the inscrutable East. And insidiousness is winning out. Already, in Guangzhou, one of China's wealthiest cities, there are reports of spreading drug use, gambling and prostitution, old evils the Communist revolution supposedly stamped out, evils that had been relegated to the West. And, of course, there are sports fans.
But, even as China must struggle within itself to catch up to the modern world and not destroy itself in the process, sports can be one instrument of pride and identity for its people, one signal to the outside world that China is advancing. Sun Yat-sen, the early-20th-century revolutionary who set the table for Mao, once said, "The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit...they are just a heap of loose sand." So if the Chinese see that they are champions, perhaps that fact will serve as the first sign to them that they are a nation.
Americans can so often be condescending, mocking less-advantaged lands that would try to purchase some international victory in sports. But the U.S. is no better, intra-nationally, with undistinguished universities attempting to enhance their reputations through football, or fiscally distressed cities sacrificing the unwell and unclothed for new sky boxes. All the rest of the world would be big league. Why not China?