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Court Favorite

At seven feet six inches tall and about three hundred pounds, Yao Ming, the basketball superstar who plays for the Houston Rockets, is, for many Americans, the most famous living Chinese. In 2002 he was the number-one overall pick in the National Basketball Association (NBA)’s initial selection round—the first foreigner who had never played for an American university to be the first chosen. In April, when he broke his foot in his fourth year playing for Houston, it was global front-page news. His contract with Reebok alone (he is also sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, McDonald’s, and other corporations) is worth tens of millions of dollars. These sponsors were probably pleased by Yao’s superior performance last season: he averaged 22.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, statistics that put him in the top tier of NBA players today. As Brook Larmer observes in Operation Yao Ming, Yao has been a “conduit for American business and sports coming to the Middle Kingdom.”

Brook Larmer is a veteran reporter for Newsweek, and he currently serves as the magazine’s Shanghai bureau chief. In his lively, intelligent, and well-informed book he surveys the history of Chinese basketball, recalling that American missionaries brought the sport to China at the end of the nineteenth century, and that it developed through the Republican and Communist periods. During the early Communist era, sports were regarded as revolutionary activities—even Mao’s guerrilla soldiers were known to play basketball. But the fate of sports changed in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution when they were suddenly condemned as “a dangerous manifestation of bourgeois self-centeredness,” and once-prestigious athletes were tormented by the Red Guards.

By 1969, sports were again declared worthy of praise. As Larmer points out, sports remain one of the few business activities in China still under state control, so much so that the NBA’s most sophisticated and ruthless entrepreneurs make great efforts to avoid offending Beijing. “Even as tens of millions of Chinese shed the socialist work unit, the sports machine remains one of the last ‘womb to tomb’ social structures, a relic of the past that continues only because it has been so successful,” Larmer writes.

No one is more aware than Yao Ming of the Chinese state’s involvement in every aspect of big-time sports, particularly since the controversy over Wang Zhizhi, China’s second-most-famous basketball player. In 2001 Wang was granted permission to join the Dallas Mavericks for their 2001–2002 season, making him the first Chinese star to play in the NBA. At the end of the season Wang defied the authorities’ orders that he return home and chose to stay in the US. He was unprepared to submit himself, as has Yao, to the state’s demand that national glory take precedence over personal fame. The Chinese Basketball Association’s vice-president, Li Yuanwei, went to the US to meet with Wang in February 2006 to discuss his possible return. “It’s a crucial move for him to return in an answer to the motherland’s call,” Li Yuanwei said to the press. Last April, Wang went back to China to rejoin the national team and has been included in the Chinese team for the 2008 Olympics. He was greeted with stern words by the authorities, and delivered a public apology. “I was too young to make the right decision,” he told the Chinese press. “I hope I could make up my fault this time and win back my place in the national team.”

Both Yao and Wang had tall parents, and they all played big-league basketball in China. During their careers they became familiar with both the rewards and horrors of the sport. Yao’s mother, Fang Fengdi, “Da Fang” or “Big Fang,” had a particularly troubled experience with Chinese politics. In her youth, she was a fervently obedient apparatchik, but in later years she was made to suffer for her unflagging loyalty to Mao. In 1965, aged fifteen, she was over six feet tall. She was drafted into Shanghai’s leading sports institute, whose headquarters at No. 651 Nanjing Road once housed a social club for British elites in the period after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars. Under Mao the building was transformed in 1953 into the state’s leading athletic training facility; the lush grounds of the former club were destroyed to make way for tracks and ball fields. There she was inducted at once in the san jinzhong, “the three togethers”: living, eating, and training with the others all year and almost every day. In her danwei, or “work unit” (the social unit that regulated rules and behavior in urban Chinese labor sectors), others decided what she would eat, wear, and think. In addition to repetitive muscle-numbing drills, the players were indoctrinated, during a daily study session called “The Democratic Life Meeting,” in the particulars of Maoist thought. They engaged, Larmer writes, in “a self-flagellating round of confession and repentance,” a process that is still used in athletic training today.

But in mid-1966 came the upheavals and reversals of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s previous insistence on “big-ball” excellence gave way to the notion that sports were a decadent Western import that must be banished from society.* Most of the best basketball players were sent off to work at the Shanghai Fireproof Materials Factory or at the Dragon Machine Factory. Da Fang became caught up in the exhilaration and violence of the moment and joined the Red Guards. Only seventeen years old, she terrified her former bosses and coaches. She and the other Red Guards especially enjoyed tormenting Zhu Yong, the sports institute’s former Party secretary who in his day had presided sanctimoniously over the institute’s rallies and study sessions. Now he was an enemy of the state, locked up in solitary confinement for six months, beaten, and tortured. Although Da Fang did not personally engage in torture, her former teammates remember “her voice rising above the rest of the frenzied Red Guards.”

By 1969 the tide turned again, as was typical in the Maoist period, and Da Fang again showed her flexibility and opportunism. Basketball came back into political vogue and a new slogan was decreed: “Friendship first, competition second.” This was intended, as Larmer comments, to impress upon the world that the Maoists were genuine sportsmen, and to indicate to the Chinese that the period of huge disorder was coming to an end. Da Fang was installed as the captain of the national basketball team as a reward, her teammates say, for her revolutionary zeal. Between 1971 and 1978 she was a national hero—extolled as both an exceptional person and a model team member. Favored by Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, two leading Party members, Da Feng was chosen to meet with important foreign guests and dignitaries. In a country where sex was officially reserved for procreation, basketball, as Larmer writes, was sexy. At their first international appearance, in Tehran in 1974, the women athletes wore short high heels and dresses that revealed the legs instead of the baggy blue unisex suits that were customarily worn throughout the rest of the country.

By 1978, Da Fang had suffered injuries and was exhausted. The time had come to get married, and a perfect match was engineered: Da Fang was paired with another basketball giant, Yao Zhiyuan, the six-foot-ten center on the Shanghai men’s team and the father-to-be of Yao Ming. In 1980 Yao was born, weighing over eleven pounds and showing signs that he would grow to be an enormous adult.

Da Fang’s continued success was thwarted soon thereafter by the mercurial shifts in Party politics. Zhu Yong, the Party secretary whom Da Fang had harried and humiliated, was restored to power as the deputy director of the Shanghai sports commission. When she encountered him sometime later and he snubbed her, she told him: “It was not my decision to denounce you back then. It was an order from above!” Zhu Yong, now in charge of assigning work to athletes, exiled Da Fang to what a former teammate described as “the worst job in the sports system,” a menial job stocking bathrooms at a residence for retired athletes. Later she became a clerk in the Shanghai Sports Science Research Institute. She and her husband, both unqualified for anything except Chinese-style basketball, now made about half the average salary of an urban household. They “languished in relative poverty for most of the next two decades,” Larmer writes, condemned because of Da Fang’s “bad political past.” Most of the family income went to feeding their increasingly enormous son, who at eight years old was five feet seven inches tall.

As boys in the 1980s, Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming (who is three years younger than Wang) were measured carefully. The officials who examined them predicted they would both grow to over seven feet. Their lives, as Larmer writes, “would trace the arc of China’s inexorable rise and its fitful emergence into the world…. They would be pushed and pulled by forces far beyond their families’ control.” Bred for athletic stardom, these two ballplayers were projections of China’s ambitions for a more powerful international presence. An army of Party officials, doctors, coaches, minders, and ideological tutors surrounded them. Their parents understood very well what was going on. They themselves, after all, had been paired off by the state and its eugenicists “in the expectation that they would produce a new generation of giants.”

In the eyes of the Party, it is size that demonstrates Chinese power. As Larmer explains, while many Chinese athletes have achieved world-class status in non-contact sports—badminton, weight lifting, shooting, diving, and ping-pong, to name a few—not one of them has ever carried the national flag at the Olympics’ opening ceremonies. This honor has been assigned exclusively to basketball players, who have carried the flag in all six summer Olympics in which China participated since 1984. Only players of what Mao called the “big ball sports” “can literally make the five-star flag fly just a little higher than every other nation’s.”

Sports doctors continued to monitor Yao Ming throughout his childhood. In 1992, when he was twelve years old and six feet two inches tall, they examined his pubic hair and fingered his testicles. In their view, delayed puberty argued strong growth later on, and this, they concluded, would be the case with Yao. They predicted he would grow to seven feet four inches. Clumsy and slow as a child, Yao showed little aptitude for basketball. He says “he hated basketball with a passion.” But the state had marked him as a player, and that was that. China chose its promising athletes carefully from among its vast population and placed them under the direction of coaches who served, Larmer writes, as mentors and guardians. They insisted that a young sportsman’s job was to serve the motherland, a lesson Yao Ming’s parents had absorbed and passed on to their son. He and his fellow child athletes were trained according to a system designed by the Russians, and they played in a “joyless silence that shrouded them…completely.” As part of his conditioning, and this was true of all big Chinese sports, Yao was fed a pharmacopoeia of traditional plants and insects, combined with muscle-building drugs that many believe were brought to China by East Germans.

  1. *

    For new light on this period see The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History, edited by Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Andrew G. Walder (Stanford University Press, 2006).

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