Over all the games of China there invariably hangs a 14-foot-long portrait of Mao Tse-tung. His big face is benign but serious, paternal but unyielding, a wart the size of a hockey puck is on his chin. He is the Ubiquitous Spectator.
No man in the history of the world—not Alexander the Great, not Napoleon, not Charlemagne—has governed so many people at one time. None has ruled with quite such perfect omnipotence, none with such intimate and pervasive influence. The 800 million citizens of the People's Republic of China find themselves more often under the gaze of Chairman Mao's painted eyes than under the rays of the sun. It is likely that they utter the words and thoughts of Mao more often than they speak their own.
Sport, like everything else in China, is inseparable from Mao Tse-tung. At times his portrait, looking interestedly down on a schoolboys' Ping-Pong match or a soccer game between factories or a swimming meet between communes, is accompanied by the austere faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin or (somehow shockingly) Joseph Stalin. More often Mao looks upon the games alone, for it is the cult of the Chairman which permeates, even seems to motivate, each basket that is scored, each volleyball that is spiked, each 100-meter dash that is run.
During our travels in China last summer my companion, Photographer Jerry Cooke, and I had been guided to the edge of perhaps 10 dozen packed-dirt basketball courts and volleyball and badminton courts. We had been taken to view track meets in rain-puddled schoolyards, mass calisthenics in vacant factory lots and vast rooms full of absolutely savage Ping-Pong players scarcely as tall as the table. We had seen volleyball games on cold cement playgrounds in the capital city of Peking and watched tiny kindergartners performing their miniature daily dozen with thumb-sized dumbbells in a leafy Peking schoolyard that had been the imperial silkworm garden during the Ching Dynasty. We had watched women scullers racing on the poetic waters of old West Lake in Hangchow and we had witnessed a children's mighty tug-of-war very early one morning in a stadium off the sun-dappled Parisian streets of Shanghai.
We had, I suppose, observed a few thousand Chinese men, women and children earnestly—most earnestly—at play. Through our translator, Mr. Li Chi-yuin, we had talked to perhaps a hundred. What did it amount to? Where did it lead?
Well, I inquired of each person I interviewed why he participated in his chosen sport. Now listen to a few Chinese athletes answer, for this is the voice of sport in the Middle Kingdom today:
At Tsinghua University, the MIT of China, in Peking, Chien Soong-yao, 26, majoring in chemistry, is captain and high scorer of the chemistry department basketball team. He says he plays games because "I have a strong desire to take an active part in the construction and defense of the motherland, according to the precepts of Chairman Mao." Miss Huang Ying-min, 13, a shy, somber backstroker from an island village in Chekiang province, was working out in the glistening aqua waters of a pool in Hangchow in preparation for the provincial championships. She says, "I swim to build my health and defend the country and advance the socialist revolution." Ni Chueh-chen, 26, stamp-press operator and Ping-Pong champion of a foundry in the Nan Yuan people's commune outside Peking, says, "I play Ping-Pong ball in response to Chairman Mao's call in terms of improving our physical fitness and increasing production." Miss Pan Yai-chuan, 19, a radiant girl who sculls off Orioles Singing in the Willows Park on West Lake in Hangchow, smiles with almost holy sweetness and says, "I row whenever I can in order to build up my size for the defense and building of socialism. Only if our level of health is rising can we construct a better country." On a volleyball court in Peking, a short walk from the ancient Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People, Miss Lei Tse-wei, 14, a strong, thin young lady with the fire of competition in her eyes and perspiration on her brow, says, "I practice volleyball all I can for the sake of the revolution." A tiny Ping-Pong player, Ma Liang-tse, 11, working intensely on his smashes in a primary school classroom in Shanghai, says in a frail voice, "I play to improve my physical condition and to bring fame to Chairman Mao." And Ching Yen-li, 74, of Shanghai, who leads a daily group in the practice of wu shu, the ancient and noble Chinese exercises that range from a sort of slow-motion ballet to violent and exhausting pantomimes of self-defense, says, "Chairman Mao has issued a call for the nation to improve its physical fitness, and this is true for old people, too. Though wu shu is thousands of years old, it is now applied to the work of advancing the socialist revolution and defending the motherland...."
And so on and so forth...everywhere, everyone.
On the surface, the extravagant sentiments of these modern Chinese appear to be the frightened dry rot of totalitarianism with overtones of para-militarism, echoed mindlessly for the benefit of the Ubiquitous Spectator, perhaps done in fear that the Chairman's 14-foot face is eavesdropping with its three-foot ears. Yet there is no outward atmosphere of trepidation or anxiety in China. Children sing, old men laugh, life and hard work go on as they have timelessly. The bland baggy sameness of their egalitarian clothes (men and women both), the shorn rural look of their haircuts (men and women both) and the measured, satisfied tempo of their millions of bicycles (men and women both) combine to make a tranquil but oddly impenetrable atmosphere of patient calm.
Nothing in China is simple. At the end of our trip Cooke turned to an ancient Oriental art form he knows well and uses often, the Japanese haiku. It is a poem containing exactly 17 syllables. Cooke wrote (in five lines rather than the usual three) thusly about his confusions in China: