Later in the car the mystique of antiquity was still strong in our minds, but the irrepressible Tung returned us firmly to modern China. "I will tell you about the Cultural Revolution of 1966," he said with a warm smile. "In terms of sport the Cultural Revolution was intended to bring better education to the people about physical culture and sports. There had been a tendency, particularly in some universities, to put an extra value on the winning of victories in games. There was a tendency to compete for fame only, to play with the purpose of winning championships only. Strong efforts were made to criticize the men who advanced these revisionist philosophies. Now, it is true that sports were interrupted for a time to concentrate on the Cultural Revolution. For a few years there was a temporary stop in most organized games and tournaments. Oh, it is true that people continued to play in the streets and commune fields and schoolyards. But now things are much better than before the Cultural Revolution. People have a better understanding that they can promote their health and thus build socialism through sports."
Once more we were descending from the mountains onto a fine broad plain, green and rich, landscaped with many trees along its fields. We were nearing the great necropolis where 13 of the 16 emperors of the Ming Dynasty lay buried in their tombs. This used to be untouchable land, so sacrosanct that to set foot upon it meant death. Today it is being farmed, and even the famed Sacred Way of the Spirit with its silent stone sentries—kneeling elephants, horses, camels, glowering warrior-emperors—is alive with tractors, trucks, bicycles, all the traffic of workaday China.
As we drove in I asked Tung if there had been much violent change done to the Chinese sports hierarchy during the Cultural Revolution. He replied a bit elliptically, "The tendency of seeking fame and championships alone was certainly not so dangerous as the political line pursued by certain swindlers and revisionists in the universities and the followers of the wrong ways of Liu Shao-chi. But all of us decided that it was best both politically and in terms of sport to return to the line as defined by Chairman Mao."
We had now arrived at the tombs set in a broad natural bowl surrounded by gentle mountains. We prepared to enter the tomb of Emperor Wan Li, who died in 1620. Of the emperor's own design, it had been built at the cost of eight million ounces of silver. Tung went on. "The idea of bringing up super sportsmen was one thing that the Cultural Revolution wiped out of our sports life. Now the emphasis is on training the overwhelming majority of the people, yet at the same time encouraging the development of players of world competitive level. We hope to do both, but the most important thing is to emphasize sport for the masses rather than for the elite."
As if ordered by a Central Committee nonrevisionist, just as we were about to enter the tomb a young man ran by us lazily dribbling a basketball. He crossed the parking lot and began shooting at a hoop and backboard that had been erected not 50 yards from the sacred site.
"See?" said Tung with a radiant smile. "That is what I mean when I say sport for the masses, not the elite. We even play games on the tombs of kings."
"Is Babe Ruth Still Alive?"
Much of China seemed to blur into a moiling montage, antiquities and new socialism, now opaque images, now lucid memories, inscrutable stuff and some things inspiring, a total immersion in the sporting culture of this unknown place. Let me simply list some items, some disconnected scenes that cannot be logically married, yet give a sense of China when they are taken together:
An old, old man, a professor of hydraulics at Tsinghua University in Peking, spoke perfect English and said that he had spent quite a few years long ago at MIT and Cornell University. "Tell me," he asked, "is Babe Ruth still alive?"
In a schoolyard in Hangchow the school coach, Yueh Shing-chang, 40, was a rather sad-faced fellow with seams in his cheeks. He wore a clean, wrinkled white shirt and his baggy trousers were held up with a frayed belt. The students of the school were assembled to do calisthenics as called out by a scratched record squawking from an amplifier in a tree. I asked Yueh about sports when he was a boy, and he replied in a low voice that was hard to hear: "There were no sports to speak of then, not before the Liberation in 1949. There were no banners given. We had one ball at my school; perhaps it was a basketball, I do not know. We lived near a reservoir, but no one swam. We were so very poor; we had no energy to play, only to survive. My father and mother were beggars My older brother and my older sister were sold by my parents to craftsmen from other provinces. I have never seen them since. I tended oxen for the local landlord. I begged also. We suffered from illiteracy then, but my older brothers saved money and sent me, the youngest, to middle school. We ran some races then. In the 100-meter dash my best time was 11.1 seconds. It is not a very good time, is it? But sports were not practiced when I was a child."