Li said, "As for sports then, there was only opium smoking among the bandits. That is all I can remember."
Our lunch was finished off with green bananas and lichees, freshly plucked from the fields and orchards of Tao Chiao. We ambled back through the village streets. The crowds were almost as large as before. At the canal we were again led to a table with tea, and we watched a sobersided class of small children learn their swimming techniques in the canal, which was about eight feet from their school. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of ostentatious swimming going on. A group of 20 or so girls suddenly walked past us and, fully clothed, jumped into the canal and began playing a shrill game of water polo. Two old men walking with their hands at their backs veered off the path and descended a ramp into the water. A man came out of a barbershop and jumped into the canal. Chao said casually, "At one time or another, almost every day, everyone in the village—workers and old people, children and even some animals—takes an opportunity to swim."
It was, by this point, midafternoon and time to return to Canton. We walked back to our boat in the river and Chao smiled broadly and clapped me on the back and said, "We have an event for you now. The Swimming Village will swim for you. We have arranged it." Li Shu-ling grinned, too, his face creased like a prune. He carried a bugle in one hand, a red flag in the other, and both he and Chao climbed into the pilothouse of our boat with us and we chugged into the middle of the river.
Chao then said something to the skipper. The boat stopped. Without warning, Li put his bugle to his lips and blew three horrendous blasts, then began waving his red flag furiously. The shore gradually began to move as people gathered at the riverbanks and, astonishingly, in clusters of a dozen here, 25 there, began throwing themselves joyfully, methodically, into the river. Soon there were thousands of black-haired heads in the ocher water, dark eyes shining and smiles lighting the water's surface. The entire river seemed clogged with people, all swimming, all smiling, all drifting in a vast roiling, splashing flow toward our boat. Like an inexorable tide, they paddled closer and closer. The captain frowned and spat out a curse. The swimmers kept advancing. Li and Chao shouted at them. Our own Mr. Li began to yell. They came closer still, thousands of swimmers. Li Shu-ling began to blow on his bugle. Chao grabbed the red flag to wave. The skipper tried to hang out of the pilothouse to see where there was clear water away from the swimmers. The Chinese air was turning blue, with curses perhaps.
At last Cooke, displaying an instinctive aptitude for the proper move, began to applaud. Of course, so did the swimmers, and as they clapped merrily in the splashing water they stopped advancing and, whatever the crisis may have been, real or imagined, things returned to normal on this sunny afternoon.
And as I stood looking down on all the thousands of them in the river, applauding the strangeness of two Americans, I rather foolishly wished that I somehow had the power to—well, to bless them, yes, to bless the people of the Swimming Village.
Through all of Chinese sport there runs a frayed thread of shabbiness, of games played in worn and faded clothing, in threadbare sneakers, with scuffed old balls on dirt courts. China's sports are poverty's games—pastimes that require little equipment, not much space, little grooming, a minimum of the sophisticated technology and shining material that much of the rest of the world has at its command. There is no denying the enthusiasm for sport in China, no gainsaying the massiveness of participation. Perhaps, however, the truest measure of sport in China today is the look of its people. They are healthy, lean and tough, where before in this century most of them were not. Even if China's children are offered only the games of the poor, performed on the seedy playing fields of the deprived, the fact is they are playing games. And where bare survival used to be the only motive for tens of millions, now there is more to live for. Chairman Mao, who is a poet of sensitivity and insight, wrote a verse in 1956 called Swimming. It speaks to the joys of sport and the eternities that are China, and it goes in part like this:
After swallowing some water at Changsha
I taste a Wuchang fish in the surf and swim across the Yangtze River that winds ten thousand li.
I see the entire Chu sky.
Wind hatters me, waves hit me—I don't care.
Better than walking lazily in the patio.
Today I have a lot of time.
Here on the river the Master said:
"Dying—going into the past—is like a river flowing."