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In 1948 when the Communists captured Peking, the ancient capital of China, the residents lost many cherished freedoms. One of these involved sports—not freedom of sports so much as freedom from sports. Now Maria Yen, a student at Peita University who has since escaped to Hong Kong, has—with the assistance of Richard M. McCarthy—written the first description of this strange reversal in the following article. It will form part of a book, The Umbrella Garden, to be published Sept. 21 by Macmillan ($4).
To be honest about it, Peita was always backward in athletics. We didn't mind; it didn't make much difference to most of us. After all, Peita was a place for things of the mind rather than for things of the body or what a Hindu or Christian would call the "spirit." However, after the victory over Japan Peita did make a gesture toward the "modern" Western concept of physical education by asking freshmen to devote two hours a week to supervised exercise. The next year, to emphasize this new concern for sports, the school authorities required sophomores to take physical training too. But older students remained free of this compulsion.
The physical training courses for freshmen and sophomores used to be worth going to just as spectacles. At the first meeting the teachers would toot on their whistles to round up their charges, and then explain to the students clustered around them that university regulations forbade students to miss more than one-third of the classes during a semester. Anybody who did not want to come, of course, might do as he pleased, but it was imperative for him to remember how many times he had cut lest he miss more than one-third of the sessions and embarrass the instructor.
But at the end of each term, we faced the same reckoning we faced in the classes we held in higher esteem. There had to be an examination—just as there has to be an election in the USSR. The men's examination consisted of three special tests of each student's speed and stamina. The baseball throw was the first. A target about one chang (10 feet) in diameter was painted on a wall. Each contestant had to back off a distance of four or five chang and try to hit the big bull's-eye with a baseball. Each student got five tries. Some of my friends, I regret to say, missed every time.
The second test, basket shooting, required the examinee to dribble the ball from the center of the court down to one basket. After sinking a basket at this end, he had to dribble back to the other end, put the ball through the hoop there, retrieve it and dribble back to the center of the court while a stopwatch measured the time he took for all this. With the whole class to grade, the basketball test usually made the period run overtime. Some students took two minutes or more and racked the onlookers with impatience.
The last event, the one hundred meter dash, was the greatest fun of the whole program. On warm days in late spring, the bright sun made the contestants too languid to care about winning. Winter was just as bad; no intelligent man was going to work up a lather of perspiration and then face the chance of taking cold standing around to watch his friends perspire too. In one race a friend of mine started off the mark at the signal with the others, dressed like most of his rivals in his cotton-padded gown and fur cap, with his woolen muffler trailing behind him. Chatting and joking, their hands tucked inside their sleeves for warmth, they made the impatient timer wait so long at the finish line that he could only shake his head in silent despair. The time of the winner, who wasn't my friend, incidentally, was something over twenty seconds. It was some sort of world record at least, my friend told me when he came back to pick me up.
'MANDARINS IN TRAINING'
Peita, remember, was descended from the old "Capital Academy," whose students had been selected by national examinations as candidates for the dignified profession of governing the nation. Like earlier "mandarins in training," Peita students of my generation cherished the "great intellectual tradition" and believed it was below their academic dignity to scamper about like children chasing kites.
Some students at Peita, of course, did not care as much as these young "mandarins" did for personal dignity. Every clear afternoon saw games underway on the basketball and volleyball courts, although only a fraction of the school population played often enough to get any real benefit from regular exercise. It is not quite accurate, either, to say that all freshmen and sophomores joined the physical training classes. The university doctor was liberal about certifying students as unfit to participate in such strenuous exertion and they were automatically excused.
Peita also boasted several athletic associations which regularly challenged teams from other schools to basketball and volleyball contests. The Titan Athletic Club, a survival of more strenuous days during the war when Peita had joined other refugee universities in forming Southwest Union University, met the Tsinghua team periodically in volleyball. But despite our cheers it was more often than not the loser.