This project was originally conceived as an investigation into how Chinese people and Chinese culture approached and viewed sports, and in what way the sport of fencing had been able to fit into that framework. As Olympic fencing is clearly, due to its history and origin, a western sport, I decided it would be interesting to see how the sport was adopted in a non-western country. It was also an opportunity to see how sports were treated by the education system of another nation. I knew that China had for a long time devoted resources to developing highly competitive athletes in sports schools in order to excel on the international stage, but I was curious at how students at universities and people not in the international competition system viewed the place of sports. Especially since I figured it would give me a more interesting and nuanced picture then the commonly presented stereotype of the Chinese student focused solely on studying
In regards to fencing itself my image was of something fairly similar to what I knew in the US. Fencing is a mostly individual sport, and while teams do compete, the performance of those teams depends on the individual performances of its members. There is no such thing as a six on six simultaneous bout in Olympic fencing. Therefore I expected that the individualized culture that fencing as well as most things in the US have, to be replicated to at least some extent in Chinese fencing culture.
A newspaper article I read also led me to believe that there was starting to be a shift away from the athlete mills Chinese sport schools are known for being as the primary vehicle of athletic accomplishment in China and that there was starting to be an emergence of something like the American scholar-athlete in the Chinese university system. I therefore arrived in China expecting to be able to dive into the world of college sports.
My first experience with Chinese sports culture was actually dealing with the social structure of business in China. My emails to Tsinghua and the Chinese Fencing Association never received replies, but through the assistance of my teacher Fang Jun I was able to make contact with a member of the Tsinghua fencing team. I was informed that the team probably wasn’t going to be training over the summer and that I would have better luck trying someplace else. The difference however was by having someone who actually knew a team member already I was actually able to get feedback and information in response to my request rather than silence. Discussions I’ve had with several fellow students about making contact with people before and after arriving in China show similar results to and therefore reveal that, unsurprisingly, sports in China are also effected by the business culture of China and that establishing relationships and networking is important in order to successfully conduct even rudimentary business.
In addition to all of that, having Fang acting as a facilitator enabled me to get suggestions from his friend on places where I could go fencing instead, rather than just being told no, and this actually opened up an awareness of an aspect of Chinese fencing that I wasn’t really aware of, the fencing club. In the United States private fencing clubs are a significant part of the competitive scene as fencing’s individualistic bent, the expense of the electronic equipment, and its lack of a major presence as a primary school sport, all lend itself quite well to being propagated as a club sport. In China however, the idea that serious competition in sports was just beginning to enter the college scene at first gave the impression that in this case, Chinese fencing would display less individualism, at least in terms of choice of venue in which to compete compared to the United States. It was through contact with someone who was a friend though that enabled me to really access this information. What was interesting as well about this was the difference between the two clubs. The first club was for lack of a better term a “prestige” club. At least certainly in the way the place marketed itself, the club seemed to be more about displaying wealth. A venue in which to participate in a western sport and socialize over expensive wines rather than as a place for which to pursue fencing as a competitive athlete.
The second club appeared to be much closer to the type of fencing I am used to and so seemed much more promising in terms of giving insight into competitive fencing in China. Upon arriving there however, there was some noticeable differences between this club and the ones in the USA that I have experienced. Most of these extend though from just how big the club is. A significant number of clubs I’ve encountered, including my home club and the William and Mary team are fairly small. Vango Fencing on the other hand has the goal of promoting and developing fencing and fencers throughout the entire nation of China (http://www.vangosports.com/en/about.asp). As mentioned in my first field research blog the company has four locations across China and if the Beijing facility is representative of the whole, has massive capacity for fencing instruction and training.
(One of the gyms in the Vango building)
Upon arriving at Vango I was struck by the seriousness and intensity of training there. A group of children who couldn’t be more than nine years old were flipping tires across a gym floor while in another section a whole line of children were jumping rope under the watchful eye of a coach. One example of the intensity with which both Vango and individual fencers there approach fencing is the third time I went there. I ended up arriving close to the official closing time of the club, but there were enough children staying late for extra private lessons that if it wasn’t for the clock on the wall one would have had no idea that the club was winding down for the night.
This hard work and dedication certainly seems to be paying off dividends as well. Soon after arriving I was shepherded over to fight four straight bouts with four different fencers of various ages, all of whom were younger then me. Although most were significantly younger than me, they had all been fencing for a similar amount of time, and so their excellent physical conditioning and familiarity with their weapon made it hard for someone who hadn’t been fencing for several months prior to actually win. I was proud of the fact that I did actually hold me own and keep all of the bouts competitive however. I did well enough that one of the dads watching the bout told Fang Jun that he thought his son could have done better despite winning anyway (see clips from those bouts here and here). The rituals of the bout however: testing if the equipment works, the process of starting and stopping, recording touches, and the salutes at the beginning and the end of the bout, all of it was comfortably and in a way excitingly familiar compared to all of the various differences I had experienced in daily life in China compared to the United States.
(An example of the pre and post-bout salute)
After my bouts finished I was told that the fencers I saw still around were all those who had stayed for private lessons. This clearly displayed how the individualism of fencing expresses itself in a Chinese context. The fact that parents were paying extra money for their children, one of which appeared to be about five, to get private lessons, at a club where the special discount for membership and second hand equipment I received still cost two thousand yuan (or in Chinese: 二千元), clearly shows the determination there is to make sure the child has the skills and training to put him above the rest of the competition
（One of the children taking private lessons going through drills with her coach)
Besides this culture of intense and high level competition that Vango cultivates, there is another aspect of the cultural environment that is immediately clear: the international focus. For starters the Club proudly announces the fact that it has foreign coaches on staff and maintains a website in both Chinese and in English. Fencing’s standing as an Olympic Sport and its western origins lends itself well to that focus. Another clear example for how the international culture of fencing itself effects those competing in it can clearly be seen through an excerpt from my field journal discussing those first four bouts I competed in: “I forgot that the international language of fencing was French so the bout was an interesting mix of critiques of my opponent in Chinese, commands in French, and questions briefly asked of me in English.” It’s not only the culture of Vango itself, and the culture of fencing lead to an international cultural environment however. The location of Vango’s Beijing club inside Olympic park, and the resultant Olympic decor everywhere in the building also enhances the international feel.
(Map of the Vango Sports building in Beijing and the surrounding area)
This is where the international culture and the culture of athletic excellence combine. The government of China sees international sports as a way to promote China on the international stage, and as such has heavily invested in developing successful national teams in various sports. The Beijing Olympics themselves can be seen as the pinnacle of this policy of promoting China through sports and the resultant investment in facilities for the games has also helped provide an environment for further development of Chinese athletic competition.
The way that China has approached developing athletes clearly can be seen in how Vango sports develops athletes. The main coach I interacted with while there: Coach Xu (Xu 教练) told me that if the rankings of two fencers are tied, China will pick the younger one to represent them everytime. This focus on developing younger kids for competition then explains why there are so many kids who are so young compared to the average age of beginning fencers I have met in the United States. It also explains why I have never seen an adult fencer at the club stay for private lessons. An American fencer I met at the club named Andrew informed me that the adults really view fencing as a fun way to stay fit, not as a path to serious athletic competition. He also explained that this was part of the reason that fencing was becoming so popular in China, that it was a good way to stay fit without being outside in the smog. This presents another example of how fencing’s individual focus manifests itself in China, even in a club that clearly prioritizes competitive fencing, there is a sizeable contingent using it as a way to stay fit. Andrew also told me that fencing is being taught by many schools as part of their physical education course, so even some of the young kids who are at Vango have a place even if they don’t end up being China’s future Olympians. The club seems to have no problem incorporating this approach to fencing as well because it emphasizes the need for fitness and strength among its competitive athletes. There are entire gyms devoted to nothing but conditioning with separate areas for focusing on fencing itself.
This seems to be a very healthy approach because the intensity of competition in fencing that the government has created does mean that you have to start young and develop quickly to have a chance to excel at the national level. One of the kids I interacted with during with one of the group practices told me he had actually been forced to compete at a different age level, and one of his friends was disqualified because the x-rays of a fencer’s hand Chinese tournament organizers use to determine age (because apparently the issue of lying about an athlete’s age isn’t solely an issue caused by the government) were read as indicating they were older than they actually were.
As fencing is one of the first sports that China started competing in when it joined the international scene this intense level of competition is not surprising, and as I have discussed in this paper it can clearly be seen in how it influences the culture of Vango sports and of fencing itself in China (Chan 477). However it is interesting to note that fencing can be participated in outside of the Chinese international sports machine and is being incorporated into the Chinese culture of physical exercise and healthy living. In many ways therefore the culture of Chinese fencing is similar to that of the United States, with the main difference being the government’s emphasis on developing young athletes for international competition, which significantly effects and shapes the way individuals participate and experience in the sport.
Chan, Gerald, “The “Two-Chinas” Problem and the Olympic Formula.” Pacific Affairs Vol. 58, No. 3 (Autumn, 1985): 473-490. JSTOR. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2759241
Cui, Xiaohuo, and Hodges, Matt, Brave New World For Athletes. China Daily. June 2007. Web. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/2008/2007-06/22/content_900280.htm