Chuang Tse-tung, "tiger of China," three-time World table tennis champion, has suddenly become a monperson, having proved himself not so adept in the Peking politics league. But Wang Ling, 6, is ready and willing to take his place.
Wang, a pleasing blend of shy smiles and pink-ribboned pigtails, attends The Tienshan neighborhood nursery school on the west side of tis huge Chinese city. Like millions of other Chinese children, she has been playing table tennis since she was 4 as a regular part of the school curriculum.
"We play everyday, and sometime twice a day," she told a recent foreign visitor. "I like it very mucn." That kind of organization and dedication has catapulted China to the top of the world in table tennis. Now, in a post-Mao era where the watchword is productivity, Peking is moving to obtain similar results in track and field, swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, soccer, badminton and even sky diving.
It is an era that promises more practice time and less politics than the period that ended in the fall of Chuang Tse-tung. Given the sportsmanship and attention to detail displayed by the Chinese who swept this year's world table tennis team title, the new effort is likely to bring smashing results for Wang's generation in some future Olympics.
After the invention of table tennis in the 1880s and its brief spell as a turn-of-the-century parlor craze, the game settled into relative obscurity. But in the late 1920s Mao Tse-tung endorsed it as an ideal sport for his Red Army soldiers. That planted the seed that would make it the No. 1 sport of 800 million people.
Table tennis used little space; the equipment was cheap. It was perfect for a poor, crowded nation. It even had an old trade name, "ping pong," which suited the Chinese language and thus was quickly adopted instead of the more formal title. The two Chinese characters for "ping pong" are the pictograph for "soldier" with one leg and then the other missing, reflected the game's rhythmic quality.
China took its first world title in 1959, when Jung Kuo-tuan won the men's singles. Then Chuang Tse-tung created his legend by winning in 1961, 1963 and 1965. Mao's great Revolution. Chuang later admitted he was "very ignorant of class struggle" and had to undergo self-criticism, but reemerged with the rest of the Chinese team in 1971, toured the United States in 1972, and was made sports minister.
It wasn't the first time a sports celebrity had gotten in over his head in politics. When the struggle over the succession to Mao broke out last year, Chuang apparently picked the wrong team and dropped out of sight in October.
The fate of the man who won such immense personal fame in a nation where the "mass line" reigns supreme may have weighed on the minds of the Chinese, men and women who descended on Brimingham, England, this spring for the 34th World Table Tennis Championships. They took the finals of the mens and womens team title without losing a match. They won the men's doubles and provided one-half of the winning women's doubles team. But the singles titles eluded them, because of adverse umpire decisions, clever tactics by opponents, or perhaps something else.
If the young Chinese players were bothered by Iingering political distractions, Peking moved quickly to signal renewed stability and purpose in sports development by replacing Chuang with former sports minister Wang Meng. Wang is an army officer associated with an energetic national sports program carried on during the early 1970s. The New China News Agency has even gone so far as to suggest that the new party Chairman, Hua Kuo-feng, was personally involved in that program.
Here in Shanghai, the Chinese game plan comes alive in a small, crowded classroom where 4 and 5-years-olds, standing in rows, patiently hit ping pong balls suspended by strings from an overhead clothesline. They hit the balls with paddles again and again and again. Timing and rhythm become second nature.
"The children arrive at about 7 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m.," a teacher explained.During such a long school day, timed to coincide with their parents' working hours, the children are given long periods for physical activity, but it is well organized.