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Marrow of the Nation

March 24, 2010

Andrew D. Morris. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Miriam Gross (2006)

This excellent book goes far beyond documenting the history of sports during the Republican era. Morris demonstrates how new sports and physical culture was not just exemplary of China’s modernization process, but was also an integral spur to both popular and political development of the nation-state. The book is an apt complement to Susan Brownell’s Training the Body for China, which continues the arc exploring physical culture’s relationship to nationalism and political consciousness in the People’s Republic of China.

Morris discovers that physical culture during the late Qing and Republican eras undergoes a series of fairly distinct stages. In the late Qing, when new ideas about physical activity were first being imported from the West, German, Swedish, and Japanese drill programs were the chosen models. Such drill would ideally train the bodies of the newly forming citizenry into a disciplined, if unthinking mass under a single leader. Starting around 1910, Anglo and American team sports started to overtake older drill programs. This new type of physical culture was thought to hone the Chinese body not only in discipline, but also to help ingrain a spirit of competition, fair play, and democratic virtues. Morris states that by the 1920s, capitalism had been fully integrated with the sporting enterprise. Similar to his argument about sports participation, which led the new citizenry (of both audience and players) to viscerally imbibe the modern, he also finds that sports led to the competitive, disciplined, reified bodies that prepared people for the globalizing system of capitalism.

However, as a movement towards aggressive nationalism increased over the course of the twenties and into the Nanjing decade, the old appreciation for fair play and individuality faded. Instead, a new emphasis developed that would ideally lead to a mass physical and militarized culture preparing people to fight off China’s enemies and effectively address Japanese incursions. Morris finds that the Communists were successful at expanding this new vision of sports to a much wider audience, but did not have a noticeably different philosophy or understanding of the purpose behind sports and physical culture. Another shift during this period was that Chinese no longer found it acceptable for Westerners to manage sports associations and games. From this point forward, the direction of sports activities would be determined by the Chinese themselves. Morris discovers an ongoing tension between the need for mass athletics that could prepare the citizen-subject to fulfill his duties, and elite sports, which were necessary to compete in the Olympic arena. In actuality, it was only through wins in the Olympics that China’s hopes for preeminence on the world stage could come to the fore. The 2008 Olympics thus represent the culmination of a century of work building up both Chinese bodies and the Chinese nation-state to compete in the supposedly objective, scientifically standardized world of modern inter-state athletics and political discourse.

In a fascinating side chapter, Morris explores the revival of martial arts. Although initially deemed too traditional to continue in this self-consciously modern era, martial arts were standardized, integrated with modern ideas about competition and physical education philosophy, and then promoted as a means of disseminating the national essence.

Although Morris has written an exceptional book, there are places that could use expansion. While Morris does include sections on women’s sports, he gives these sections short shrift. Unlike his careful examination of the play-off of politics and shifting stages of athletic philosophy, he writes of an unchanging discourse for most of a forty year period. This book is also primarily focused on how sports were discussed and their integration with China’s conception of itself, rather than how sports were experienced. Although very difficult to do, it would have been fascinating to discover if discourse in any way reflected people’s experiential reality. Finally, this reviewer finds some of his early stages of development open to question since sources suggest a much less clear-cut landscape than indicated. However, these small critiques aside, Morris has written an exemplary work that adds significantly to our understanding of both sports history and of the development of modernization and capitalism during the Republican era.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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