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    When Beijing’s Skating Rinks Were Battlefields

    A hundred years ago, ice skating was an unexpectedly important arena in China’s anti-imperialist struggle. But while some skaters sought to battle the “blue-eyed” Westerners, others took a different approach.

    On Friday, February 4, 2022, the 24th Winter Olympic Games will kick off in Beijing. After months of COVID concerns and geopolitical mind-games, fans will finally be able to sit back and immerse themselves in the excitement and emotion that only sports’ highest stage can provide.

    Of course, there’s no such thing as a truly apolitical Olympics, and this year’s Games are no exception. In the run-up to the event, some have questioned the country’s winter sport bona fides, but modern winter sports have been popular in China’s north — where their rise was inseparable from the same ideological equation of sporting prowess and national power that has long defined the Olympics — for over a century.

    China’s first ice rinks appeared in the foreign concessions of Tianjin and what is now Beijing around the turn of the 20th century. At first, they were exclusively used by Westerners for their skating and ice hockey clubs. By the 1920s, however, Western-style ice skating was in vogue across North China. In particular, it had become an important part of winter physical education classes in the region’s schools.

    It should be noted that the concept of “sports” was understood by early 20th century Chinese as a specifically Western, modern approach to physical education. After the country’s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, pro-reform intellectuals such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao saw playing sports as a way to cultivate citizens for a new, more modern China. Sun Yat-sen, a revolutionary who would become the first President of the Republic of China, likewise argued that, “Promoting physical cultivation is of immeasurable importance to strengthening our nation and preserving our race.”

    In other words, the rising popularity of Western-style sports in China was rooted in that era’s nationalist currents — specifically the notion that to strengthen China, it was important to first improve its people’s personal physical wellbeing. At a time when China was dismissed as the “sick man of Asia,” reformers believed that only a strong and healthy citizenry could cure the “diseases” afflicting the Chinese nation.

    The notion of a sporting nation resonated with patriotic Chinese. In 1917, a 24-year-old Mao Zedong published an article entitled “Research on Sports” in the influential New Youth magazine, arguing that sports could improve participants’ cognition, bolster their emotions, and hone their willpower.

    In the 1920s, Zhang Jingsheng, who taught philosophy at Peking University, launched the Peking University Grand Tour Group Ice Skating Club, which framed participation in the sport through an expressly nationalist lens. Zhang’s club proved successful, both at sparking students’ enthusiasm for ice skating and at getting the public to associate ice skating with the project of national rejuvenation.

    A January 1926 article Zhang published in the Peking University Journal gives an idea of the rhetoric then surrounding winter sports: “Even now, Chinese people are content to stand by and watch as the blue-eyed Westerners peacock about on the ice, colonizing Beihai (a popular skating spot in what is now Beijing). Our strong men must rise up and avenge this insult! Get up and reassert our nation’s rights over these expanses of ice! Get up and compete with these foreigners!”

    It was not until the end of his tirade that Zhang acknowledged the other, more intrinsic benefits of skating, telling readers to also “get up and enjoy the excitement and healthiness of the skating lifestyle!”

    In Zhang’s imagination, the ice skating rinks of 1920s Beiping, as Beijing was then known, were a battlefield. The city was besieged by “blue-eyed Westerners” who sought to colonize its ice, and only through skating could Chinese preserve the “dignity of the country and the face of its people,” as Zhang put it.

    But not everyone shared Zhang’s apocalyptic view of skating rinks as nationalist battlegrounds. Indeed, as the 1920s wore on, ice skating rinks became home to a very different vision of China’s place in the world that both challenged and reinforced simplistic dichotomies between China and the West.

    In 1926, the same year Zhang published his call to arms, Wen Shiquan, a former functionary in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court and later the boss of a teahouse in Beihai, helped organize the first “International Masquerade Ice Skating Competition” outside his storefront. Skaters of both sexes and all nationalities were welcome to take part. They merely had to prepare an outfit of their own design and perform in character in front of a committee that judged their performances and handed out prizes. This refreshing and novel activity quickly spread throughout North China. Flags from around the world were hung at these events, and both Chinese and non-Chinese took part. Magnets for media types, “masquerade” skating competitions were covered widely in prominent magazines, with close-ups of prize-winners and detailed write-ups of their performances.

    It would be a mistake to overly romanticize masquerade skating events, however. Skaters’ portrayals of China, the West, and the rest of the world were all heavily colored by Western imperialism and notions of scientific racism and social Darwinism. Chinese characters tended to be either caricatures of Qing and Manchu dress or else sensationalized portrayals of marginalized figures on the bottom rungs of Republican Chinese society. By contrast, characters of Western origin — including nobles, peasants, and members of the educated middle class — were universally depicted as innocent and pure. Non-Chinese, non-Western participants were invariably portrayed as primitive savages.

    From their choice of outfits and roles, it’s clear that the majority of skaters at these events had internalized a Western imperialist vision of the differences between the self and the “other.” The symbols on their costumes reinforced a Western-dominated world perspective in which other cultures struggled to find their place. Cultural differences between “East” and “West” —between “weak and strong” — were represented on ice in exaggerated visual form through performers’ costumes and routines, with the result that Chinese spectators were forced to confront their nation’s dire status in the international community. This, in turn, made them more receptive to nationalist appeals — albeit this time to imitate and learn from the West, rather than confront it.

    Whether through waging open battle against Western colonialism on ice skating rinks or fetishizing Western modernity at masquerade skating events, winter sports had become inextricably linked with the creation of nationalist narratives in China. These narratives — regardless of whether they preached rejection or emulation of the West — pushed participants to reflect on their national identity and consider their country’s role within an international community still dominated by the West.

    More than a century later, Chinese can head to a skating rink or hit the slopes without worrying about their country’s “face.” Ice skating rinks are no longer battlefields, and masquerade skating balls no longer exist. Even if they did, the vision they’d present of the world would certainly not be as deeply anchored in Western imperialism as a hundred years ago. Yet, the nationalist tensions of the 1920s and their association with sport have never fully disappeared, either, and China continues to oscillate between rejection and emulation of the West.

    This article was co-authored with Zhang Xiaojun, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: An archive photo shows English soldiers skating at Beihai Park, Beijing, published in “World Illustrated,” issue 114, 1927. Courtesy of Yang Yufei)