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Why Chinese sportswomen excel

FIRST and foremost, cultural factors may explain the success of Chinese women in sports. Chinese women are born into a hard life.

According to sportswriter Alexander Wolff, the Chinese women’s coaches, nearly all of whom are men, operate in an environment influenced for thousands of years by three prominent Confucian principles: A girl shall obey her father; a wife, her husband; a widow, her son.

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More than one out of every three Chinese women can’t read, a rate 22 percent sorrier than that of Chinese men, because many parents and bureaucrats don’t see the value of educating girls in a patriarchy.

Male heirs are so prized under the government’s single-child policy that female infanticide is not unusual. While the practice of binding women’s feet to keep them from running off was halted early in this century, women are still sometimes forcibly sterilized or sold into marriage.

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Faced with those rows to hoe, a Chinese woman might not find the task of winning an Olympic medal particularly daunting.

Women who excel in sports receive the same government support, bonuses (including up to $10,000 for an Olympic gold medal) and occasional endorsement opportunities as men—and more public approbation.

In China today, women athletes parlay their training and accomplishment into fame, allowing them to climb the social ladder.

Susan Brownell, an American anthropologist whose book “Training the Body for China” examines sports in the People’s Republic, has a theory on why the Chinese people are quicker to embrace women’s athletic triumph than men’s.

“It may have something to do with a history of honoring female martyrdom,” Brownell says. “Chinese people are comfortable with the idea of their women suffering pain for the good of the nation—as opposed to the Western, Victorian view that it’s the male’s duty to work hard so women don’t have to suffer.”

As a whole, Chinese men don’t consider athletic women unfeminine. After the women’s volleyball team won world titles in 1981, 1982, 1985, and 1986, plus an Olympic gold medal in 1984, the players were showered with flowers and marriage proposals.

While the Western media doted on the nuptials of a lady named Di, Chinese television broadcast nationally the wedding of the volleyball team’s star, Lang Ping, a spiker known as the “Hammer.”

So much for Confucius and the principles of obedience. “Confucius was a great philosopher,” said one female athlete. “But times have changed, and our society has progressed. What men can do, women should also be able to do.”

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TAGS: Chinese women, Sports
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