My project, “‘No One Can Deny Our Achievements’: The Politics of Socialist Athletics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1976,” based on my doctoral dissertation, traces the political significance of sport to the Chinese socialist state during the Mao years and its importance in shaping transnational networks. By examining tiyu (loosely translated as “sports and physical culture”) through the eyes of participants, commentators, and planners, rather than through later Olympic and national narratives, I look at the connection between two intertwined goals of state-sponsored tiyu: physical fitness for every citizen, and the development of elite sports programs. Tiyu offers new understandings of Chinese and Asian history during these years, extending beyond domestic political campaigns and Sino-Soviet relations to encompass other socialist bloc and African and Asian nations, and reflecting a growing Third World identity.
China during the Mao years is often described as preoccupied by domestic growth and political struggle, and increasingly isolated in foreign relations, particularly after the Sino-Soviet split and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Only in 1971, with the advent of ping-pong diplomacy and Nixon’s visit to China, did the process of “opening” China to the world formally begin. But during those pre-1971 years Chinese leaders began to use international sport to carve out for China a different position in the world, while developing general tiyu and competitive training programs for ordinary citizens. China’s athletic and political performance at international events was intended to demonstrate that the Communist Party had successfully overturned “100 years of national humiliation,” showcasing the emergence of a successful socialist state peopled by healthy, fit citizens and capable of international leadership.
Tiyu bridges the gap between high politics and the lives of ordinary people, including those recruited and trained to become extraordinary athletes. By the mid-1960s, elite sport, had become a tool through which Chinese officials sought to strengthen socialist bloc and Afro-Asian ties, and promote the transnational visibility of a successful socialist state. Increasingly in these years Chinese leaders envisioned China as belonging to a global community comprised of nations and peoples with similar historical backgrounds, all engaged in a struggle against colonialism and imperialism – a community often described as the “Third World.” By tracing international sports exchanges and competitions into the 1960s, my research provides a window into how the Party conceived of, and propagated, its unique path to modernity within this community. Sports competitions and delegation visits offered opportunities to share athletic skills, while fostering improved foreign relations and advocating a particular brand of socialism. In this context, elite athletic achievements served as tangible proof of the triumph of Chinese socialism.
While at IIAS, I am revising my dissertation into a larger book manuscript project, including incorporating new research materials, extending my project into the 1970s, and expanding on the transregional and transnational connections of sport (particularly within Asia and Africa). I am simultaneously preparing a digital extension based on my project that will provide scholars and students with a wealth of sources on sport in recent Chinese history, while also exploring questions of digital presentation in sports history. IIAS, with its strong reputation in fostering dialogue in Asian Studies, as well as its proximity to Leiden University's East Asian library, African Studies Centre, and a number of renowned China scholars working on digital projects, make it the most ideal place to accomplish my goals.