SI Vault
Rick Reilly
August 15, 1988
Zhang Liyin (third from left) and her tiny mates may beam, but even for them spare-time sports school is no joke
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August 15, 1988

Here No One Is Spared

Zhang Liyin (third from left) and her tiny mates may beam, but even for them spare-time sports school is no joke

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When a child is born in china, friends lift their glasses to the new parents and say, "Wang zi cheng long" ("May your child become a dragon"). It's what every parent wants, but it's not so easy to come by. To become a dragon, to become sturdy of mind and concrete of will, the child must be able to chi ku, ("eat bitterness"). And right now, Zhang Liyin, 6, is chi ku-ing by the bowlful.

Standing on a balance beam at a spare-time sports school in Beijing, she poises her arms outward as she readies herself to do a backflip and land on the beam. She's barefoot, with chalk on her hands, and she wears the elite bright-red gymnast suit given to only the best 10 girls in her class of six-to eight-year-olds. But her face shows dread. She can't bring herself to do the flip. Maybe it's because she has had a hard week. A red and purple strawberry decorates her right leg, and a nasty gouge colors her left knee. No matter, there's only so much standing-there-looking-poised a little girl in this school can do before she's in trouble. Liyin is in trouble.

Her coach, a woman in her late 20's, makes her jump from the beam and escorts her to the high bar, where she's told to hang for three minutes. If she falls, she must get back up and start over.

She doesn't fall and is escorted back to the beam. Again, she stands poised, but that's it. She can't persuade her 4'1" body to do the backflip. This time her coach calls her over to the floor-exercise mat in the center of the huge, window-lit room. Liyin knows this isn't a good omen. Her eyes are full of remorse, but the coach isn't angry. She's smiling. Both know what will happen next.

Liyin is told to sit with her legs spread-eagled and her feet propped up on one-foot-high stools. From behind, the coach pushes Liyin's chest and face toward the blue mat until her forehead touches it. But touching isn't enough. The coach sits on Liyin's back, forcing her abdomen, chest and face flush against the mat. All the while, Liyin has kept her feet propped on the stools. She cries quietly but doesn't scream. Her mother, permitted a rare visit to the gymnastics room this day, turns her head. "It's too cruel," she says.

The punishment lasts two minutes and is repeated after a one-minute rest. Liyin is escorted back to the beam, where, without delay, she turns a perfect backflip and lands on the beam.

Next dragon, please.

It's 8 a.m., and Liyin's mom keeps telling the kid how lucky she is, while Liyin tries to figure out a way to hide her rice porridge under her steamed bread. The Zhangs live in a two-room, 36-by-12-foot apartment in the Western District of Beijing. O.K., so the apartment is a little cramped by American standards. Actually, it's a little cramped by sardine standards. But it costs only a small portion of the 230 yuan ($60) Liyin's father, who's a public relations assistant, brings home each month.

The family room is also the dining room is also the bedroom. The Zhangs all sleep in the same double bed, though Dad usually winds up on the floor. The other room is the kitchen, not much bigger than a 747 bathroom. It has a one-flame gas stove, a one-temperature faucet spilling into one bowl on one stand. When the bowl fills up, it gets dumped onto the one-drain floor. The Zhangs share a toilet down the hall. There's no shower or bathtub in the apartment building. To bathe, one must go to the public shower hall two blocks away, but for that you need tickets and sometimes you have to stand in line. The Zhangs don't like to stand in line, so when they feel like a shower, they walk to Liyin's grandparents' house, three blocks away.

All in all, this isn't a bad arrangement, except that's not the reason Liyin's mother keeps telling her she's lucky. She's lucky because in the afternoons Liyin attends a spare-time sports school, a privilege bestowed upon only 260,000 of China's 200 million elementary-to college-age pupils.

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