If Liyin excels at a place like Shishahai, she would be given a hard look by one of the national teams. From these teams come the Olympians. But even if she never advances past Western District, she could still earn a scholarship at the Beijing Institute of Physical Education, an entire college for jocks—and jock teachers, jock coaches and even jock scientists.
The Beijing Institute, modeled after Moscow's famous Frunze Military Academy, was built in 1953. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed since then, especially in the field house. Still, to walk into it is to happen upon an explosion of sports, of young Chinese athletes trying to learn, elbow-to-throat, shot put-to-high hurdle. On a vast floor entirely of dirt, institute students are happily at work on their specialties. Short-distance runners are lapping middle-distance runners who are lapping long-distance runners. In all, there are probably 150 athletes jostling for breathing room on the five-lane, 400-meter dirt track. Sprinters try to time their dashes down the back straight to avoid hitting the runners. Any time given a sprinter must factor in how many bodies he had to dodge. It would be easier to clock someone doing the 100-yard dash down Fifth Avenue at 5 p.m.
Around the outside of the track, using every inch, are weightlifters, javelin throwers practicing their footwork, rope climbers, stretchers, squatters, pommel-horse riders, ankle-taping trainers and muscle-kneading masseurs, gymnasts and trampolinists, shot put and discus heavers firing their projectiles into huge nets. The infield is full of broad jumpers, high jumpers, pole vaulters and hurdlers. China is a child grown too big for its clothes, and this is its playroom.
The institute is packed because sports has become one of the chic careers in China. Next to actors, athletes are revered the most. Chinese youth are no different from the rest of the world's teenagers: They want two things—fame and money—and suddenly, sports can give both to them.
All the kids at Shishahai earn a monthly salary—it's euphemistically called a "supplement"—and compete for bonus money. This sort of thing was unheard of 10 years ago, or even two years ago. Two of Shishahai's girl weightlifters, one 15, the other 16, recently set world records for their weight and age classes and were rewarded with bonuses of 300 yuan (about $80) apiece. "I think I'll buy some chocolate," said one.
Ten of the wu shu students at Shishahai have been in martial arts movies, which are immensely popular in China. And one of them, 22-year-old Kou Zhanwen, who runs off to do movies between competitions, is an out-and-out star. In his latest film, First Sword Under Heaven, Kou kills "uncountable" foes, he says, with a remarkable variety of flips, turns, kicks, spinning swipes and impossibly fast sweeps of his wu shu weapons.
Chinese athletes of today have an unprecedented chance to succeed and to gain material rewards for that success. The problem is, they're doing it almost alone. There's no library of dusty film strips for them to consult; there's no reservoir of exhilarating international triumphs from which they may draw spiritual uplift. There's only a huge, black gap in their country's athletic history—the Cultural Revolution—and although its extreme phase lasted only several years, it set back China, which wasn't very advanced athletically anyhow, perhaps 20 years in technique and experience. Liyin and her contemporaries are being asked to make up time.
When her mother sends her to the neighborhood store some mornings to pick up groceries, Liyin will do a cartwheel or two for the clerks' amusement. Sometimes they'll be so delighted with her that they'll give her a dried fish stick. Liyin is a charmer, all right. No wonder it won't be easy on her parents if the spare-time school invites her to move in full-time. Then again, the price is almost too good to pass up. The cost would be only about 20 yuan a month (about $5), which covers room, board and some of the best training in Beijing.
Still, there are more and more parents who are refusing the opportunity to send their children to spare-time schools. As part of China's policy of population control, Chinese couples are given strong incentives to have only one child. The penalty for having more is a substantial fine—usually about 15% of the couple's annual salary—and the loss of some privileges, such as ration coupons for grain and appliances. Under this system, Chinese kids have become exquisitely precious to their parents. Adults may dress in drab blues and grays, but their children are turned out like Prince William. "The child is the emperor of the house" goes a new Chinese saying. And kids like Liyin are the last emperors. Some parents have decided they don't want to give up their emperors for six days out of every seven.
The papers call it the "single-child syndrome," and some people think it's spoiling the kids and hurting China's spare-time system. "Children are going soft," says Yin Guanghuan, the deputy director of Liyin's school. "The people of my generation went through economic difficulties. We learned to eat bitterness. Before them, our parents were in war. Today, now that our economic standards are better, parents spoil the children. Our children do not have as strong a fighting spirit as those of the Eastern European children. Parents must teach them bitterness."