Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic

Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic – Review

Yao Souchou

Susan Brownell. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. xi, 393pp. glossary, bibliog., index. US$49.95 (Hc.), ISBN 0-226-07646-7; US$18.95 (Pb.), ISBN 0-22607647-4.

Yao Souchou Anthropology, University of Sydney

Our nation is wanting in strength. The military spirit has not been encouraged. The physical conditions of the population deteriorates daily. . . . If our bodies are not strong we will be afraid when we see enemy soldiers, and then how can we attain our goals and make ourselves respected? Strength depends on drill, and drill depends on self-awareness. (Stuart Schram, The Political Thought of Mao De-tung, London: Pall Mall, 1963:94-95)

Thus begins Mao Zedong’s essay ‘A Study of Physical Culture’ (Tiyu zhi yanjiu) which appeared in the April 1917 issue of the radical journal New Youth (Xin Qingnian). The essay is one of the few complete texts that gave an insight into the pre-marxist Mao in his career as a revolutionary. Self-conscious of his lack of a gentry-literati credential, Mao had written it under the pseudonym Ershibahua Sheng or ‘Twenty Eight Stroke Student’, referring to the number of brush strokes required to write the three characters in his name. At that time, Mao was already known as a student leader and a political activist in his native Hunan. But it was a Mao who was still under the heady influence of the early May Fourth cultural reform, before the introduction of Marxism into China in the 1920s. With a strong anti-Confucian flavour, Mao’s essay stressed the importance of physical education as a way of strengthening the body, and thus of fortifying the Chinese Nation (chung gao) itself For Mao strengthening the Chinese body meant reshaping a new corporality which would be receptive to a new moral sensibility and intellectual knowledge. In the tumultuous half century following the communist revolution in 1949, what we see is a continuous reworking of this coupling of bodily performance with national destiny in the realisation of Chinese modernity and state power.

It is exciting to see a new book by an anthropologist who directly engages the political and social practices involved in this project. Susan Brownell first went to China in 1985 to study Chinese at Beijing University. In the United States, Brownell had been a ‘nationally ranked athlete’ in heptathlon. In a pragmatic move many anthropologists would appreciate, shortly after her arrival in Beijing she joined the university track team, hoping to make friends and to practice Chinese. Brownell took part in the 1986 National College Games and won a gold medal in the heptathlon. Her participation in various sports tournaments and her subsequent fame as ‘the American girl who won glory for Beijing University’, formed the basis of her fieldwork. In one picture (p. 162), Brownell stands in the middle, ranked on each side by two fellow women teammates in front of the game mascot. The athlete/anthropologist, smiling broadly, hair shorn short, looks indistinguishable from her Chinese colleagues, all in t-shirts and track-pants.

There is no doubt that Training the Body for China is an original work that stands outside conventional Sinological anthropology, which is still largely concerned with traditional institutions and practices like lineage organisation, descent rules, religious rites and guanxi (social connections) building. The book marks a clear analytical divide by its preoccupation with theoretically contingent issues of the body, modernity, and interstices of power and moral order. In this sense, Training the Body for China adds to the already significant repertoire of cultural studies of socialist China spearheaded by feminist writers like Tani Barlow, Lisa Rofel, and others.

The point of departure of Brownell’s study is the political and ideological significance of sports in socialist China. For Brownell, the analysis of sports as ‘cultural performance’ depends on three theoretical assumptions: 1) sports should be examined as part of the entire culture of the body; 2) this culture of the body is shaped by power relations; and 3) sports events provide the arena for the display of the ‘legitimate body’ and its contestation ‘behind the scene’. Part 1 of the book begins with an introduction and a historical overview of the constitution of the body by the state from imperial China to the early modernising period of the early republic until the time of post-Mao reform. Part 2 takes on the issue of public culture in socialist China and the constitutive role of sports events. Brownell highlights here the fragmentation of the state-dominated public culture by the forces of commercialism at the coming of commercial sponsorship. Part 3 directs attention to microtechniques of state power as articulated in the bodies of the athletes. In a distinct Foucaultian turn, she examines the way the athlete’s body – its power, its expenditure and reward – is monitored by the state. Part 4 addresses the effects of state power on the sexual behaviour of the athletics. Finally, Part 5 turns to looking at Chinese body culture in the context of social changes, by tracing the trajectory of ‘modern influences’ which complicates the orthodox evaluation about the good and the useful, the strong and the weak body as defined by the state.

The book thus takes as its central focus the historical and cultural constitution of the Chinese body, and the current effort by the socialist regime in the remodelling of a new corporality which would help to give rise to a new moral order. On the whole there is considerable interest in this analytical move. For instance, there is a succinct description of state control of the female body, and the official discourse that makes this control both necessary and possible. In this context, Brownell offers an exciting glimpse of the early fascination by the Chinese republic with the physical culture (Koperkultur) of Germany (Mao specifically mentioned fencing as a sport worthy of Chinese adoption). This section is unfortunately short. A longer treatment would have given the discussion a greater depth, for what is involved here is the ambivalence of Chinese modernity itself, an ambivalence arising from fear of China’s own cultural collapse in the face of the massive ‘borrowing’ of western ideas and technologies.

Such a lapse is unfortunate, for Brownell clearly stresses that the remaking of a new corporeality by the socialist state can be traced back to the previous project of ‘strong body for national salvation’ of the late Qing and the early republican period. It is a historicity that is forever located in the present. As we saw in China’s bid for the year 2000 Olympics, the twin agendas of state power and individual bodily performance have a kind of urgency which reminds us so powerfully of what Mao rehearsed in ‘A Study of Physical Culture’ half a century ago.

What is clear then is that the history of the state discourse on the body is more than a backdrop to the present. Rather, it continuously informs China’s ambition to find a place among modern nations. The lack of a substantial discussion on this gives a certain looseness to the book. And for a book based on a PhD thesis there are perhaps some unavoidable ethnographic slips. For example, to treat the ‘typical Chinese walking style’ (p.9) as an influence of tai chi and other martial arts (do all Chinese practise wu shu?), and of the experience of carrying heavy loads in rural work (are all walkers in the Beijing streets labourers?) borders on being disingenuous.

To mix praise with blame, I do wish to take up something which seems to me much more problematic. Brownell sees a major propensity among the Chinese to express social tensions in bodily terms (p.238). This is the idea of somatisation in Chinese culture, put forward principally by the works of Arthur and Joan Kleinman. Somatisation describes what the Kleinmans perceive as the culturally sanctioned tendency of the Chinese to express their pain and inner drive through bodily responses, rather than through verbal articulation. The Kleinmans’ clinical and anthropological research in Taiwan and China has given considerable legitimacy to this kind of theorising about the Chinese tendency to retreat to wordless inscrutable silence. For all its sophistication, such a view resonates with an Orientalist shading. It is odd that Brownell should find it necessary to ally herself with this kind of work. What is implicated here is perhaps the dilemma facing any project of ‘writing culture’: how to inscribe the culture of Others without being seduced by the fantasy of an omnipotent anthropological gaze. This requires a certain theoretical vigilance. Above all, it requires a critical reflexivity of the fieldworker in her relation to the people she studies. Such a reflexivity would have given the work the greater theoretical passion that it deserves.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Australian Anthropological Society

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