Nearly all we heard in China came through the English-speaking lips of Mr. Li and nearly all that we said was passed back through him in Chinese. Mr. Li is 37 years old, father of two little boys, a passable (though beatable) Ping-Pong player, a government office worker for the Sports Federation in Peking when he was not interpreting, a bike rider to work and, he said ruefully after we knew him, the owner of a "fairly healthy ulcer." Mr. Li was also an intense and enormously involved fan of basketball though, like most Chinese spectators, he rarely uttered a sound and often seemed lost in Confucian thought at the basketball games we attended together. Yet once during a very tight game between the Chinese and American women's teams, Mr. Li broke a long and pensive silence to speak with a groan, "Oh, when games are close I am under great tension and my stomach twists like knots. I love fine competitions in basketball but, you know, Mr. Johnson, I find them hard to enjoy because of my nerves and my stomach knots."
From the airport we sped into Peking at high velocity, rumbling in great private buses past darkening fields and a few peasants who stared. We were like royalty skimming untouched through the hoi polloi—and so we would be feted throughout our stay, with busboys pressing free bottles of beer on us in hotels and people leaping up in packed public buses to demand that we take their seats. It was during the rushing ride into Peking that I casually asked Mr. Li a social banality, simply to fill a silence. "Do you think your Chinese men's team will defeat our men's team?"
Mr. Li smiled, his eyes crinkled and he replied, "Oh, no, our level is far below yours. We will not do well...but we will learn much, I am sure. And we will make closer friends of our two nations, of course, and that is what these games are for, is it not? Friendship instead of victory?"
I said, "Don't your teams care if they win?" And Mr. Li replied in what sounded like a dialogue balloon rising straight from the Chairman's own painted lips: "Not so much. Our philosophy of sport is friendship first, competition second, you know. There is something to be learned from winning but there is much to be learned from losing, also. We feel that the final score of a game is a matter of interest for a few moments, while the friendships developed go on for years, many years." He said this with expression in his voice, gestures with his hands, the light of a disciple in his face. Cooke and I both smirked inwardly. "I don't think they really believe that stuff," Cooke said, and yet as we burrowed deeper and deeper into Chinese sport our cynicism dissipated. Gradually it became more apparent that somehow sports victories in China are not only not celebrated much publicly, they are almost a matter of embarrassment.
For example, at one point we suddenly realized that in all the schools and universities we visited, we had never seen a single sports trophy or pennant. I finally asked a coach at a middle school in Shanghai where they kept their trophies. He said, "It is true that sometimes we are awarded modest banners for winning, but I do not know where they are. Perhaps in a desk drawer. We consider friendship first, learning good technique second, victory banners third or perhaps even less." In Peking I spoke to a small Ping-Pong player, whom I had been told was the undefeated champion of his school. He dug his toe into the floor when asked how many times he had won. "Sometimes I come close to losing my matches," he said.
Perhaps the ultimate posture of modesty in Chinese de-emphasis of victory was displayed by a swimming coach in Hangchow, one Chin Ling-chuin, 35, who was speaking about his own past as a competitor. "I swam freestyle and I competed in the national competition a few times," he said. "Perhaps I won the championship of China then, but I do not really remember."
Cooke remained incredulous, and I with him. Neither of us could fathom such spectacular disinterest in the virtues of beating the opposition. One hot afternoon, as we watched a typical thundering-herd brand of basketball on a dirt lot at the Hangchow Red Flag Paper Mill, the game halted briefly, and at random I pointed at a man I wished to interview. His name was Huang Chao-keng, 30, a worker in the mill maintenance shop. He was perspiring and breathing heavily. "Your team is ahead by 20 points," I said, "and you will win this game certainly. Does that make you feel especially good?" Mr. Huang spoke in gasps. "Yes, very good, for I find that much of my tension is gone if I play basketball after my shift is over." "No," I said, "I mean will winning today make you feel better than losing today?" He frowned and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose." He gestured toward the court. "Generalissimos sometimes win wars and sometimes lose wars. Why should winning be better than losing when one side must always lose and one must always win?" He took a deep breath. "If we emphasize the friendship rather than the competition and the learning rather than the winning, then sport—or war—is the same good thing for both sides. It is very simple." Huang, the maintenance shopworker, smiled beneficently, then trotted happily back to his game.
Cooke turned to me and said, "Do you know what they would have done with Vince Lombardi here? They would have tried him for treason." He paused, then added, "I guess maybe they really believe that stuff."
Peking Sunday and Ming Ping-Pong
It was just light on our first morning in China, 5:15 a.m. We rose from our beds in the Hsin Chiao Hotel, which is large and middle-aged with a kind of Kansas City comfort, and we stepped into the street. Despite the sweeping gray-ness of the fiat massive concrete boulevards, a misty golden light suffused the morning. Already there were many bicycles gliding along at a measured rate, undisturbed by the rising cacophony of army trucks that roared past, packed with the khaki-clad soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, horns honking maniacally. Around us were piles of sand and stacks of bricks: construction material, we had been told, for a huge and desperate building project. The Chinese were busily laying out a grand maze of tunnels beneath all of Peking to allow for a vast emergency evacuation of the city in case of nuclear attack. It was said that in less than two hours four million people could be hustled to the country safely through this underground labyrinth.