The long rectangular table was set for 30, but because only 10 of us were in attendance, 20 porcelain mugs of steaming tea sat cooling before empty places. There was also an embarrassing wealth of watermelon and bananas and biscuits for our consumption. This was standard procedure during our stay in Chengdu, a city of four million people and the capital of Sichuan, the most populous province in China. Each interview began with one of these formal sittings. Tea and food were served, ignored and disposed of discreetly, never having touched human lips. Information was spewed out as if by rote.
"One of the remarkable changes in China in the last 10 years is that youngsters are getting more and more active in sports," said Zhu Chuando, deputy president of the Sichuan Sports Commission. "There are two reasons for this. First, the Chinese team went to the Olympics in Los Angeles and got a very good result, winning 15 gold medals. Second, in the last 10 years the Chinese economy has been getting quite well, which means there's more spare time for sports. The masses have enough food, better clothes. We still do not have sports facilities to meet the needs of all the people in this province. So the focus is on the youngsters. We need more money from the government to rectify this shortcoming. In other developing countries, one percent of the budget is spent for sports. In China we spend only four tenths of one percent of our budget. But we have hopes this will change."
He did not present this observation with resignation, for the changes in Chinese life in recent years have been palpable. China's standard of living, still low by Western standards, is on the rise, a fact most evident in the cities, where I focused my look at sports in China. The faces on the streets of those cities are generally hopeful; the people's clothing is clean and colorful; the children are well cared for and healthy. New buildings are going up everywhere. Private enterprise has a foothold and is spreading like a fire storm.
That China is also a country in transition athletically was brought home when we asked if it was true, as we had read, that table tennis, the sport that helped open the doors to the West, was declining in popularity. "In the past, table tennis was a big item for spectators in our country," said Zhu. "Now only the highest level of table tennis is of interest. There are complicated psychological reasons for this. We've developed interest in some new sports, and table tennis is associated with the old China."
Of the new sports, which are most popular?
"Bodybuilding and aerobics," he said with pride. "Now that living conditions have improved, the people want their bodies more fit, more beautiful, more healthy."
The surge in sports interest in China, then, goes beyond the government's primary goal of building Olympic programs. We saw this later that morning while visiting a Children's Palace, a YMCA-type facility that is also the training center of Chen Jing, a former acrobatic gymnast and China's bodybuilding champion in 1986. She is very much representative of the new China: a part-time model who has traveled to the U.S. and Europe for aerobics competitions. She recently started her own aerobics and bodybuilding business, charging participants 30 yuan ($8) for three months of thrice-weekly, 90-minute classes.
She is one of a growing number of Chinese bodybuilders. Chen started working with weights in 1986, at which time bodybuilding for either sex was just getting going in China, and the idea of a bikini-clad woman greasing up to compete publicly was scandalous. Two-piece bathing suits still aren't acceptable for Chinese women at public pools. But China has taken to bodybuilding with a fascination that has astounded observers familiar with the modesty of the people.
"This is really very new," our translator, Gao Min, assured us, his eyes nearly popping out of his head as a trio of Chinese women flexed in front of a wall of mirrors. "Ordinarily Chinese women are very conservative. But it's O.K.," he added approvingly. "Very graceful. Very beautiful."
We were introduced to another non-Olympic sport—and one uniquely Chinese—that afternoon when we visited the Chengdu Electric Welding Machine Research Institute to see jian qiu, a game invented on the docks of Shanghai in the 1940s. It is played with a modified badminton shuttlecock, and the rules are similar to those of volleyball, except players use their feet (and occasionally their heads) rather than their hands to propel the shuttlecock over the net. Once a year there's a citywide jian qiu competition among Chengdu businesses for something called the Electric Welding Cup. The tournament is held in the research institute's huge conference room, where one of Mao's most frequently quoted slogans is written in bright red Chinese characters on a large banner: PROMOTE PHYSICAL CULTURE AND SPORTS AND BUILD UP THE PEOPLE'S HEALTH.