Published in Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume 14, Issue 2, Spring April 1, 2008, pages 25-39.
Much of the history of China’s modern sports and physical culture program (tiyu) has been phrased, experienced, understood, and remembered as a gesture of national defense. Enemies have come, gone, and come again—the Western and Japanese imperialists, the Communists, the Nationalists, the footbound and weak, the ignorant and unhygienic, the decadent and materialistic, Taiwan, Falun Gong, and (again) U.S. and Japanese imperialists. All have served as forces that threatened China’s national body and had to be defeated with the rhythms, motions, disciplines, and ideologies of modern sport. Thus, over the last century, sport in China has served as a marker of political and social power, but it has also represented a profound national anxiety. This article investigates this realm and the tension between power and anxiety, and strength and fear, that has characterized so many of China’s political movements over its many governmental transitions since the fall of the Qing Dynasty.