China and the Olympics: Badminton and Table Tennis 2012-07-31T15:24:58+00:00

The 2012 Olympic Games opened this weekend in London, so it’s time to get sporty! In January, the Wall Street Journal predicted that China will win a total of 103 medals, more than any other country. Two sports that might help China reach that goal, are badminton and table tennis. The two articles below come from Berkshire’s 2008 publication China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, featured in full on ChinaConnectU, alongside other works such as the award-winning Berkshire Encyclopedia of China. Vocabulary lists and study questions are added at the end of each article, great for educational purposes.

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Table Tennis/Ping Pong (Pīngpāngqiú 乒乓球 )

HU Xiaoming 胡小明

Source: Hu Xiaoming. (2008). Table tennis. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 65–70. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

In 1904 WANG Daoping 王道平, manager of a stationery shop in Shanghai, bought equipment from Japan for a new indoor game. He demonstrated the game— a kind of tennis— in order to sell the tables, nets, balls, and rackets. This was the beginning of table tennis in China.

Though table tennis is widely associated with Asian nations today, Japanese and Chinese dominance in the sport did not become obvious until the 1950s when they began winning tournaments using the supposedly outdated penhold grip (European players had moved on to the shakehand grip). But the game originated on the other side of the globe. At a house party somewhere in Victorian England —where parlor games were an important part of social life— someone decided to turn the dining room table into a miniature version of the traditional lawn tennis court. The players are said to have used a line of books to serve as the net. They carved a ball from a champagne cork, and cut rackets from empty cigar boxes and later from parchment paper stretched around a frame.

Evolution of “Flim-flam”

In the beginning the game was called “gossima,” “flim-flam,” or “ping-pong.” The words, as can be assumed, were derived from the sound that the ball made when hit back and forth on the table and rackets. In 1901 English manufacturer J. Jaques & Son registered one of the names for table tennis— Ping-Pong— and sold this trademark to the Parker Brothers in the United States.

During the early 1900s, the table tennis racket had a long handle and a pear-shaped hitting surface, making it look like a small-size tennis racket. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the sport underwent a few changes in England as a celluloid ball and a wooden paddle with a pimpled rubber surface were introduced— the type of equipment that Mr. Wang introduced to his customers in Shanghai in 1904.

The rules and equipment have changed drastically as table tennis has achieved more widespread popularity and then became an organized competitive sport.

In 1926 the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was founded in Berlin by England, Sweden, Hungary, India, Denmark, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Wales. A year later, the ITTF established the first official world championship and table tennis began to be adopted in Japan and other Asian countries as a serious competitive sport, one in which they have excelled. The Japanese dominated the sport in the 1950s and 1960s. The Chinese had their turn in the 1960s and 1970s. As table tennis became an Olympic event in the 1980s, other nations such as Sweden and South Korea have also joined the game’s top ranks, but in many people’s minds Ping-Pong remains strongly associated with China.

Ping-Pong’s Early Days

In 1925, before the international association was founded, several table tennis competitions took place in Shanghai. Two years later, the Chinese national team participated in the Eighth Far Eastern Championship Games in Shanghai but failed to win any medals.

Between 1937 and 1949 development of table tennis in China slowed down its pace because of World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Only after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 did table tennis enjoy a rebirth. In 1952 the first National Table Tennis Championships took place in Beijing, where sixty-two athletes competed for the medals. In the same year the Chinese National Table Tennis Federation became an official member of the ITTF, beginning a new era for Chinese table tennis.

The National Table Tennis Team was founded in 1953 and soon after participated in the World Table Tennis Championships. In 1959 Chinese player RONG Guotuan 容国团 won the men’s singles gold medal at the World Table Tennis Championships in Dortmund, West Germany. This achievement was a landmark in Chinese table tennis history. Two years later, at the World Table Tennis Championships in Beijing, China swept the gold medals in the men’s singles, women’s singles, and men’s team events. By 2002, its fiftieth anniversary, the Chinese National Table Tennis Team had won 125 world championship titles, sweeping all the table tennis gold medals three times at the Table Tennis World Cups and twice at the Olympic Games.

In 1995 the Chinese Professional Table Tennis League was established. This nationwide league was divided into three divisions: Division 1 was the Super League. Division 2 was Jia A, and Division 3 was Jia B (jia 甲 being a Chinese word for “top” or “first”). The Super League consists of the best players in China. The Chinese Professional Table Tennis League has attracted countless table tennis fans and has played an important role in the promotion of both the athletic sport and sport for all in China.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The “Ping” Heard Round the World

Eight years before China rejoined the International Olympic Committee in 1979, the sound of a small hollow plastic ball hitting a green table — the “ping heard round the world,” as Time magazine put it — signaled a turning point in U.S.-China relations, and the beginning of China’s reopening to the rest of the world.

That famous “ping” sounded in April 1971, when the U.S. table tennis team, visiting Nagoya, Japan, for the World Table Tennis Championship, was invited to visit the People’s Republic of China and given permission to go by the U.S. government, which had broken relations twenty-two years earlier. While the invitation was ostensibly a spontaneous gesture by lively young athletes — who exchanged gifts, in Chinese fashion, that included a T-shirt with a red-white-and-blue peace emblem and the words “Let It Be” — historians now agree that it was quietly countenanced by the Chinese government.

The U.S. team’s visit to China took place three months later, in July, and Chinese Premier ZHOU Enlai was quoted as saying, “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy.”

While the exchange was spontaneous, it came about during a period of changing alliances. After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, MAO Zedong and Zhou Enlai, seeing the USSR was a more potent threat than the United States, decided that improved relations with the United States would increase China’s international security as well as stature. Meanwhile, President Richard M. Nixon believed that ties with the People’s Republic would counterbalance the Soviet Union, improve Nixon’s own political standing at home, and improve the United States’ position in the Vietnam War. In 1970, the Chinese offered to arrange a high-level meeting, and that offer led eventually to national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in July 1971.

In any event, it was the young American and Chinese table tennis players, many of them teenagers, who changed the way ordinary people in their countries thought about so-called Communist China and the “decadent, imperialistic” United States. The team was treated royally. According to U.S. team member Tim Boggan, they were sometimes offered five meals a day: “no Ming emperor was treated so well.” This “people-to-people” exchange, which was extolled by the press and by both governments, provided President Nixon with a backdrop for the major diplomatic shift that was in progress. During the team’s visit, the United States announced the end of a twenty-year trade embargo against the People’s Republic, Nixon himself went to Beijing from 20 to 27 February 1972, the first visit by an American president to China.

Richard Solomon, now president of the United States Institute of Peace and then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. explains, “Ping-Pong showed how sports can be a political signaling device, a way to reach out to other nations without a full commitment from the government.”

Naturally, the Americans reciprocated by inviting their Chinese opponents to visit the United States. In this case, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) stepped in to organize, along with the U.S. Table Tennis Association, what became a huge media event, broadcast by major news outlets and publicized in magazines as diverse as Life and Seventeen. The teams traveled on one charter plane; another plane was needed for reporters and camera people. The theme was “friendship first, competition second,” and although the Chinese players completely dominated the matches, somehow U.S. players managed to win surprise victories when the tour landed in their hometowns. Ticket prices were kept very low so everyone could attend — an approach the 2008 Olympics organizers also took in order to ensure that Chinese people would see the Games for themselves.

The Chinese ping-pong players were able, engaging representatives of their country — which was then referred to by many Americans as “Red China.” The team’s escorts, some of whom were undoubtedly intelligence officers, let all the matches continue in spite of some rowdy protests that they clearly would have liked to have seen stopped.

Throughout the 1980s, there were many athletic exchanges that introduced Chinese athletes to huge U.S. audiences across the country, as well as trips to China by U.S. athletes, organized by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations along with American athletic associations and their Chinese counterparts — all in the spirit of “friendship before competition.”

Instead of operating at the elite policy or academic level, efforts like Ping-Pong diplomacy bring international relations into venues that attract ordinary citizens and create interest in the popular media. Indeed, beyond gold medals, the Olympics for China are about the kind of people-to-people relationship building that was at the center of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Before the Beijing Olympics, CHEN Haosu, president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), was quoted in the Chinese press as saying, “Meetings between leaders have to be reinforced by people-to-people contacts, which are the best way to rid mutual suspicion and keep the diplomatic momentum moving forward.” As Chen put it, these efforts are, “about the attraction of your culture and the image you leave in the hearts of foreigners.”


Ping-Pong’s Importance

Perhaps “Ping-Pong diplomacy” can explain why table tennis held such an important place in China during the 1970s. The era of Ping-Pong diplomacy 乒乓外交 began in 1971 when the United States table tennis team, which was participating in the Thirty-first World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, received an invitation from the Chinese team to visit the People’s Republic of China. MAO Zedong, chairman of China’s Communist Party, believed that by opening a door to the United States, China could put its hostile neighbors, notably the U.S.S.R., on notice about a possible shift in alliances. The United States welcomed the opportunity. President Richard Nixon secretly sent Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Beijing to arrange a presidential visit to China. Nixon’s journey seven months later, in February 1972, became one of the most important events in U.S. postwar history. “Never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy,” said Chinese premier ZHOU Enlai. For Nixon it was “the week that changed the world.”

Table 1: Medal Tally in Olympic Table Tennis Events, 1988–2004

Year Host City Gold Silver Bronze
1988 Seoul 2 (out of 4) 2 1
1992 Barcelona 3 (out of 4) 2 1
1996 Atlanta 4 (out of 4) 3 1
2000 Sydney 4 (out of 4) 3 1
2004 Athens 3 (out of 4) 1 2

Source: International Olympic Committee’s website.

Olympic Leaders

In terms of international competition, table tennis is the sport that has never disappointed the Chinese. China has dominated all major table tennis competitions and shows no signs of letting up. Since 1988 China has won sixteen Olympic gold medals out of twenty (see table 1). As the defending champions, Chinese players have been well studied by all their rivals around the world. In 2008 they must stay cautious and play their own game, although there seem to be no rivals capable enough to challenge the dominance of China (see table 2).

Table 2: ITTF Top Ten Rankings (2007)

Rank Name Country
Top Men
1 Ma Lin China
2 Wang Liqin China
3 Boll, Timo Germany
4 Wang Hao China
5 Oh Sang Eun Korea
6 Samsonov, Vladimir Belarus
7 Chen Qi China
8 Ma Long China
9 Ryu Seung Min Korea
10 Hao Shuai China
Top Women
1 Zhang Yining China
2 Wang Nan China
3 Guo Yan China
4 Guo Yue China
5 Li Xiaoxia China
6 Tie Yana Hong Kong
7 Li Jia Wei Singapore
8 Wang Yue Gu Singapore
9 Niu Jianfeng China
10 Jiang Huajun Hong Kong

Source: International Table Tennis Federation.

In the men’s singles, German player Timo Boll may be a rival to China’s Ma Lin and Wang Liqin. In the women’s singles, the final competition would be between Wang Nan and Zhang Yining.

The ITTF announced plans to replace the doubles events with the team competitions at the 2008 Olympics to make the matches more exciting — and perhaps to set some limits on the table tennis superpower, China.

Paddle Powerhouses

DENG Yaping 邓亚萍 (b. 1973), the “Table Tennis Queen,” is considered to be one of the best female table tennis players in the world. She won four Olympic gold medals and was a participant, individually or as a team member, in ten World Table Tennis Championships titles. Between 1991 and 1998 she was ranked the number one woman player in the world. After retirement in 1998, Deng Yaping enrolled in Tsinghua University in Beijing. After graduating from Tsinghua, she went to study for her master’s degree in Loughborough University in England. She is now studying for her PhD degree at Cambridge University. She is a member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes Commission and the deputy head of the Olympic Village in Beijing.

KONG Linghui 孔令辉 (b. 1975) is one of the outstanding male players in Chinese table tennis history. In 1995 he won a gold medal in the men’s singles competition at the Table Tennis World Cup in France. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Kong claimed men’s doubles gold with teammate LIU Guoliang. At the 1997 World Table Tennis Championships in Manchester, England, Kong was the champion in the men’s doubles competition, again teamed with Liu Guoliang. In 2000 Kong claimed the gold in the men’s singles and the silver in the men’s doubles events at the Sydney Olympic Games. He is one of the three players in the world to complete a table tennis grand slam by winning the World Table Tennis Championships, the Table Tennis World Cup, and the Olympic singles titles.

WANG Liqin 王励勤 (b. 1978) joined the national team in 1993 when he was only fifteen years old. Wang’s style is probably best described as a strong forehand and backhand looper. His above-average height allows him additional leverage for acceleration and momentum, creating more powerful shots. Wang won his first World Table Tennis Championships in Osaka, Japan, in 2001. In 2005 he again became the champion at the World Table Tennis Championships in Shanghai, China. Wang won the gold medal in doubles at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the bronze medal in singles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. For most of the year in 2005, 2006, and 2007, he was ranked number one among the world’s male table tennis players.

WANG Nan 王楠 (b. 1978) began to play table tennis when she was seven years old. Her particular skills are her ability to change the placement of the ball during rallies and her loop drive as well as her notable speed. In 1994 Nan won the women’s singles at the Sweden Table Tennis Open. The next year she was selected for the national team and began to represent China at important competitions, such as the World Table Tennis Championships, the Women’s Table Tennis World Cup, and the Olympic Games. From 1997 to 1998, she won the championships in women’s singles at the Women’s Table Tennis World Cup twice as well as the China Open. At the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, Wang won all four gold medals (singles, doubles, mixed doubles, and women teams). At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she won two gold medals in singles and doubles. Her record made her a grand slam champion. In the 2004 Olympic Games, she failed to retain her singles crown but won the women’s doubles with Zhang Yining.

ZHANG Yining 张怡宁 (b. 1981) is China’s most promising player in women’s singles competion. Zhang participated in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and won gold in both singles and doubles with partner Wang Nan. In May 2007 Zhang was ranked number one in the ITTF in both women’s singles and women’s doubles.

LIU Guoliang 刘国梁 (b. 1976) started playing table tennis at the age of six. He joined the national team in 1991. In 1994 Liu Guoliang won the gold medal in the men’s singles at the Table Tennis World Cup. Two years later, he won the gold medal in the men’s singles and men’s doubles (with Kong Linghui) at the Atlanta Olympics. Liu Guoliang is China’s first table tennis player to make a clean sweep of all titles at major world tournaments, including the World Table Tennis Championships, Table Tennis World Cup and the Olympic Games. After retirement in 2002, Liu became a coach of the national men’s team and a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He was appointed the director of the coaching and research group as well as the head coach of the national men’s team in 2003.

CAI Zhenhua 蔡振华 (b. 1961) is generally considered one of the best coaches that China has ever produced. Cai was an international player in the 1970s. He won his first international title at age of twenty and later finished first in three other -world–class competitions before becoming a coach of the Chinese national team at the age of twenty-four. Under Cai’s successful guidance, the Chinese table tennis team swept the board, taking the gold medals in the men’s, women’s and mixed events at the world championships and the Olympics in the 1990s and early twenty-first century.

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Hospital workers in Beijing play a causal game of badminton during their lunch hour. Photo by Berkshire Publishing staff.

Badminton (Yǔmáoqiú 羽毛球)

FAN Wei 樊维 and LU Zhouxiang 吕洲翔

Source: Fan Wei, & Lu Zhouxiang. (2008). Badminton. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 32–36. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Badminton, like many other racket sports, has a long history. In the fifth century BCE, Chinese started to play a ball game called ti jian, 踢毽 which can be translated as “shuttle kick.” As the name suggests, the object of the game was for players to keep a shuttle from hitting the ground without using their hands. Regardless of whether ti jian had anything to do with badminton, it was the first sport to use a shuttle.

Centuries later, a ball game named “battledore and shuttlecock” was played in India, Siam (Thailand), and Japan. In that game people use a battledore (paddle) to hit the shuttlecock (a small feathered ball) back and forth. A net was introduced, and the game became a competitive sport called poona. By the 1860s some British army officers had learned the sport in India and took it back to England. Years later, the game was played among the upper class in England. In 1873, guests of the Duke of Beaufort played the game at his country place, Badminton House in Gloucestershire, and it thus became known as “the badminton game” among guests, who introduced it to other friends. In 1877 the Bath Badminton Club was established and developed the first official set of rules, which was similar to the modern rules for the game.

In 1899 the first all-England championship for men was held, and in 1900 came the pioneer tournament for women. However, these tournaments were regarded as “unofficial,” and it was not until 1904 that the first official all-England matches took place. Badminton’s popularity in Britain grew so fast that by 1920 there were nearly three hundred badminton clubs; the number had reached five hundred by 1930.

Badminton quickly spread from England to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand and made big strides in Europe. At the 1972 Olympics, badminton was staged as a demonstration sport event. In 1992 the game became an official Olympic sport at Barcelona, Spain, with singles and doubles competitions for men and women. After its appearance there, the game became more and more popular around the world.

In 1948 the first world-class tournament, the Thomas Cup (world men’s team championships), was held in Scotland. Malaysia won the title and became the first country to inscribe its name on the Thomas Cup. International tournaments include the Surdiman Cup, the Uber Cup, and the World Individual Championships. After all these years, badminton is neither so different from its Indian predecessor nor the game played by the European elite society in the mid-1800s except for the speed and technique of the sport.

Badminton Introduced in China

Badminton was introduced to China by the British in the late nineteenth century. In 1910 staff and students in YMCAs and schools in big cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjing, and Chengdu started to play the game. In 1931 the first Chinese badminton team was established. In 1932 the first China Open was held in the city of Tianjin.

In 1945 the first badminton association in China, the Shanghai Badminton Association, was established. In the same year, this association organized the first Shanghai Championship Tournament.

During the 1950s badminton became more popular in big cities. In 1954 several overseas Chinese coaches from Indonesia came back to China and promoted the game in terms of tactics and training techniques. In 1963 and 1964, the Indonesia Badminton National Team visited China and competed with China’s national team. Competitions between the two national teams offered a chance for Chinese to study and learn advanced techniques from their opponents. When the Chinese team beat Denmark and Sweden in friendship matches in 1965 and 1964, it marked another turning point in the team’s growing mastery.

When China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) began, badminton teams were disbanded in each city and province. It was not until 1971 that the national badminton team was reorganized by the central government. In 1974 the first Youth Badminton National Championships took place in Kun Ming and twenty-one provincial badminton teams participated in the matches. These championships have been held each year since 1974 with the goal of discovering talented young athletes.

In 1982 China won the men’s team championship title at the Thomas Cup with a brilliant victory against Indonesia; the score was 5–4. In 1986 China won both the Thomas Cup and the Uber Cup in Djakarta, Indonesia. These two victories shocked the sports world. The following year, Chinese players won all the gold medals at the Fifth Individual World Badminton Champion in Beijing. By then China had become the only country that held all seven world titles (men’s and women’s team and five singles sets). This record was unprecedented.

However, when badminton became an official Olympic sport at Barcelona in 1992, none of the seven gold medals was won by China. In the 1990s Indonesia and Malaysia recaptured all the world titles from China.

The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta saw Chinese badminton reach another milestone, when GE Fei 葛菲 and GU Jun 顾俊 took the gold for the women’s team and DONG Jong 董炯 was awarded the gold for men’s singles (see table 1). Two years later, in 1998, China recaptured the Uber Cup from its South Asian competitors at Hong Kong. Chinese also had won the Surdiman Cup in 1995 (Lausanne), 1997 (Glasgow), and 1999 (Copenhagen).

Table 1: China’s Olympic Medal Tally (1992–2004)

Year Host City Gold Silver Bronze
1992 Barcelona 0 (out of 4) 0 5
1996 Atlanta 2 (out of 4) 1 2
2000 Sydney 4 (out of 5) 1 3
2004 Athens 3 (out of 5) 1 1

Source: International Olympic Committee’s website.

Chinese athletes have dominated badminton for a decade, but the sport is developing strongly in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Britain, and some Scandinavian countries.

Olympic Leaders

Five sets of medals will be awarded at the Beijing Olympics: men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles.

According to information released by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the positions of Chinese shuttlers in the world rankings remain unchallenged; it will be possible for this formidable team to win all five gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (see table 2).

Table 2: Badminton World Federation World Ranking (2007)

World Rank Nation Name Points
Men’s Singles
1 China Lin Dan 78,161
2 China Chen Jin 61,111
3 China Chen Yu 59,020
4 China Chen Hong 57,871
5 China Bao Chunlai 55,991
Women’s Singles
1 China Xie Xingfang 70,701
2 China Zhang Ning 69,821
3 China Zhu Lin 57,261
4 Germany Xu Huaiwen 54,910
5 China Lu Lan 53,821
Men’s Doubles
1 China Fu Haifeng & Cai Yun 71,631
2 Korea Jung Jae Sung & Lee Yong Dae 55,460
3 Indonesia Wijaya, Candra & Gunawan, Tony 55,430
Women’s Doubles
1 China Zhang Yawen & Wei Yili 70,221
2 China Gao Ling & Huang Sui 64,271
3 China Yang Wei & Zhang Jiewen 63,891
Mixed Doubles
1 China Xie Zhongbo & Zhang Yawen 59,701
2 Thailand Prapakamol, Sudket & Thoungthongkam,
3 Indonesia Widianto, Nova & Natsir, Lilyana 55,581

Source: Badminton World Federation website.

In men’s singles Chinese player LIN Dan 林丹 and Taufik Hidayat from Indonesia are the favorites for the gold medal. Lin Dan, “China’s Super Dan” 超级丹 (b. 1983), is China’s top seed in 2008. Since 2004 he has been ranked number one in the world. In 2006 Lin won against his teammate BAO Chunlai 鲍春来 in the finals of the World Badminton Championships held in Madrid, Spain. He also won the gold medal at the 2007 World Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Taufik Hidayat (b. 1981) is a former world champion and the 2004 Olympic champion in the men’s singles. He is the only first-rung player who retains the -fifteen–point style of play in the revised twenty-one-point system. Hidayat is known for his relaxed, smooth playing style and is one of the best all-around players in the world. He is perhaps the world’s most spontaneously innovative badminton singles player today. To date, no competitors are strong enough to challenge the domination of China (see table 3).

Table 3: Favorite Gold Medal Competitors in 2008

Event Men Women
Singles Hidayat, Taufik (Indonesia)
Lin Dan (China)
Bao Chunlai (China)
Zhan Ning (China)
Xie Xingfang (China)
Doubles Fu Haifeng, Cai Yun (China) Gao Lin, Huan Hui (China)
Yang Wei, Zhang Jiewen (China)
Wei Yili, Zhang Yawen (China)
Mixed Doubles Xie Zhongbo, Zhang Yawen (China)
Widianto Nova, Natsir Lilyana (Indonesia)
Lee Kyung Won, Lee Hyo Jung (Thailand)

Leading Athletes and Coaches

ZHAO Jianhua 赵剑华 (b. 1965) is 1.83 meters tall and left-handed. He entered a sports school at the age of twelve and was selected for the Jiangsu badminton team (provincial level) at the age of thirteen. Jianhua joined the Chinese national team at the age of eighteen in 1983. One year later, he defeated Morten Frost and won the Scotland Open. This was the first time he was noticed on the international stage. In 1985 Jianhua defeated four world-class players within three months. This achievement shocked the badminton world, and soon he was recognized as one of the four “Heavenly Kings” (so named because they were the top four Chinese badminton players. In 1986 he recovered from a lung disease that had forced him to rest for one year. And he soon won the Malaysia Open, China Open, and Thailand Open. He won the 1987 Badminton World Cup, 1988 Thomas Cup, 1990 Thomas Cup, 1991 All-England World Championship, and 1991 World Badminton GP Finals Championship. In 1994 Jianhua retired from the national team and entered a management college in Singapore to study economics. Now he works as an image ambassador for a sports brand in China.

YANG Yang 杨阳 (b. 1963) is the only badminton player in the world who has won consecutive World Badminton Championships men’s singles titles. He played a major role in China’s early win of the coveted Thomas Cup and belonged to China’s golden generation of badminton players of the 1980s. As a member of that generation, Yang Yang played an important role in making China a world badminton superpower. Players of his generation set the foundation for current Chinese world-class badminton players.

ZHANG Ning 张宁 (b. 1975) won the gold medal for China in the women’s singles at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. She also won the 2003 World Badminton Championships (women’s singles) in Birmingham, England. By 2007 she was at the top of women’s world rankings and was targeting the gold medal at the 2008 Olympic Games.

Lin Dan 林丹 (b. 1983), “China’s Super Dan,” is China’s top seed in 2008. Since 2004 he has been ranked number one in the world. In 2006 Lin won against his teammate Bao Chunlai in the finals of the World Badminton Championships held in Madrid, Spain. He also won the gold medal at the 2007 World Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

LI Lingwei 李玲蔚 (b. 1964), the “Badminton Queen” 羽毛球皇后 of China, was the champion at the 1983 and 1989 World Badminton Championships. She won the 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987 Badminton World Cup and the 1984, 1986, and 1988 Uber Cup. She dominated world badminton during the 1980s and was unquestionably the most outstanding female badminton player in China. Li Lingwei retired in 1989 and became a coach of the Chinese national badminton team in 1995.

TANG Xianhu 汤仙虎 (b. 1941) was born in Indonesia and lived there for many years. Xianhu came back to China in the late 1960s and brought advanced badminton techniques to China and developed his own style. In 1978 Tang Xianhu won the gold medal in the mixed doubles at the Bangkok Asian Games. Tang Xianhu is considered a pioneer of Chinese badminton. He is also the most successful badminton coach in China, and is today responsible for the national badminton team and in charge of the men’s mixed doubles team.

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Vocabulary and Study Questions

Character Pinyin English
奥运会 Àoyùnhuì Olympic Games (PN)
奥运代表队 Àoyùn dàibǎoduì Olympic delegation (N)
伦敦 Lúndūn London (PN)
乒乓球 pīngpāngqiú table tennis/ping pong (N)
羽毛球 yǔmáoqiú badminton (N)
体育 tǐyù sports (N)
运动 yùndòng sport, athletics (N); to move around, to exercise (V)
锻炼 duànliàn to exercise (V)
身体 shēntǐ body (N)
手臂/胳臂 shǒubì/gēbei arm (N)
shǒu hand (N)
to hit (V)
打(乒乓)球 dǎ (pīngpāng) qiú to play ping pong(V)
观众 guānzhòng audience, spectators (N)
比赛 bǐsài competition/game (N)
决赛 juésài finals (N)
金牌 jīnpái gold medal (N)
胜利 shènglì victory (N); to win (V); successfully (Adv)


Badminton is based on an ancient game called tijian, where the shuttle is kicked with the feet. What kind of technological development would allow the use of rackets to hit the shuttle instead, and why might a racket be preferred to kicking?

Are there any places nearby where you could play badminton? Why might certain areas be more suitable for, or have more available place, to play certain sports?

Today, China dominates the world of professional badminton. What might the upsides and downsides of one country dominating a particular sport be?

Table Tennis/Ping-Pong

China is the world’s premier Ping-Pong-playing nation, but it was not invented there. Where did Ping-Pong originate, and can you think of any reasons why it became more popular in China than other countries?

It is frequently said by Chinese people that they have advantages in table tennis due to physical characteristics of the Chinese people. What would those characteristics be? Do you think this is true? Why, or why not?

Ping-Pong diplomacy had a big effect on the establishment of relations between the USA and China. What advantages or disadvantages might athletes have over diplomats to talk with foreigners?

What are some other ways sports could be used to promote peace? Think of a possible example of a sport which could be used as a tool of diplomacy, and why it would be a good idea.

Like Badminton, China dominates the world of professional table tennis. What might the upsides and downsides of this be?

Badminton and table tennis are both considered “racket sports.” What advantages might one sport have over the other in terms of accessibility? Why might one group of people prefer one and not the other?

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