The rise of Yao and Yi allows us to examine not just international basketball, but nuances in contemporary Chinese culture. As the journalist Brook Larmer writes, Yao has become the "recognizable embodiment of China’s emergence in the world." (Brook Larmer, "The Center of the World," Foreign Policy, 2005, p 74) More specifically by studying the rise of Yao, we can see how the legacies of Marxism-Maoism still influence China.
After the establishment of Chinese independence in 1949, Mao modeled much of his regime after the Soviet Communist Party. Mao adopted Lenin/Stalin's basic model for press censorship. Countless citizens were accused as "rightists" and sent to "re-education" camps or executed.
At the same time Mao adapted the Stalinist "mentalite" of "socialist realism" to fit Chinese culture. In the Soviet Union, Stalin had created an intellectual system that demanded writers to adopt a style of "socialist realism." He demanded that literature would depict "life as it was becoming, rather than life as it was--rather than a literal or 'naturalistic' realism." (Sheila Fitzpatrick Everyday Stalinism, p 9.) While "socialist realism" is most often associated with Soviet literature, the genre also informed how the news would be reported. As Fitzpatrick writes, "Socialist realism was a Stalinist mentalite, not just an artistic style. Ordinary citizens also developed the ability to see things as they were becoming and out to be, rather than as they were. An empty ditch was a canal in the making; a vacant lot where old houses or a church had been torn down, littered with rubbish and weeds, was a future park."
Today, Chinese newspapers have developed beyond the stale jingoism of the Maoist press. Yet the state still controls the press and censors "bogus" websites. Moreover, by reading the Yao coverage closely, we can still hear the vestiges and legacy of "socialist realism." Note the difference between how the Houston Chronicle describes Yao's transition to Adelman's new offensive system as compared to the People's Daily (the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party):
If [Yao] can stay healthy — and that's a big if, considering he has missed 59 games the past two seasons — he should establish himself once and for all as the NBA's best center./He'll be productive in other ways because Adelman's system will position him at the high post at times, allowing the Rockets to take advantage of his passing and court awareness./With a new coach, a dramatically new system and an array of new players, the Rockets will be a work in progress./How Adelman finds enough minutes to keep everyone happy will be the most interesting subplot of this season.
-- Richard Justice, Houston Chronicle, Oct 28, 2007
The tenor of Justice's piece is familiar to any consistent reader of American sports news. Justice tempors his optimism for Yao's development with the possibilities (the "big if") of a disappointing season. Now read the coverage by the PD:
Not that Yao isn't up for the challenge. Once he settles into his role as the conductor of Houston's new offensive train he will find it's a system that takes full advantage of his unique skills. An exceptional passer capable of knocking down perimeter shots, Yao will find his groove sooner rather than later. Growing pains are inevitable and Yao is probably being too hard on himself so early in the season.
-- People's Daily, November 8, 2007
Note, this is a news story, not an editorial or column. Unlike Justice, the PD emphasizes an optimistic forecast, a sense of how Yao "ought to be" with no mention of the precarious reality of NBA seasons. In the United States this kind of uncategorical enthusiasm would not be allowed from even the slappiest of hometown announcers. Yet as Larmer writes, "Chinese leaders still sees sports not so much as business, recreation, or entertainment, but as a projection of national ambition, a yearning that is particularly powerful as Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games" (Larmer, p 74.) More specifically, the Chinese press analyzes basketball through the lens of "socialist realism." Like the ditch that looks like a canal, Yao is seen for his upside with no mention of his potential disappointment. Yao becomes a romanticized figure whose future greatness can be predicted (even assumed.) What if Yao does not reach this potential? Would this story be reported in China? Imagine the kind of pressure the forecasting of a certain and predictable greatness places on Yao.
While American politicians, press, and public are (understandably) focused on questions of lead in toys, air pollution over Beijing, and water contamination in outlying Chinese provinces, we should not miss an opportunity to better understand Chinese culture. The intense focus on Yao the Yi gives us such an opportunity. The international platform of the NBA can help us better understand the nuances of contemporary Chinese culture beyond slogan issues like food contamination and pollution. While we can appreciate the development in international engagement provided by the NBA, we can also appreciate the vast cultural differences that still exist between the United States and China.
Look for some follow-up news and thoughts re: "Yao-Yi I" later this week.