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Original Issue


Three noted Chinese sportsmen tell how their careers were derailed by the Cultural Revolution

Huang Jian had been the coach of China's national track and field team. He had trained two high jumpers who broke records and brought glory to China when it was an unknown in international sport. Now he's standing alone on a platform in front of a jeering mob, bent forward from the waist, his back straight and his arms stretched out and back from his sides in the "airplane position." The mob knows he's an intellectual and has been led to believe he's a spy and a traitor as well. It would like nothing more than to see him drop to his knees from the pain of holding the airplane position. Most intellectuals are skinny and weak and topple after 10 minutes. Huang lasts for an hour. "I was proud because they could see I was a sportsman," he says of that day in the mid-1960s.

China's Great Cultural Revolution has been called "a settling of accounts on a cosmic scale." The powerless avenged themselves against the powerful, the young against the old, students against their teachers, children against their parents, friends against friends. Before it ran its 10-year course, hundreds of thousands died, more were mentally or physically crippled, uncounted treasures of Chinese antiquity were destroyed, the national economy ground to a halt, the old Communist Party structure was dismantled, the universities were closed, and, in the end, a populace that for decades had endured hardship, often terrible, grinding hardship, in the name of Mao Tsetung and his revolutionary vision, had become disillusioned.

The Cultural Revolution officially began in 1966, when Mao set out to rekindle China's revolutionary fire, which he believed was being extinguished by revisionist intellectuals, opportunistic bureaucrats and "capitalist roaders." He declared war on the Four Olds—old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits—and he unleashed the Red Guards, an army of several million student zealots, ages 9 to 18. They roamed the country, ferreting out and "reeducating" enemies of the people wherever they found them.

Not surprisingly, considering the forces Mao had unleashed, the Cultural Revolution soon outgrew his capacity to control it. In July of 1968 he disbanded the Red Guards, sent perhaps as many as 14 million of them to work in the countryside and replaced them as the arbiters of the people's behavior with the People's Liberation Army. Still, except for a relaxation of tension in 1970, '71 and '72, the storm raged on until Mao's death in '76.

The earliest indication to the outside world that athletes had been drawn into the vortex of the Cultural Revolution was the sudden withdrawal of China's No. 1-ranked table-tennis team from the 1967 World Championships in Stockholm. News from inside China emerged slowly in those days, but the rumors were stunning. In the case of the table-tennis players, they were later found to have been mostly true. Chuang Tsetung, the world champion from 1961 through '66 and China's first modern sports hero, along with other team members and their coaches, had been jailed for having "followed the capitalist road" of Mao's political rival, Liu Shao-ch'i.

Nothing more was heard of Chuang for three years; he had been given up for dead by the world's table-tennis fans when suddenly he appeared in a Chinese exhibition match. By 1972 he was rehabilitated and the leader of a table tennis delegation that toured the U.S. during the period of Ping-Pong diplomacy that marked the reopening of relations between the U.S. and China.

Once again, however, Chuang had hitched his wagon to the wrong political star. His protector was Chiang Ch'ing, Mao's ultraleftist wife, and when she and the rest of the infamous Gang of Four fell after Mao's death, Chuang fell with them. It's said that, upon being jailed again, he tried to hang himself in his cell, but he was cut down by his captors before he succeeded.

Today Chuang, now known as Zhuang Zedong, is a table-tennis coach at a Beijing recreation center for children. He's lucky to be alive—and luckier still to be out of the sometimes dangerous Chinese limelight. Less fortunate were two of his colleagues: Jung Kuo-tuan, the world table-tennis champion in 1959, and Fu Chi-fang, a coach of that era. Tainted by "foreignism" because they were returned Chinese, Jung and Fu both were persecuted. And both committed suicide.

Some of the survivors of the Cultural Revolution are now powers in the Chinese sports establishment. Two of them, Yuan Weimin, a former volleyball player, and Zhang Jian, who was a gymnast, were athletes in their prime when the Cultural Revolution began. Both made successful comebacks as coaches and now have been rewarded for their success with elevation to the higher ranks of the sports hierarchy. Huang, the track coach who held the airplane position for an hour, is back at his old job of guiding China's track and field team, this time as it prepares for the Seoul Olympics.

Yuan's office is in the Sports Federation headquarters in Beijing. At 49, he's a national hero and, as a vice-minister of the Commission for Physical Culture and Sports, one of the highest-ranked sports officials in China, yet his office could belong to the vice-principal of an aging, inner-city American high school. The only indication there of Yuan's importance is the two telephones sitting on his desk, one of which is red.

"For 10 years everything stopped everywhere in China," says Yuan. "But since 1978, when the National People's Congress set a new policy of openness and reform, 152 Chinese athletes have won 230 world titles. We have had exchanges with 139 countries and 5,000 visits abroad by 60,000 athletes. That's a very large step in a very short time."

Yuan was spared the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution because he was the son of an average peasant and, therefore, was considered politically reliable according to Mao's caste system. On the other hand, in 1966 Yuan was a setter on the national volleyball team and a student at Nanjing Sports Institute. Being a student made him an intellectual and, therefore, politically suspect. As a result, while he was not persecuted by the Red Guards as other intellectuals were, he did become the victim of a sort of circumstantial ostracism: He was unable to play volleyball because all of the team members had been sent home, unable to be a student because his institute—and all others—had closed down, and unable to work for eight years because the work for which he was trained, coaching, didn't exist.

"The Cultural Revolution arrived when I was at my peak as a player," says Yuan. "Afterward I tried to play. Although the spirit was willing, the flesh was not able. Those were my twilight years. During that time I spent much time studying by myself about volleyball teaching. I didn't involve myself in the fighting."

When the Cultural Revolution passed, China's athletes were in sorry shape. All had been sent home when the universities and training centers in the big cities were closed down, and if home was a poor farming area, which it often was, they were not only without training for at least five years, but they were also malnourished and prey to injury. City dwellers didn't fare much better. For example, a good 400-meter runner whose former coaches refused him protection on account of his bad class background, was sent to the countryside for three years. He tried to stay in shape by bounding and running in place, but when he attempted a comeback, the years of poor diet and heavy farm labor took their toll in torn tendons, and his athletic career was finished.

Beginning in 1976, Yuan's job was to restore women's volleyball to its previous level—fast. He did much more than that. Applying strict discipline and rigorous training methods, he led the Chinese women's national team from obscurity (14th in '76) to world dominance in five years. His teams won the World Cup in '81, the world championship in '82 and the Olympic gold medal in '84.

When he returned from the Los Angeles Games, Yuan was a hero. He was promoted to vice-minister of the Commission for Physical Culture and Sports and. in 1985, to membership on the Party's Central Committee. His book, My Way of Teaching, which was published in 1987, sold out the day it hit the bookstore shelves.

"What I failed to fulfill as a player, I tried to fulfill as a coach," Yuan says.

Zhang is a former gymnast who is now deputy director of the training bureau of the State Commission for Physical Culture and Sports. He's a small man with a flat stomach and broad shoulders who looks younger than his 45 years, not handsome but virile, a man of action. He wore running shoes to my interview with him, and throughout it he perched on the cushion of an overstuffed sofa in the VIP reception room of the Beijing Gymnasium, as if awaiting a signal to vault its antimacassared arm and be gone.

Zhang, who's from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwest China, is the son of a forest worker (good class background) and a minor local official (good political background). The Cultural Revolution closed the book on Zhang's career as a gymnast, just as it did on Yuan's in volleyball, but Zhang scarcely felt the loss, even though his team finished fourth at the World Championships in 1962. "If I look back, I think the Cultural Revolution was a pity, because I'd begun to do well. But at the time I was very happy to have a rest," he said.

With no discernible regret, Zhang described the years from 1966 to '70 as a sort of prolonged spring vacation. "I traveled for four years from place to place, seeing all the famous sights in China," he said. "I didn't think much about politics. I only cared about free time to relax and make plans. I had free train tickets and free lodging and an allowance. I traveled with a gymnast from the women's team, and we were married in 1968."

The only Chinese allowed to travel in those years were the Red Guards, who in addition to being given train tickets, got free lodging and an allowance as they "learned revolution by making revolution." Zhang doesn't say he was a Red Guard, but chances are he was at least a fellow traveler. In any case, a year after the Red Guards were disbanded, Zhang was made a coach.

An ancient Chinese saying, "Become an official and get rich," has renewed validity in today's China, although prosperity, especially in the crowded cities, may take the form of a three-room apartment in a postwar building and not much more. Unlike some bureaucrats, however, sports officials have to earn their perks. Zhang got his by scouting gymnastic talent in Jiangxi Province and producing Tong Fei, who won a gold medal at the 1982 World Cup, two silvers at the Los Angeles Olympics and two golds and a silver at the '85 World Championships.

"I was looking for talent in a school and noticed that one boy came to the window every day to watch practice." said Zhang. "So I went outside to catch him, and coached him for 14 years." When Tong made the national team in 1979 and went to Beijing to train, Zhang went with him as the new national coach. Now Zhang finds such talent harder to come by. "Our family planning policy is one family, one child." he said. "Today young athletes cannot endure suffering as well because children are overprotected by their parents. Any athlete who wants to become a star has to endure something."

Yuan, the volleyball player, and Zhang, the gymnast, were comparative bystanders at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Certainly their athletic careers were ruined, and, at least to Yuan, the years they spent waiting for the chaos to subside so they could get on with their work seemed endless. But they were spared the vengeance of the mobs that Huang, the track coach, endured.

Huang's ordeal at the hands of the Red Guards was harsh because, besides being a college graduate himself, he was the son of a professor of foreign languages at Fudan University in Shanghai. Furthermore, though Huang had been born in China, he'd been raised in the Soviet Union. An intellectual background combined with foreign contacts, including a wife who is half Soviet, half Chinese, made him a prime target for the anti-intellectual and xenophobic hysteria that characterized the early years of the Cultural Revolution.

In an open letter written by one of his best friends, Huang was accused of spying. The letter led to his being fired, criticized in wall posters and vilified at mass meetings. "Everything I did was wrong, nothing was right," Huang says. "Now it seems like a joke." For thousands of less hardy Chinese, the betrayal by friends and coworkers and the loss of dignity in front of ignorant mobs was unbearable. Suicide was the only recourse.

After the mass meetings came solitary confinement. For a year and three months Huang, a cheerful and gregarious man, spoke to no one save his Red Guard captors. In winter he was confined to an unheated basement, in summer to a stifling attic. His only exercise was a half hour of walking in a confined space each day. A light was kept burning over his bed all night, and during the day, he was expected to read from Mao's writings.

"Because I know Americans like pranks. I will tell you about a prank," says Huang. "As a coach I was in the habit of taking a rest after lunch and before training. So to have my rest in prison, I surrounded myself with the books of Chairman Mao, and then I put my head on my hand and slept. My ruse was successful for only one day. On the second day, a Red Guard said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm reading.' The Red Guard said, 'You're lying. I just listened to you snoring for 15 minutes.' " After that Huang had to recite Mao's works out loud.

"When they tried to force me to write a confession, I didn't fight with them," says Huang. "I only debated. After one year and three months they got nothing, so they sent me to the country."

Following three years of hard farm labor on short rations, Huang was allowed to return to Beijing, but his lot scarcely improved. For the next six years no one would give him work. He was paid the universal subsistence allowance, which even today, in a much improved economy, is still very low, but not until 1976, after Mao died and the Gang of Four had fallen, was Huang allowed to return to his old job.

"I endured because from the age of two until 24 I lived in the Soviet Union," he says. "My father worked in the underground with Chou when it was very dangerous. In 1928 my father was sent to the Sixth Party Congress in Moscow, and a year later my mother and I were sent there to join him. Two bodyguards went along to protect us. When Kuomintang [Nationalist Chinese] soldiers searched the train at the border, the bodyguards hid me in a basket and covered me with many old and dirty things. At first they were afraid I would cry. When I didn't cry, they were afraid I had suffocated, but when we were across the border, they found I was merely asleep. My mother always says, 'Even then you liked to sleep.'

"World War II was very hard in the Soviet Union. Everybody was hungry. So I am well-suited to any bad situation." Huang points to a small scar in the crook of his left elbow. "I gave blood every month to get money and a ration card. What most attracted me was that with the ration card I could get canned meat from America, which was delicious. I was very young, and to me the United States was famous only for this meat."

In the early 1930s, Huang's parents returned to their work in the revolutionary underground in China, leaving him to be raised at the International Children's Garden, outside Moscow, with other orphans of revolutionary storms. He was a good-natured but unruly boy who loved sports. In 1938 Chou, who had been wounded, went to Moscow for medical treatment, and he paid a visit to the Children's Garden. When the great man asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up, Huang, who was 11, had no answer. "I was ashamed because I had never thought about the future," he says. "Then all the children shouted, 'He's an athlete!' When I heard that I thought maybe it was right, but I didn't know what Chou would think. To my surprise, he said, 'I like sports, too. When I was doing underground work, the enemy couldn't catch me because I could run fast and far.' "

That was all the endorsement Huang needed. After graduating from a Soviet sports high school, he taught physical education at a Soviet agricultural institute. By studying nights on his own he gained entrance to the Moscow Physical Education Institute, and in 1951, degree in hand, he was ready to return to China, which was knee deep in Soviet experts in the early 1950s. With his Moscow training, Huang soon became the leading track coach. His greatest successes were his high jumpers—a woman, Cheng Feng-jung, and a man, Ni Chih-chin. Cheng set a world record in '57, as did Ni in '61, but his mark was never officially recognized because by then China had dropped out of the IAAF, the world governing body of track and field.

Today Huang lives with his wife and two cats in a small apartment in a Beijing building reserved for the coaches of national teams. The hallways and stairwells are dark and grimy, but the interior of their apartment is tidy and filled to overflowing with souvenirs of his eventful life. Stuffed toy animals, painted Russian dolls, photographs and trophies line the shelves in the foyer.

Huang counts himself lucky. "Looking back, I think my experience wasn't the worst," he says. His father, for instance, was jailed for eight years. Huang's best performer now is another high jumper, but he's injured, so Huang cannot hope for a medal in Seoul. "We have some good women in the shot put," he says, "but in other events we can get maybe a sixth or an eighth."

And how does he feel about the 10 lost years and the friends who turned against him? "Most of them regret what they did to me," he says. "People were forced to do it out of fear and pressure from other people. I look at it with historical perspective, and I forgive them."

The Cultural Revolution is now referred to in China as the 10 Years of Chaos. Its survivors are like aging veterans of an unpopular war: They tell their stories—sometimes, as Huang does, with humor—to a younger generation already growing weary of the recounting. For the time being, until the political pendulum begins its next swing, the young adults of China have put the pursuit of material comfort ahead of political idealism and revolutionary virtues. Still, the Cultural Revolution was a traumatic national experience, and its psychic scars linger even in the young.

Yu Daihua, a 33-year-old translator for the All-China Sports Federation, expressed a sadness that his elders, Zhang, Yuan and Huang, had avoided putting into words. "If you live in the community, it's difficult to speak; you can only feel. I think earlier it was man against nature, man against animals. Then man got guns, and it was no longer man against animals. I think it is now man against man." Yu paused to think. "We could have been much faster in reform."