Moving ChinaCarrying Forward Spirit of Chinese Women's Volleyball Team

March 7, 2017
Editor: Amanda Wu

Liu Bohong, a professor at China Women's University [Women of China English Monthly]


Looking Back 35 Years 

During the evening of November 16, 1981, the Chinese women's volleyball team won the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup in Japan. I was excited and overjoyed as I watched news of the event on television. I rode to Tian'anmen Square, which was crowded with people, all of whom were cheering for China's victory. I didn't know any of those people, but they spoke out the wishes of virtually every Chinese: "Unite and rejuvenate China," "Long live the Chinese women's volleyball team," and "Long live China." In the chilly wind of early winter, the very first victory won by the Chinese women's volleyball team at major world games ignited Chinese people's strong desire and passion to promote China's reform and opening up — and to rejuvenate the nation.

In 1965, to develop China's competitive sports program, then-Chinese-Premier Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) invited famous Japanese volleyball coach Hirofumi Daimatsu to train the Chinese women's volleyball players. Then-Vice-Premier He Long (1896-1969) served as the director of China Sports Commission. He laid down training regulations for the athletes — to train in a hard and strict manner, and to have an extensive exercise regimen. He also expected China could make breakthroughs in its international football, basketball and volleyball programs. In China, football, basketball and volleyball are referred to as the "three big balls." He once said, "I will die with regret if China fails to make it to the top international 'three-big-ball' games." Unfortunately, He passed away with regret. 

Things finally changed for China in 1979. China Sports Commission appointed Yuan Weimin, a coach for male volleyball players from East China's Jiangsu Province, as head coach of the national women's volleyball team. Under his guidance, the women trained hard and tried their best to make progress. They learned from the experiences of Japanese players, and they created their own tactics based on those experiences. During the FIVB Volleyball Women's World Cup in 1981, the Chinese team beat seven other teams and finally won the World Cup against Japan.

The day after China's victory, news and commentaries about the victory hit the headlines of many newspapers. Deng Yingchao, then-President of the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), wrote an article, entitled People from All Walks of Life Should Learn from the Spirit of Chinese Women's Volleyball team. That article was published in Sports Daily. Deng wrote, "People from all walks of life should learn from the spirit of Chinese women's volleyball players. They should have great ambitions, work hard in a practical manner, and do a good job in their workplace. They should push forward the progress of the socialist cause."

Hence, the "spirit of Chinese women's volleyball team" became a well-known phrase. People's Daily launched a special column, to report touching stories of people who were inspired by the "spirit" and of people who had made achievements in their lives. The women players graced the covers of various newspapers and magazines. Even stamps, calendars, souvenir medals and commemorative coins also bore the players' images. The autobiography entitled Passionate Time by Lang Ping, the main attacker of Chinese women's volleyball team, was popular and inspirational among young people.

Following their victory in 1981, the women's volleyball players won the World Championship in 1982, the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the World Cup in 1985 and the World Championship in 1986. 

That meant the women won five successive championships. Head coach Yuan and the players — Sun Jinfang, Zhang Rongfang, Lang Ping, Chen Yaqiong, Zhou Xiaolan, Yang Xi, Zhu Ling, Cao Huiying, Chen Zhaodi, Zhou Lumin, Zhang Jieyun and Liang Yan — became hero or heroines, and models of the time. Chinese generally believed the women's volleyball team was symbolic of China's rising status during the 1980s.

I guess many people began developing an interest in playing volleyball and/or to watching the sport at that time. During the past three decades, the Chinese women's volleyball team has experienced ups and downs, and Chinese have changed their understanding of the spirit of sports.

Despite that, our generation still have a deep affection for the team's members, and we understand them, because they represent the spirit of the time and they are rooted in our collective memory. 

Peaks' Scenes 

During the 2016 Rio Olympics, China's table tennis and diving teams, usually referred to collectively as the "dream teams," won almost all of the gold medals in their competitions.  Chinese love the two teams, and Chinese especially love watching them compete. Chinese joke that Chinese players can make their opponents shed tears. However, China's women's volleyball players made the spectators, both from China and Brazil, shed tears. Chinese love their volleyball players the most, because the volleyball team is not a dream team, and because the players had to work extremely hard to win their matches.

In April 2013, Lang Ping became head coach of China's women's volleyball team. A group of young, talented players joined the team, and those players improved their skills after considerable training. In 2014 and 2015, the players beat their rivals from the Republic of Korea, Thailand and Japan, and they also defeated teams from Russia, Serbia, Brazil and the United States in other games. Given all that, the Chinese had high expectations that China could win a medal, maybe strike gold, at the Rio Olympics.

The Chinese never expected their women's volleyball team would lose to the Netherlands, Serbia and the US during the group games in Rio. Thus, China ranked fourth in its group, which put the team at a disadvantage. The team had to compete with Brazil, the defending champion, during the second-phase knockout games. 

China lost the first round against Brazil. When confronted with great pressure, the indomitable Chinese players united and made a tremendous effort to win each score. The teams were tied, 2-2, after four rounds. Amid the cheers and applause from the Brazilian audience, the Chinese women lived up to their full potential, and they finally defeated Brazil. The victory ensured China would compete in the semifinals.

The Chinese players summarized the reasons why they lost to the Netherlands and Serbia during group games, and they were fully prepared for the semifinals and the gold-medal game. The Chinese team was like an undefeatable iron army. They defeated the Netherlands 3-0 during the semifinals, and they beat Serbia 3-1 during the final. 

They fought their way out in a hopeless situation, and they fought bravely in the face of doubt. They created a miracle in a dangerous situation, and they saw the rainbow after the storm. After 12 years, China's women's volleyball team won an Olympic gold medal again. Their victory caused a sensation in China — and moved the Chinese.

What Is the Spirit? 

After the team's victory, the Chinese began to think about the spirit of China's women's volleyball players in the new era. 

The spirit exhibited by China's women volleyball players resembles the spirit displayed by their predecessors in the 1980s. The spirit of their predecessors was about being patriotic, having an open mind, being united and working hard, being practical, being fearless of danger and difficulty and striving for success.  

In the new era, the spirit is about: 

— innovating the government-oriented sports system; 
— employing head coaches who have rich experience, who have an international perspective and who have professional abilities; 
— stressing the concept of a "great national team" and building a relevant mechanism; 
— cultivating young talented players and helping them develop in an all-round way; 
— providing scientific, advanced and player-oriented training; 
— having a professional team to ensure the smooth running of the games; and 
— having the courage, confidence and ability to obtain the best achievements.

The spirit of China's women volleyball team tells us how ordinary players can live up to their full potential, and how they achieve strong power, fast speed and rely on their intelligence in the intense and fast-changing international sports arena. The key point of the story is that the head coach and the players are all women. This unique team created a miracle in Rio. 

The author is Liu Bohong, a professor at China Women's University.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly October 2016 Issue)

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