There's a story about a venerable Chinese general's getting battle reports. The courier says, "Sixteen thousand Chinese dead, 264 Japanese dead." The old general merely nods. The next day: "Eleven thousand Chinese dead, 197 Japanese." The old general nods. The next day: "Twenty-one thousand Chinese, 308 Japanese." The old general smiles and rubs his hands. "Ah," he says, "pretty soon, no more Japanese."
The benign modern version of this tale is that many more Chinese watched the Super Bowl on television this year than did Americans; many more people in Beijing watched the European soccer championship than did people in London or Rome. The Chinese garnered 15 gold medals in the 1984 Olympics. Since '80, the Chinese have broken more than 100 world records and won more than 1,000 titles in international competition. By the year 2000, when the Olympics may be held in Beijing, the U.S., the Soviet Union, the two Germanys and the rest of the current athletic powers may look like so many NIT also-rans before the Sino juggernaut.
Sport, of course, isn't the highest manifestation of civilization, but it surely can be one of the more illusionary. If you can't outbomb everybody else, or outproduce them, or outdress them, or even outdream them, you can rather quickly outplay them. East Germany can't hold a candle to its western brother-state in any competition but Olympic—and China is about 60 times as populous as East Germany.
And what China is doing is no different from what East Germany and a lot of impoverished nations have done. Oh, to be sure, the Chinese pay lip service to the concept of universal exercise for the dear masses. All 200 million of its school children are supposed to pass physical fitness tests at various junctures, and much is made of the fact that a few old folks arise before dawn to perform the martial arts, but the fact is that the government's serious attention and most of its resources are devoted to the elite few who might bring Olympic glory to the People's Republic and thereby make it shine in the eyes of other countries and, more important, in those of its own citizens.
Sports unfamiliar to China—everything from weightlifting to synchronized swimming—are being force-fed to athletes. Scouts roam the land, plucking the most agile kids out of kindergarten and enrolling them in special sports schools (page 70). In Shanghai, China's largest city, with 12 million people, there's an 8,000-seat arena that looks chic enough to be bidding for an NBA expansion franchise. Adjoining it are three smaller gyms and high-tech swimming and diving facilities, but seldom are the hoi polloi permitted inside! Only a few hundred champions and would-be champions get to use these people's edifices for free.
As for the average Zhou, well.... In traveling throughout tourist and unadulterated China alike, I saw perhaps 200 outdoor basketball courts. They were, literally, everywhere. But I never once saw a single person, young or old, male or female, playing basketball. Everybody pedals a bicycle to work, but China doesn't produce any bicycle champions. You see, it's a hard loaf being Chinese. About 20% of those 200 million children who take those fitness tests are malnourished. And relatively few children, even among the well-fed ones, or grown-ups have the energy to devote leisure time to physical amusement. Remember when football developed in the U.S., only rich college boys were inclined toward such a grueling pastime; in America now, it's mostly the white-collar workers who jog. So it should be no surprise that in China the potential athletes must be sorted out of the pain and poverty of daily life.
For "sport," many young Chinese are quite content just to lean over a pool table. These sharps are so numerous that a visitor almost feels it's his duty to summon Harold Hill of The Music Man to China, lest the youth of that great land lose their morals: "China starts with C, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool!"
Altogether, something like 0.4% of the Chinese government's budget is earmarked for sports, which may not sound like much, but it's a considerable sum—approaching $300 million—in a land that to a considerable degree lacks the most basic amenities, like paved roads. In the upscale areas, the average salary is about $27 a month.
Also, a disproportionate amount of the sports budget must be applied to building facilities, training new coaches, generally catching up, because a whole generation of sporting activity was lost to the Cultural Revolution (page 64). Chairman Mao didn't approve of competition in sports anymore than in politics. But then, Chinese culture has never cherished the values of sport, or even physical fitness. There's nothing like the Western athletic tradition—which traces back from the playing fields of Eton to the Greco-Roman games—in China's past. The main indigenous sports are acrobatics and the martial arts, contemplative (read: Confucian), largely uncompetitive disciplines. Warriors were never as much revered in China as in other nations, and the human body is almost never celebrated in Chinese art. Indeed, the Mandarin philosophy, which ruled China for centuries and still permeates its thinking, valued learning and intellectual pursuits and did not separate mind from body—the antithesis of the Western ideal of a strong mind in a strong body.
While rewards for academic achievement are slight—professors make less than taxi drivers—parents, still under the influence of Mandarinism, are deeply concerned that their children do well in the classroom. The parental anxiety is heightened because rarely now does a family have "children"; China's birth-control policies mean that most couples have only a single child, and so the family future is invested in the "little king" or "little queen," as these only children are known, facetiously. The devotion to education is, too, pretty much concentrated on rote learning, so that an interest in sports (or ethics, the social sciences or other fuzzy stuff) seems threatening to many parents, at cross purposes with a real education.