Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrew D. Morris. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. xx, 368 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 0-520-24084-7.

The best historical scholarship supersedes its place and times, and this detailed study of how the conceptions and practices of "modern" sport took shape in China at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth is a fine example of a work of significance that considerably surpasses what its title might suggest.

Beyond assembling an enormous volume of information about sports in Republican China, organizing this material against a social and political backdrop, and providing an overarching argument about the place of physical culture in the development of the modern Chinese nation, this book makes important contributions to the understanding of sport as both the expression and the shaper of [End Page 446] ideas, values, and societal configurations. Among the insights delivered by author Andrew Morris, associate professor of history at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, are many reminders of the power of sports to crystallize the complexities of human events in especially vivid and tangible ways.

The book is an enjoyable read as well, not simply for its fascinating subject matter and astute analysis but also for the greater impression it conveys of a curious and energetic mind working on a vast array of diverse sources—from accounts and essays in Chinese newspapers to turn-of-the-century YMCA documents, and from popular and specialized magazines to the recollections of elderly gents living in Taiwan who were star athletes in the 1930s. The writing is fluid, with exposition and discussion moving back and forth between macro-level analysis and copious on-the-ground examples that give life and heft to the interpretive assertions.

The publication of this study comes at a fortuitous time, of course, as China prepares to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Morris addresses the impending extravaganza only in a brief epilogue, reiterating his theme of sports prowess as an underpinning of national strength. Nonetheless, his book on the whole constitutes a superb background for understanding the importance of the 2008 Games to China's sense of national identity and global standing. It shows that, even given China's recognition as a rising sports power, weaknesses and indignities of the past still weigh heavily on the present, and that in China the relationship between individual bodies and national causes remains strikingly evident and salient.

The bulk of the book is devoted to China's adaptations of what the Chinese term tiyu, broadly translated as "physical culture," and construed here as modern physical endeavors originating in Western contexts as distinguished from traditional indigenous forms. Morris partitions his subject matter into periods, beginning with the importation during the late Qing of Japanese-Germanic approaches to sport on the one hand and British-American forms on the other, the latter largely via the efforts of the YMCA. He demonstrates quite convincingly that the British-American configurations, which embodied new notions of individual discipline as key to the larger project of fortifying the nation, proved most compatible with Chinese reform sentiments and the liberal democratic philosophy of the early Republic. Physical culture in this mode, he says, was conceived as "a physically experienced link" (p. 48) between citizens' individual and collective responsibilities to both personal fitness and national solidarity.

He finds differences between the late Qing period and the early Republican years, though, most markedly in the disappearance of what he deems an "intercultural zone," in which the Western educators who introduced new games, techniques, and rationales mixed fairly easily with Chinese students, coaches, and commentators on sports. The rise of nationalism and its reflection in sporting activities ultimately made such interactions untenable. Yet the Western innovations in sports that seemed to provide entry into modernity persisted and developed as [End Page 447] a part of nationalistic narratives by virtue of their association with science and rationalism. Morris enumerates how these attributes are revealed along lines that other sports scholars have identified as characteristic of modern sport generally, such as the...