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Playing the Game, The Communists Score!
July 29, 2000

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What do boxes of ammunition hidden in secret passageways of the Mao Zedong's villa have to do with soccer? Keep reading…you'll see!
It was a warm day in the Southern capital city of Nanjing. Having just arrived, Yang-Yang, our friend Ed, and I made our way to the Nanjing University International Students Dormitory; the place we would call home for the next four days.

The traffic and the pollution were mind-boggling. Strangest of all was the unyielding stares of Chinese locals, amazed to see anyone who failed to fit the homogenous look of; yellow complexions, brown eyes, and straight black hair. Walking the streets reminded me of my status as a foreigner in this exotic land. But once inside the dormitory, where English, not Chinese, was the language of choice, and where popular western songs blared from stereos, an atmosphere of familiarity began to tickle me. I giggled watching a scene that could have been any American university, but there was more than just familiarity. I detected a certain buzz of energy in the air. Then it dawned on me!

"I know this feeling." I smiled to Yang-Yang and Ed. "When a college dorm is this alive with energy and fun there's only one question left to ask. Which way to the party?"

Just then a young Frenchman jumped into the elevator and confirmed our suspicions.

"There is a party indeed and the French are the guests of honor! Please do join us," he shouted as he practically leapt out of the elevator into the arms of his French compatriots, who all yelled the name of a café, which was hosting a party to watch the game. It would be a big night, France vs. Italy - the European Cup Championship.

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The French, who were especially numerous, had flags taped to their doors, and the few Italians seemed to be equally hopeful and enthusiastic. By 6:00pm most everyone in the dorms crowded into any number of small street cafes broadcasting the game. As I'm sure you know, the French won. There was no score through the entire game, but one goal in overtime did the trick. The crowds went wild and the French danced round and round in circles, hugging as the Italians looked on sort of teary-eyed. Our group was rooting for the French, so we crashed our glasses high overhead in a proud toast as if it were our own home country that had just won!

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My thoughts are always with the revolution
What does this have to do with China, you ask? Well, allow me to explain. Personally, I don't get many thrills from the sport. It takes too long for things to happen, like actually making a goal, so my attention fades easily. But as a dorm of hundreds partied around me I could no longer simply dismiss the game so simply. My mind raced in the frenzy trying to understand the whole concept of soccer and figure out what it was about the sport that seemed to have the whole world hooked.

Unfortunately I found no answer to satisfy my curiosity. What I did realize (which may sound a little strange at first, but stick with me) is that the period of Chinese history from 1911 to 1950 was like a soccer game in many ways. The parallels are uncanny (or I'm suffering from a touch of delirium, which could well be the case). Check this out and you decide.

First let me give you a little background on China during this period. From 1911 to 1950 China battled to recover from the republic revolution and the fall of China's dynastic era. The often self-absorbed emperors were unwilling to recognize their foreign counterparts (like Britain and the United States, the growing western superpowers) as equals but rather viewed them as vassals. The Chinese viewed the Emperors as Sons of Heaven, but to the rest of the world they were mere mortals; mortals who did not realize that times were changing and some type of reform was necessary.

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Sun Yat Sen is honored and recognized as the 'Father of the Republic'
Not all Chinese felt this way about the Emperors. Many sensed that a new dawn was approaching and China would fall prey if they did not make drastic political changes. In an historic move, revolutionaries led by Sun Yat Sen, who is commonly regarded the "Father of the Republic", led a movement that overthrew the Emperor (a five-year-old named Pu-Yi.) This brought to a close to the only form of rule China had known. The era of grand dynasties was entirely stamped out and communism, a "people's party" was shoring up to take over.

Now you understand the backdrop, let's play ball! But wait, where is the ball? Well, from my point of view China was the ball, being kicked around, battered and abused from all angles. Foreign countries were carving her up like a Thanksgiving turkey, and on the domestic front, warlords did all they could to retain control over their isolated areas. We could think of the Chinese people themselves as the field on which this game was played. They laid down their lives in loyalty to their "coaches", or leaders, only to be trampled on by political factions whose main objective was to reign supreme at all costs. In other words they had to score and score big no matter what.

China vs. China - Sounds like we almost have the makings of a game (either that or a civil war). All we need now are opposing teams, right. Tryouts anyone? (But I should warn you this might take a while.)

As it turned out, twenty years after the revolution the entire country was still warring in a state of lawlessness. There was still no central government to replace the former dynasty and the revolution was failing miserably to gain any real power. Thus no one actually organized well enough to bring their team out for tryouts. It wasn't until 1937 that one team made the cut. Unfortunately, they were not Chinese at all, but Japanese invaders who would put the games on hold for the next eight years. Japan wasn't the only team that considered buying China out, so to speak. Numerous western powers began to lay their claims.

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At the hands of the Japanese, 300,000 lost their lives in Nanjing alone
The United States team had its own battles to fight on the home front and took particular interest in China because Japan was a mutual enemy. To help in the battle with Japan, the US tried to influence the Kuomintang, China's people's party, to come out of against the Japanese. They would not. Instead the Chinese strategy was to lay low and train hard. They knew the China vs China game was in the near future and had to save strength until then. The feeling throughout all of China was that the Japanese would soon be defeated. They were right. On August 9, 1945 the United States team brought out their two star players onto the field and blew their enemies out of the water. (Literally, in retaliation for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, America dropped two atom bombs on Japan.)

Now with the Japanese competition out of the way and eight years of preparation (and backing by the US) the Kuomintang emerged as China's top seated team. Their head coach was Chiang Kaishek and their strategy favored capitalism (another reason why the US team liked them so much. The US saw dollar signs flashing before their eyes if they could tap into the Chinese market.)

Ranked number two to go up against the Kuomintang for the Cup and control over China were the Communists. The Communists had briefly tried to ally with the Kuomintang during World War I, but saw no reason to continue the coalition once the danger had passed. They officially called it off in 1941. Now the games begin!

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This steel door led to an underground system of tunnels used to hide Communists, and to hold and torture prisoners
It seemed like an easy win for the Kuomintang but as it turned out the head coach for the Communist team had a play book that would prove to be the Communist's saving grace. Despite the way many discounted the Communists as real competition for the Kuomintang, they emerged strong. Under Mao Zedong's leadership, and ingenious strategy, the Communists were able to attract the masses. Empowering peasants and gaining control of the countryside, the Communists shored up a team numbering 900,000. (That's a big soccer field.) By 1948 the tides were beginning to turn and the Communists had forces equal to those of the Kuomintang armies.

By 1948 they'd captured much of the Kuomintang's artillery and many of their soldiers had begun to defect and join up with the Communist army. They were wearing the Kuomintang down and the game went into overtime. The years of 1948 and 1949 proved to be the most grueling part of all. When the dust settled Chiang Kaishek fled for Taiwan and on October 1, 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Despite the fact that the US still recognized Chiang as China's ruler, Mao would leave the world speechless by the seemingly insane social experiment he conducted on the country. One point for Communists, and Kuomintang is ousted. GAME OVER (for now anyway. Mao had big plans for his new China.)


delirium - frenzied excitement
vassals - one in a subservient postion
communism - a system of government where the state controls most aspects of life
ingenious - original and resourceful

I didn't have the same thrill as the French kids who danced all around me but I still felt the same void, wondering what the purpose behind it all, both soccer and war. While I can recognize soccer as a worthwhile pastime, my understanding of the suffering endured by the Chinese throughout history is a bit foggier. While many recognize that Mao and China's new leadership stabilized the economy and jump started a war-torn nation, they will also explain that his radical tactics led to widespread deaths as he 'purged' his regime. Economic catastrophe and famine cost thousands of lives.

The Communists scored, but the people lost. The Communists scored but they made up the rules of the game and executed all those who dared to think differently. The Communists scored, but China is feeling the pain of its mistakes, even today. The Cultural Revolution was still to come.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Related Link:

Posters of the Cultural Revolution


Abeja - I Thought the Bad Guys Always Wore Black
Jasmine - Rural Women Know It All
Yang-Yang - The Many Loved and Hated Faces of Mao
Kavitha - Inside the Secret World: China's Forbidden City

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