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Westernization of China's Physical Education

First of all, it is necessary to make clear about some terms as they are generally understood in China, though there are still minor differences in interpretation. In ancient times, there were no words in the Chinese vocabulary entirely equivalent to the Western terms of "sport" and "physical education." Such physical exercises as wrestling, swordplay, archery, charioteering and horse-racing were all included in military training and therefore came under the general term of "wuyi," or "martial arts." Thus a scholar was required "to be versed in both polite letters and martial arts."

It was not until the last century that sport in the modern sense of the word found its way into China, first in the form of military drills, and then as part of the curricula of Western-type schools. Correspondingly, "sport" was first translated "ticao," or "physical education" or "physical culture" as part of national culture. Today, "sport" has become a general mass sports (or sports for all) and school physical education. Though these maybe overlapping in form and content. At the same time, "sport" denotes a specific game or sporting event.

Modern sport was introduced into China as a result of the modernization of sport in the West on the one hand, and of the Westernization Movement in China on the other.

Following the prohibition of the ancient Olympic Games in the fourth century AD, Europe entered the Dark Ages with the fall of the Roman Empire. From the 14th to the mid-18th century, the continent underwent the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Wars of Religion, marked by the spread of humanism and a return to classical values. While studying the Greco-Roman civilization, the humanists found the ancient "education of the body" highly beneficial for the restoration of the universally human values as against the debased scholasticism, utilitarian science and religious dogma. Gymnastics developed fast both in theory and practice in many countries, especially in Sweden and Germany, while outdoor games underwent many reforms in England. A number of modern sports, such as rugby and volleyball, came into existence in and outside Europe. New rules were formulated for football by the England Football Association founded in 1863. International sports organizations were set up one after another. The French educationist Pierre de Coubertin's ideas culminate in the revival of Olympic Games towards the end of the 19th century.

Following the Opium War in 1840, the feudal China was turned into a semi-feudal, semi-colonial country, suffering from repeated defeats in wars against imperialist invasion and with large areas of her territory annexed by the Western powers. During the last four decades of the 19th century, a number of reformists adopted Western technology and even built a new army and navy after the Western fashion. The Qing government engaged a number of foreigners to teach "foreign drills" and opened physical training courses in some military academies, including gymnastics, fencing, boxing, athletics, football and swimming. In the new-type public schools established by the reformists on the pattern of Western education, great attention was paid to physical training, which played a positive role in criticizing the prevailing "cult for frail-looking scholars."

Early this century, it was stipulated that all schools should open ticao courses for two or three hours a week, with military formations as the main content "for an even-balanced development of the body, agility of the four limbs, a cheerful frame of mind, and the cultivation of bravery, esprit de corps and sense of discipline." Being tinted with militarist colours, the monotonous ticao courses, mostly conducted by low-ranking army officers, failed to suit the physical and mental characteristics of the juveniles and fell into disfavour with the general public. In 1922-23, the Northern Warlords' government had to change ticao into tiyu (physical education) courses, which replaced military drills with modern athletics and ball games.

There was yet another important channel through which modern sports were introduced into China---the missionary schools and colleges and YMCA organizations founded in various parts of the country by British, American and other Churches to disseminate Christianity. The schools had no physical training courses, but they promoted athletics and ball games as extracurricular activities. Around 1890 athletic meet were held under the sponsorship of ST. John's College in Shanghai. Basketball was introduced into China through the YMCA in Tianjin. A number of classes for training sports organizers and instructors were set up. Textbooks and journals on physical training were published. A small number of gymnasiums and swimming pools were built in China's major cities. C.H.Robertson, a YMCA secretary, gave many lectures in Beijing and Tianjin on the topic of modern sports.

In 1924, the All-China Athletic Association was founded as the first national sports organization. One of its tasks was to host the Far Eastern Championship Games and carry out exchanges with international sports organizations, select athletes for participation in the Olympic Games and such international tournaments as the Davis Cup for tennis.

During the '30s, the Kuomintang government promulgated a series of programmes concerning school physical education based on Western systems, which, however, produced little effects because of their divorcement from reality and for lack of teaching personnel and financial resources. The '40s witnessed a low ebb in sports and physical education because of the wars.

In the communist-led revolutioinary bases, sports activities were carried out in connection with military training during respites, and athletic meets were often held on such holidays as the Chinese People's Liberation Army Day on August 1 and the international Labour Day on May 1. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, the "Fighting" basketball team under the 120th Division became a backbone in promoting sports among the troops. Its commander, General He Long, was later appointed Vice-Premier and concurrently Minister in charge of the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports soon after the founding of the People' Republic.

With the introduction of modern sports into China, the traditional Chinese sports receded into the background as a physical education system. However, during the long process of development, some of them---such as wrestling, archery and horse-racing---have remained independent sports , while physical exercises, barehanded or with weapons, have developed into wushu with attacking and defensive skills as its contents and set-pattern routines and free combat as its forms. There are hundreds of schools and styles of wushu, the most popular being taijiquan practiced regularly by millions upon millions of people for the purpose of keeping fit and curing chronic diseases. Up to now, the traditional sports centered around wushu have remained dominant as far as the number of participants is concerned.

In recent years, many traditional Chinese sports have adopted Western rules and regulations. In wushu, for instance, competitions are conducted with reference to modern gymnastics in evaluation and awarding points. In the Mongolian-style wrestling of "bok," there is team competition as at the World Table Tennis Championships and the seeding system is used in the individual events so that superior competitors will not be eliminated in the first rounds.

The Westernization of physical education laid a solid social foundation for the later development of the Olympic Movement in China.

(china.org.cn July 7, 2004)

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