How the Chinese Women's Volleyball Team "Dug" China a New Future
BY MILENA ZHU '22
Over seventy percent of China’s population tuned in to watch the Chinese women’s volleyball team during the 2016 Rio Olympics, double the viewership of the most-watched China Central Television (CCTV) program, the Spring Festival. From defeating the projected winner, Brazil, in the first round, to Serbia in the final, a mesmerized Chinese audience sat transfixed by their television screens. With all the attention surrounding them, one might wonder: why is this sports team so important?
The answer begins in the 1980s when China had just opened its gates, ending its isolationist policy and exposing people to the reality of the nation’s underdevelopment. Isolationism’s heavy implications had hurt Chinese progress just as the West was entering its industrial revolution. They fell behind the rest of the connected world in technological advancements or urbanization, losing their steam right before other nations’ progress kicked into hyperspeed. Hopelessness spread as people realized the gravity of this hindrance. However, the success of the women’s volleyball team soon strengthened their morale.
In the 1980s, the Chinese women’s volleyball team were fighting an uphill battle. They competed against countries with an abundance of resources that they lacked themselves. For example, the Americans began using computers and simulations to aid with sports. This advancement allowed the US to access useful information, such as safer and more effective training techniques that China could not access. The lack of knowledge meant that the Chinese team had to make up for it in terms of blood, sweat, and tears, which caused many players to become crippled later in life; they trained until their knees were bloody from the cement floor of their training room.
The night of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) World Cup in 1981, the entire nation watched the final match against Japan, huddled around radios or even the occasional television. When the team defeated Japan, winning the FIVB for the first time in history, crowds rushed into the streets screaming, crying, and celebrating like it was Chinese New Year. Firecrackers echoed into the night as a country came together in jubilation and renewed morale. This historic win was followed by many others throughout the ’80s, such as their first Olympic gold medal, first Asian Games gold medal, and first Asian Championship gold medal. The win motivated the Chinese, as many hoped that if they worked as hard as the team had, they too could catch up and even surpass more-developed countries.
The women’s volleyball team carried the hopes of an entire nation, and they delivered time and time again. Throughout the years that followed, the importance of the team’s wins to the nation’s success began to dwindle, but the reverence never left. The hopes that the Chinese public put upon the women’s volleyball team reflect the hopes that parents put upon their children. This reflection shows the interesting development of how necessity and desperation can affect family dynamics and competition. For many families, a child’s success was their only hope. In 1981, eighty-eight percent of the population was living in poverty. However, there was a hope that through the Gaokao, the Chinese National College Entrance Examination, one could lift oneself out of poverty by attending a top college. The Gaokao only had one measurement, the score, and it essentially set one’s path for life. A family could be lifted from poverty because a degree from a top university would lead to a high-paying job. On the other hand, doing badly on the exam would keep one’s family in poverty. Children pushed themselves to work hard in school so that they could do well and save their families. Just as the volleyball team pushed themselves out of necessity for their country, children pushed themselves for the ones they loved.
With China’s GDP rising steadily in the modern-day, the Chinese women’s volleyball team is no longer the backbone for the nation’s morale. Likewise, without the livelihood of an entire family resting upon children’s shoulders, it is no longer necessary for children to continue the level of work and suffering as that of the ’80s. With the threat of poverty shrinking, Chinese children should also be allowed to deviate from their set paths, just as the volleyball team has done. As current head coach and ’80s team legend, Lang Ping, the “Iron Hammer,” says “the spirit of the women's volleyball team is not to win the championship, but sometimes you know you won't win, and you do your best. It is you who keeps standing up and shakes, even if you walk along the way. The dust is full of firmness.” The team is now allowed to play their own game and enjoy the sport purely for themselves with their ambitious drive to improve, no longer being a necessity born from desperation but a passion. Their practices are held in pristine gyms with high ceilings and a well-waxed floor, a vast improvement from the team’s humble beginnings in a decrepit, concrete room. The loud calls and counts are exuberant, and each spike or miraculous save is celebrated to its fullest extent.
Once Lang Ping took over as head coach, she made sure to question each girl to see if they truly loved volleyball, which was the only important qualification apart from skill. One girl realized that she was only on the team because no one had ever allowed her to do otherwise. Much like many of the teammates on the ’80s team, she had never been given a choice about what her life would look like. Lang Ping set her free because the team no longer needed to be purely driven towards winning in the name of a nation’s hope. The fulfillment the team receives from each game is different from before, but not in a bad way. While they had held up the dreams of an entire nation before, now they can focus on their personal happiness without feeling guilty.
With only seven-tenths of a percent of the population living in poverty, parents do not need to push their children as hard either. Parents from the competitive time need to realize that they suffered competition due to a pressure for survival that no longer exists. While it is true that working hard and doing well in school can lead to success later in life, it is by no means a guarantee like it was in the 1980s. With today’s stability, happiness should be the goal, and a career one is content with will yield much more happiness than wealth in a lucrative but arduous occupation. The privilege that has been afforded to the next generation is precious, so do not squander it needlessly competing over a college-prestige game.