I felt called upon to tell her that hand-grenade throwing was not yet an Olympic event, but the young Miss Li seemed untroubled by this. When I asked her to show how she performed her specialty, her delight in her sport seemed impervious to any outside influence. The hand grenade, an official Chinese event that is included in national fitness requirements for schoolchildren, consists of throwing a small potato masher-shaped item about eight inches long and weighing in Miss Li's class 300 grams. The technique, quite graceful, even balletic, includes a brief, solemn, meditative pose, then six quick springing steps to a line at which point the straightened arm arcs over the shoulder like a catapult released and flings the grenade as far as possible. Li's best throw was over 50 meters, she said proudly.
Once she had thrown, I asked her what she considered the secret of her success. She did not pause in her reply. "It is the blasting power of my muscles," she said. I asked if I might feel her muscle and she obliged, offering me a tense bicep that was quite impressive and seemed fraught with blasting power. I asked her how she would react if she were ever required to appear before multitudes at the Olympic Games, representing China at that august competition in the finals of the hand-grenade throw. Li replied quietly, "I am confident of my blasting power."
Great Wall, Great Talker
Don Klein, a Boston-based China-watcher who traveled with us in China, said, "If I were living in China and had a choice, I'd try to make my career in the sports bureaucracy. They have the cars, the prestige, but when policies change they aren't so vulnerable, so visible, so endangered as officials in political, educational or cultural agencies."
The Cultural Revolution of the late '60s smashed across China like a violent windstorm. Its targets were "revisionist" officials who were accused of weakening the philosophies of Mao. No one outside China knew what was happening then; no one is absolutely certain even yet what did happen. The universities were all but disemboweled, and today there is a tragic air of decay and dry rot on Chinese campuses. Many of the best professors and finest students were permanently removed from the academic scene and sent to the country to work the fields. At the time of the Cultural Revolution the celebrated Chinese Ping-Pong team, which had swept every world title in the matches of 1965, suddenly disappeared. For two world championships, 1967 and 1969, no word was heard. Chuang Tse-tung, three times the men's world champion, was feared dead, perhaps murdered by the fanatical Red Guards for having his own "cult of personality," stimulated by his fame as a champion. But Chuang and the entire team reappeared in 1971, hale and hearty (in the case of Chuang, hale to the point of having grown a bourgeois potbelly). Since then Chuang has been named a member of the super-prestigious Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Ping-Pong team has logged tens of thousands of miles as the top bananas in China's world-traveling troupes of sports diplomats, though the country no longer dominates world table tennis as it did.
One day Cooke and I were being driven in a car at high speed with a full honking horn along a bicycle-glutted country road outside Peking. We were bound for the green treeless mountains we could see far off to walk the Great Wall of China and to observe the Ming Tombs. With us was our interpreter, Mr. Li, and an energetic, engaging fellow with a fresh coxcomb haircut. He was from the All China Sports Federation, department of mass sports, and his name was Tung Yiwan. His eyes shone vividly as he spoke and there was a distinct ring of evangelism in his words, for Tung was with us to explain the broad scope of sport in China as seen from offices in the monoliths of Peking's bureaucracy. As the landscape outside began to harden and rise from sweeping rich fields to small rocky foothills, I asked Tung how the Cultural Revolution had affected sport. He spoke quietly.
"Let me start at an earlier point than that. Sport in China changed greatly since the Liberation in 1949," he said, "for it has spread to reach the masses. As you already know, sport and physical culture are an integral part of national policies in China and are intended to serve socialist construction and advance the Revolution. There are two basic ways this is done, through mass sports inside China and through our appearance in international competition. My department is in charge of organizing sports in factories, communes and schools, spare-time schools and such."
The car was now climbing narrow roads through sharp-peaked mountains, honking, ever honking, at men and women pedaling laboriously up with loads of straw, jugs of fertilizer and baskets of green beans and tomatoes. The terrain was dramatic. This was not far from a place where the hordes of Ghengis Khan won bloody territory after breaking through the Great Wall in the 13th century. Tung went on: "Our world competitions are important to us. The Ping-Pong ball successes were a direct result of a call issued from the Sports Federation to speed up our improvement in world levels of Ping-Pong ball. At that time we held a tournament with 300 of our best selected players to get new members for the Chinese team."
We were not far now from the famed Chu Yang Kuan pass, which dated from the third century B.C., only a few more minutes to the Great Wall. Tung went on, "Yes, we are trying to develop the best sportsmen that we can. There are 800 spare-time schools where children start at eight years of age and attend two to three hours every afternoon for the purpose of building their athletic skills. These things are under my department. We do hope we can win some good titles, some more world titles for China and for the advancement of the socialist revolution but, of course, it will always be within the philosophy of friendship first, competition second."
Our car fled around a sharp corner and there before us stretched the Great Wall, 2,000 years old and perhaps 3,000 miles long. In 1867 the world-traveling Comte de Beauvoir wrote of the Wall: "This fantastic serpent of stone, its battlements devoid of cannons, its loopholes empty of rifles, will be stored in my mind like a magic vision." Cooke had a more practical reaction: "Well, the Russians didn't teach them this."