"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
Christianity and the Transformation of Physical Education and Sport in China
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Huijie Zhanc, Fan Hongand Fuhua Huang, London, Routledge,2017. ISBN: 978-1-138-62821-2The book argues that Western missionaries and the YMCA made an immense contribution to the development of and indeed the cultural change in Chinese attitudes to physical activities to the point where sport became an important tool for Chinese nationalist nation-building.
The Chinese traditionally viewed exercise and physical activity as for the lower classes only and beneath the dignity of the upper classes. There is a wonderful story of how a British diplomat played a game of tennis as entertainment for a local Chinese dignitary. The Chinese dignitary told his sweaty host that the tennis had been most impressive by wondered why he had not hired a servant to play in his place! The way this perception of physical activity changed over the years is due in no small measure to the foreign missionaries and the YMCA.
Christian physical education in the higher education sector evolved from localized practices to competitive national intramural games with appeal to audiences beyond the universities
The book identified four distinct phases or periods:
• Christianity and the emergence of Western physical education and sport (1840-1908),
• Christianity and the expansion of Western physical education and sport in China (1908-1919)
• The diminishing role of Christian institutions in physical education and sport programs in China (1919-1928),
• The indigenisation and modernization of physical education and sport in China (1928-1937).
The influence of Christian missionaries was significant with at one stage around 2,000 missionary schools in China, to the extent that the book can argue: “The missionary schools no longer remained an appendage of the Church; rather, they became the most effective means of propagating the Gospel”.
There appeared to be spectrum of reasons for the inclusion of physical education in the school curriculum. Sport was seen at various times as:
A way to engage with the local population and facilitate more contact between the indigenous people and the foreign Christians, thus removing prejudice against Christianity;
A means to promote good Christian character and to attract non-Christians to take part in their other activities;
A vehicle to attract and bodies in the service of religion, even simply a tool for Christian evangelism;
An opportunity to evangelise teachers, who in turn would have the potential to evangelise millions;
In the spirit of Muscular Christianity, physical education was also seen as “the best means of transforming men in Christian mould, imbuing in them all the appropriate moral, social and physical characteristics”. Phrases like “creating a ‘Christian manhood’ among the Chinese” would have resonated with Thomas Arnold et al.
Perhaps partly because of the arrogance of the foreign Christians who “in general were convinced of their intellectual, moral and spiritual superiority over China..[and] not only expected converts to accept the spiritual aspects of Christianity, but were convinced that the local people would benefit from adopting Western familial values, medical systems, lifestyles and other cultural practices”, a backlash arose in the form of an anti-Christian movement.
Government regulations restricting the preaching of religion and the teaching of religious courses in schools and colleges resulted in a sharp decline in the YMCA’s religious work between 1928 and 1937, while its physical education work continued to remain a priority.
While the reform movements awakened the Chinese people to the fact that they should not submit themselves unquestioningly to foreigners, but they could still learn some positive things from the West, be it in terms of military training, education, politics, economy or culture.
The book represents a welcome documentation of the Christian contribution to the development of sport and physical education in China.