Huang Jian had been the coach of China's national track and field team. He had trained two high jumpers who broke records and brought glory to China when it was an unknown in international sport. Now he's standing alone on a platform in front of a jeering mob, bent forward from the waist, his back straight and his arms stretched out and back from his sides in the "airplane position." The mob knows he's an intellectual and has been led to believe he's a spy and a traitor as well. It would like nothing more than to see him drop to his knees from the pain of holding the airplane position. Most intellectuals are skinny and weak and topple after 10 minutes. Huang lasts for an hour. "I was proud because they could see I was a sportsman," he says of that day in the mid-1960s.
China's Great Cultural Revolution has been called "a settling of accounts on a cosmic scale." The powerless avenged themselves against the powerful, the young against the old, students against their teachers, children against their parents, friends against friends. Before it ran its 10-year course, hundreds of thousands died, more were mentally or physically crippled, uncounted treasures of Chinese antiquity were destroyed, the national economy ground to a halt, the old Communist Party structure was dismantled, the universities were closed, and, in the end, a populace that for decades had endured hardship, often terrible, grinding hardship, in the name of Mao Tsetung and his revolutionary vision, had become disillusioned.
The Cultural Revolution officially began in 1966, when Mao set out to rekindle China's revolutionary fire, which he believed was being extinguished by revisionist intellectuals, opportunistic bureaucrats and "capitalist roaders." He declared war on the Four Olds—old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits—and he unleashed the Red Guards, an army of several million student zealots, ages 9 to 18. They roamed the country, ferreting out and "reeducating" enemies of the people wherever they found them.
Not surprisingly, considering the forces Mao had unleashed, the Cultural Revolution soon outgrew his capacity to control it. In July of 1968 he disbanded the Red Guards, sent perhaps as many as 14 million of them to work in the countryside and replaced them as the arbiters of the people's behavior with the People's Liberation Army. Still, except for a relaxation of tension in 1970, '71 and '72, the storm raged on until Mao's death in '76.
The earliest indication to the outside world that athletes had been drawn into the vortex of the Cultural Revolution was the sudden withdrawal of China's No. 1-ranked table-tennis team from the 1967 World Championships in Stockholm. News from inside China emerged slowly in those days, but the rumors were stunning. In the case of the table-tennis players, they were later found to have been mostly true. Chuang Tsetung, the world champion from 1961 through '66 and China's first modern sports hero, along with other team members and their coaches, had been jailed for having "followed the capitalist road" of Mao's political rival, Liu Shao-ch'i.
Nothing more was heard of Chuang for three years; he had been given up for dead by the world's table-tennis fans when suddenly he appeared in a Chinese exhibition match. By 1972 he was rehabilitated and the leader of a table tennis delegation that toured the U.S. during the period of Ping-Pong diplomacy that marked the reopening of relations between the U.S. and China.
Once again, however, Chuang had hitched his wagon to the wrong political star. His protector was Chiang Ch'ing, Mao's ultraleftist wife, and when she and the rest of the infamous Gang of Four fell after Mao's death, Chuang fell with them. It's said that, upon being jailed again, he tried to hang himself in his cell, but he was cut down by his captors before he succeeded.
Today Chuang, now known as Zhuang Zedong, is a table-tennis coach at a Beijing recreation center for children. He's lucky to be alive—and luckier still to be out of the sometimes dangerous Chinese limelight. Less fortunate were two of his colleagues: Jung Kuo-tuan, the world table-tennis champion in 1959, and Fu Chi-fang, a coach of that era. Tainted by "foreignism" because they were returned Chinese, Jung and Fu both were persecuted. And both committed suicide.
Some of the survivors of the Cultural Revolution are now powers in the Chinese sports establishment. Two of them, Yuan Weimin, a former volleyball player, and Zhang Jian, who was a gymnast, were athletes in their prime when the Cultural Revolution began. Both made successful comebacks as coaches and now have been rewarded for their success with elevation to the higher ranks of the sports hierarchy. Huang, the track coach who held the airplane position for an hour, is back at his old job of guiding China's track and field team, this time as it prepares for the Seoul Olympics.
Yuan's office is in the Sports Federation headquarters in Beijing. At 49, he's a national hero and, as a vice-minister of the Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, one of the highest-ranked sports officials in China, yet his office could belong to the vice-principal of an aging, inner-city American high school. The only indication there of Yuan's importance is the two telephones sitting on his desk, one of which is red.