The bodies of Chinese women gymnasts in the Beijing Olympics.
In these studies, some Chinese intellectuals have drawn upon Western feminist and social theories to critique Chinese society, with a specific focus upon Chinese women's bodies. The bodies examined in these cases were both productive and reproductive; both material and symbolic; both dead and alive. Materially, the bodies were the laboring bodies during Mao's China and Deng's economic reform; the bodies were sexual objects during the "flowering" decades of the 1920's and 1930's (Lee, 1999), and those of "comfort wives" during the Japanese occupation. Many women's reproductive systems were sterilized under the One Child Policy, and many female infants were murdered. Symbolically, Chinese women's bodies are said to reflect the politics of strict nationalism under development, gender inequality, and a lack of human rights and freedom. For example, the tradition of binding Chinese women's feet is still used within and beyond China to show the backwardness of feudalism and longstanding women's oppression. Chinese women's bodies also symbolize state control, national order, and discrete familial units.
Within this literature on women's bodies, the author focused on articles which specifically concentrated upon the bodies of women as athletes. Despite the success of Chinese women athletes in international competition since China rejoined the Olympics in 1984, the bodies of Chinese women athletes have not been adequately studied in the disciplines of Chinese Studies and Communication. Brownell (1995, 1998/9, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2008), an anthropologist who focuses on modern China, is the lone voice documenting the perceptions of women athlete's bodies in modern China. In interdisciplinary Chinese Studies, literature on Chinese bodies overwhelmingly focuses on a few body parts, such as arms, legs, and feet. Moreover, the bodies of the proletarians, factory workers, prostitutes, courtesans, and concubines attract more attention than women in other professions and activities.
In the discipline of Communication, specifically Media Studies and Journalism, there is a copious amount of Western literature on the bodies of Western female athletes, however, there is relatively little literature focusing on non-Western athletes' bodies, and how they are portrayed in either the non-Western or the Western media. In addition, most studies that do exist conceptualize the body as "ahistorical"; that is, the understanding of the athlete's body put forth by media professionals, audiences, and athletes is devoid of history. Moreover, most studies neglect the ways in which the media system constitutes the meanings of the body, and also the technologies of gender stemming from the sports system.
This paper therefore has two main purposes. First, this paper aims to fill in a void in the literatures of Chinese Studies and Communication by looking at Chinese press coverage of Chinese women athletes. Second, this paper critiques how women's bodies were used in the Beijing Olympics specifically, as well as in sports more generally, to achieve nation-building in the global economy. We approach these two goals using the tools and the framework of Third World/Transnational feminism.
Third World/Transnational feminists (Alexander & Mohanty, 1997; Mohanty, 1991a; Narayan, 1997; Spivak, 1988) have decentralized the Western location of feminist theories by asserting that the understanding of women and gender has to be situated in a specific local setting at a specific historical time. They reject the concept of the universal Woman or universal sisterhood; instead they believe that one's gender, race, ethnicity, class, and geographical locations all constitute one's understanding of being a woman (see also Youngs, 2000). They debunk the myths that Third-World women are all the same, are all oppressed and are waiting to be freed by the West (Mohanty, 1991b). Third World/Transnational feminists acknowledge women to be both material and discursive beings; that their biological selves have a bearing on their interactions in the material and symbolic world. Lastly, Third World/Transnational feminists see women as producers and reproducers. From this perspective, women are viewed as resources in the global economy; the state and the market exploit women as resources whilst not sharing with women the profits.
The Third World/Transnational feminist perspective helps to transcend the boundaries between the Eastern Chinese and non-Chinese Western bodies. It shifts the attention from the supposed antagonism between the West and the non-West, to constructions and operations of gender in the global economy. The logic and the ideology of the global economy destabilize national boundaries and they falsely erase differences among women. Under the free market ideology, the capital goes to where the cheapest women's labor is; the commodities are then sold to consumers who have disposable income. The artificial boundary between the West and non-West obscures the fact that the global economy is gendered, not Westernized; that is, the flow of money, resources, technologies, ideology, and symbols is not free (Appadurai, 1996). One's gender, as intersected by race, ethnicity, class, and geographical location, determines who receives what in the global economy. It is an erroneous belief that citizens living in the West, regardless of their gender, race, or class, share the same amount of wealth and resources.
By employing this Third World/Transnational feminist framework and appreciating the gendered divisions in the global economy, this paper thus first works through two bodies of literature that discuss female athlete's bodies. First, is the body of literature within Communication Studies concerning gender and sports. Then, the paper turns to literature concerning Chinese women's bodies in particular. Third, we provide an analysis of media coverage of female athletes in the Beijing Olympics. We unpack this event in order to both fill the gaps in these two bodies of literature by examining Chinese media coverage of Chinese women's bodies in a particular context, and to illustrate the ways in which the bodies of these gymnasts are used as tools for nation-building in today's global economy.
Women, Gender, and Sports in Communication
Existing literature on female athletes and the media in the discipline of Communication does not emphasize the centrality of bodies in sports. Studies instead concentrate upon the perpetuation of femininity and gender roles, the constructed images of female athletes, and comparative analyses of female and male athletes in the media.
The media perpetuate femininity through sports coverage in a number of ways. First, more media coverage is given to women athletes in traditionally feminine sports such as gymnastics and diving, than to traditionally masculine sports such as basketball (Fink and Kensicki, 2002; Jones 2006; Tuggle, Huffman, & Rosengard, 2002). Secondly, female athletes appear to accept a dominant construction of femininity and to play a stereotypical and traditional feminine role (Butterworth, 2008; Fink and Kensicki, 2002). Attributes such as aggressiveness, competitive spirit, discipline and stamina are often seen as inappropriate for female athletes. Third, the media are more likely to cover the personal stories of women athletes than men athletes (Fink and Kensicki, 2002). Their roles as wives and daughters are emphasized (Daddario, 1998; Pink 1996; Shugart, 2003); women athletes are said to be daughters who materialize their fathers' dreams (Daddario, 1998).
There are some studies that examine women's bodies as destabilizing a patriarchal order. Female bodybuilders and bullfighters are said to use their bodies as sites of resistance and transformation (Martin and Nicola, 1996; Pink, 1996; Shea, 2001). Simultaneously, however, female bodybuilders are sexualized and objectified (Shea, 2001).
Photos of women athletes highlight their "otherness" through an emphasis on physical appearance, sexually suggestive poses, emotional display, and passivity (Jones, 2006). The media call attention to the sexuality of women athletes and focus upon their gender by labeling them "Cinderella" and "The Girl Next Door" (Daddario, 1998). Commentators describe women's diving as "gorgeous" and "beautiful" (Billings, 2007); television producers choose many chest and buttocks shots of female beach volleyball players (Bissell and Duke, 2007). In addition, women athletes are more likely to be in a passive position in still photos (Butterworth, 2008; Fink and Kensicki, 2002; Hardin, Chance, Dodd, & Hardin, 2002).
Overall, the media favors men's sports over women's sports. More time is spent covering men's sports than women's sports (Adams and Tuggle, 2004; Daddario, 1998; Hardin, Lynn, Walsdort, & Hardin, 2002; Huffman, Tuggle, & Rosengard, 2004). Gender biases within sports coverage are also evident in the more frequent use of men as news sources or commentators, and the tendency for male announcers to speak first (Tuggle et al., 2002).
Sportscasters communicate ideas about gender difference in various ways. Some have reasoned the success of female golfers by strength, intelligence and luck (Billings, Angelini, &Eastman, 2005). Others attribute the success of female athletes to natural ability, experience, strength, and commitment (Billings, 2007). The media do not subordinate female athletes to male athletes necessarily, yet the media put forth the belief that female athletes are inherently different from male athletes.
Most studies employ quantitative methods in forms such as content analysis to examine the relationship between gender and media coverage. Gender is seen as a discrete entity which can be codified and analyzed. As mentioned, most studies do not look at women athletes' bodies as historical constructs. For example, the current US sports system is market-driven and privatized. Young children who wish to participate in sports such as gymnastics have to rely on their parents' financial contribution. The young gymnasts' bodies are therefore a form of parental investment; it is no wonder why gymnasts are portrayed as fathers' little girls and the majority of the American gymnastics team is white. This "ahistorical" and contextually lacking gap in the literature is joined by the absence of non-Western sources discussing specifically non-Western bodies.
Chinese Women's Bodies in the 20th Century
Chinese Studies scholars from the disciplines of Anthropology, History, and Sociology have provided a rich body of literature about the relations between women's bodies, the state, and the market in the 20th century. The studies can be placed into four categories based on the historical eras in which the body is studied: the late Qing/ turn of the century (until 1911), the Republican period (particularly 1920's-1930's), Mao's China (1949-1976), and the reform era (1976 onwards). Each era is associated with particular body parts and concentrations.
Though women have practiced foot-binding since the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the practice was not linked to nation-building and nationalism until the late Qing Dynasty. Contemporary scholars' interpretations of foot-binding rely on literature mainly written by Western missionaries and Chinese intellectuals in the late Qing Dynasty (Drucker, 1981; Tao, 1994; Wang, 2000). While Western missionaries linked bound feet to women's oppression and illiteracy, intellectuals related the mutilated feet to China's weakness. The bound feet were symbols of the country's feudalism, backwardness, and superstition. The Manchu state attempted to ban the practice but Han women, the majority race, did not obey the order from a minority-run state. Scholars commonly see foot-binding as oppressive to women and as a denial of their subjectivity and agency (Wang, 2000). Further, the women represented in the literature were seen as subalterns who did not have a voice (Spivak, 1988). There was a sweeping assumption that women with bound feet did not and could not speak. Interestingly, breast-binding was also commonly practiced, yet it received little attention from scholars (Man, 2000).
Scholars who focus on women's bodies of the Republic era (1911-1948) tend to narrow their attention to the "New Woman" as seen in the mass media in 1920's-1930's Shanghai (Carroll, 2003; Dal Lago, 2000; Finnane, 1996). During this time, Shanghai was dubbed the Paris of the East, where international cultural exchange took place in foreign settlements occupied by France, Britain, the US, and Japan. The "New Woman" associated with the commercial entrepot was the prostitute and movie actress. The qipao, a one-piece, tight-fitting dress, worn by the New Woman was as much a fetish as the bound feet. The crossed legs of women in advertisements and the eyes and the necks of movie actresses replaced the feet as erotic body parts (Chang, 1999; Dal Lago, 2000). The Republic era was a chaotic period in which the Nationalist and Communist parties occupied different parts of China. As Hong (1997) documented, foot-binding was still practised in remote areas. In addition, the Communist party had begun training women to join the Red Army. Despite this historical context, the representation from the period that most interests scholars, is the New Woman in qipao.
As early as the 1920's, Mao wrote about the importance of exercising for both men and women. The Communists were against foot-binding because they saw it as a bourgeois and feudal practice. The gender equality that the Communists promoted essentially expected women to look and act like men. Gender difference was erased by the shapeless, uniform outfits that both sexes wore and through tasks which both genders performed (Evans, 1999). Disciplined bodies were believed to be reflected in their uniform presentation (Chen, 2001). Mao emphasized strong bodies for both women and men; muscular arms and legs of women were prominent in propaganda posters (Chen, 2003). Mao's distrust of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution also made the strong, disciplined body more important than the mind. Some women did show resistance to Mao's de-emphasis of femininity by altering "Mao's suit" (Chen, 2003). Nevertheless, stereotypically beautiful women were also used during this time by the Communists to achieve certain political purposes (Ip, 2003).
Many scholars suggest that the "New Woman" reemerged in Deng's reform era. In this era, women reembraced femininity and the female body (Finnane, 2005; Ip, 2003; Johansson, 1998/9; Li, 1998). Not only did the revitalization of the textile industry make women more aware of fashion, but the Open Door policy also allowed the flow of ideas and money from overseas. Some scholars cautioned that international capitalism would lead women to become consumers and sexual bodies for male pleasure (Brownell, 1998/9, 2001; Brownell and Wasserstrom, 2002; Evans, 2000; Li and Barlow, 2001). While this worry was valid, one must also keep in mind that China's economic development is uneven; women who live in coastal areas may indulge in self-adornment, but for many others, the body that labors and produces, is the body of survival.
Studies on Chinese women's bodies in different eras have provided a comprehensive narrative of how the meanings of bodies changed in response to different state policies and market forces. However, by examining a few fetishes in different historical eras, scholars seem to create a form of intellectual fetishism by exoticizing China as a feminine object (Chow, 1993). Bound feet, Shanghai prostitutes, and women proletarians generated as much discussion from intellectuals of their days as feminists from the West since the 1980's (Hershatter, 2007).
The exoticisation of China can also be observed at antique shops for tourists in China where embroidered "three-inch lotus" shoes are sold, and at swanky Shanghai-themed boutiques where qipao can be tailormade. Chinese actresses with international fame, such as Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, wear qipao in films and on the red carpet to display "oriental" beauty. Rather than seeing scholarly studies as unrelated to popular culture, the Third World/Transnational feminist perspective maintains that academic writings and popular culture discourses reinforce each other by affirming certain orientalist ideas, such as the East is eternal and unchanging (Said, 1979), and that Chinese women exist in a timeless manner (Chow, 1991). China, in both types of discourse, is a feminine body which is scrutinized, examined, and documented. Furthermore, current literature emphasizes discontinuity by showing the disjuncture of meanings of women's bodies. Hershatter (2007) noticed that literature "tends to assume a timeless projection backward of certain patterns into the indefinite past, with a huge jolt coming variously in the 1920's, the 1950's, and the 1980's" (p. 4). There is an outstanding question of how women understand their bodies through the contesting discourses in different eras.
The Bodies of Women Gymnasts in the Beijing Olympics
In the following section, Chinese media coverage of Chinese gymnasts in the 2008 Olympic Games is examined through a historically-situated, critical textual analysis. The coverage that is explored comes from four Chinese online news sites: JB News, Sina, Xinhuanet, and People's Daily. JB News is a clearing site for a few publications based in Beijing. Sina, the fourth most popular website in mainland China, and Xinhuanet, the thirtieth most popular site, are online news sites. Both are commercialized with Sina being more sensational. People's Daily, the thirty-third most popular news source, is state-funded and acts as the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Although the online sites target readers in the mainland, one in ten readers access these sites overseas. The news discourses may help facilitate an "imagined community" among overseas Chinese.
The Chinese gymnasts who competed in the Beijing Olympics were all born in the 1990's-the most prosperous decade in 20th century China. Yet, their bodies are believed to transcend history and are inscribed with references from ancient China to Deng's reform era. In one instance, the history that imprints gender upon the gymnasts' bodies was likened to be a "journey through an aged, long river," and this history was said to be heavy. There are three main historical eras from this journey that frame the varying constructions of Chinese women gymnasts' bodies: (1) Ancient/mythical China; (2) Mao's China; and (3) Deng's reform era. We demonstrate with these historically derived frameworks that the bodies of female gymnasts became the markers of their nation and the carriers of their culture, especially within today's global economy.
Ancient and Mythical China
Historical events and figures as ancient as 300 AD were used to describe the gymnasts' bodies. Although past events did take place and historical figures did exist, historical anecdotes have been retold and recounted in books, and the mass media frequently enough to become myths that are transcendental, eternal, and timeless.
The gymnasts of ancient times were visualized as women warriors who rode their horses, roamed the wild, and fought battles. Athleticism was glorified in the Tang Dynasty, although it is unknown if women warriors were common. The bodies of the gymnasts were said to have been conditioned by a long and harsh journey. The gymnasts had "stepped forward walking on thorns" on a "twisted and difficult" road, and had done "the work of a sweating horse." In the bumpy journey to athletic achievement, women's sensual bodies suffered.
The phrase "eating bitterness" exists in China. This phrase signifies the quality that chaste Chinese women are required to possess (Wolf, 1985). In a patrilineal society, newly wed women are advised to suffer and "to eat bitterness" before they secure their familial positions by producing male children. In modern nationalism, women "eat bitterness" because male nationalism is wounded by and is impotent against foreign forces (Brownell, 1998/9; 2000). In the same vein, in order to win the gold medals, gymnasts were expected to suffer from xinku (hard work and bitterness)-a term that has no corresponding English translation.
The press did not use nu li, translated as "paying effort" or yong gong, which means "applying work", probably because xinhu directly refers to the sense of taste. Similarly, the tears, sweat, and hard work were said to be sin, suan, and ku la, which translate to bitter, sour and spicy. The athletes were said to have "wo xin chang dan," meaning they "slept on brushwood and tasted gall." This is a historical anecdote about humiliated warriors withstanding hard work after being defeated. Similarly, training is mainly about the body, not the mind: the terms mo lain, meaning grinding and practicing, and duan lain, meaning tempering and steeling were preferred to xun lain, which translates to, lecturing and practicing. These examples illustrate the ways that female gymnasts were not only connected to the corporeal, sensory, and physical self, but also how history was inscribed on their "warrior bodies." One can also see metaphorical references to a disabled woman's body used to reflect a nation's weakness. A poorly performing team can be metaphorically viewed as a diseased and handicapped body, while a team that competes well can be likened to able bodied newborn with pure potential. In the past, Chinese women gymnasts did not excel at the vault and floor exercise, and both were said to be the "leprous legs" of the Chinese team. In past Olympics, members of the Chinese women's team succumbed to psychological pressure, which was labeled a "persistent disease." The gymnast body in 2008, on the other hand, was a new born body, a "reborn phoenix" which "separates from the womb and changes the bone" (tuo tai huan gu).
The Confucian thought "sky-human-combined-intoone", or the idea that, humankind co-exists with nature, was also commonly applied to women's bodies. It is of note that in Confucian thought, that women were not necessarily more in tune with nature as they were in many other philosophies. In the press coverage, tears, sweat and blood of both female gymnasts and male coaches are expelled in abundance. The gymnasts "could not hold back their tears" when they won the gold medal; their happy tears "rolled down." The tears of the Chinese captain Cheng Fei were described in detail. She was said to not being able to "bear the tears anymore" and "cried miserably"; her face was "tear stained" and she literally became a "tear person." Nature was said to respond to the excessive fluids of the gymnasts' body. The tears of Cheng were responded with a rain shower in her hometown. The gymnasts' body emulates the nature: their routine was like "moving clouds and running water." In this sense, both men and women gymnasts were connected to nature and the ancient past of China. In particular, the script of the female body is read through the framing of mythical warriors training and fighting along an arduous path.
The press rarely mentioned the bodies of Chinese women in Mao's China. In fact, the success of the Chinese team in the Beijing Olympics was not attributed to Mao's emphasis on exercising or to his establishment of a Soviet-styled sports system. Despite this historical interpretation on the part of the press, the athletes' bodies are nonetheless materialized in a state-controlled sports system where the state not only controls the sports that children athletes play, but also the sexualities of athletes.
Since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, national development has been closely tied to the development of the state sports system. According to Brownell (1995), both bodily and mental discipline of the Chinese athletes is trained to serve the state for "the construction of a socialist spiritual civilization" (p. 155).
Mao, himself an avid swimmer, used sports to control the bodies of the masses. He considered the health of the Chinese people to be the health of the state; those who did not exercise were labeled as feudal elites. He established the State Physical Education and Sports Commission in 1952. During the Great Leap Forward period (1957-1961), an institutionalized sports system was established. Nevertheless, during the Cultural Revolution (1971-1979), Mao deemed the institutionalized system elitist and bourgeois. Elite athletes and coaches were sent to the countryside for hard labor. Many current coaches went through the Cultural Revolution and because of their experiences they tried to make up for the lost time by channeling their lost dreams to the new generation (Dong 2003).
Unlike the laissez-faire US sports system, the Chinese system is highly centralized (Hong, 2008). Coaches select promising six-to-nine-year-olds to attend regional sports schools. The children and their parents have no input concerning which sport they play. In fact, peasant parents are relieved that their children are selected because it means they do not have to provide for them financially or logistically. Because the state owns the bodies of the athletes, it ensures that they are well-nourished. Athletes and coaches are state employees. Athletes in provincial and national teams receive wages and pensions upon retirement, and the state assigns jobs to retired athletes (Brownell, 1995). Also, since in Mao's China women were believed to be the same as men, they could perform hard labor and operate machines as men do. As a result, male and female sports were and are allocated equal resources (Brownell, 1995; Dong, 2003).
The state claims ownership of the bodies of the athletes in other ways as well. They cannot date or marry young (Brownell, 1995). Male athletes are allowed marry after the age of 28, and females after reaching 26 (Dong, 2003; Xu, 2008). The state in this sense requires athletes to place country before family and self; this echoes the rhetoric of Mao's China where individuals should serve the people, not themselves. In
the case of gymnasts, they should represent the nationstate while they were young, healthy, trained, and fit. Families, sexuality, and control over their own bodies and lives came after this service is rendered. Further, Mao's China controlled the sexuality of the peoplesexual expression was condemned as bourgeois. Women were seen as proletarians first, women second. Mao's conceptualization of women lingers today with the Chinese people and the tendency to not find most Chinese women athletes sexually attractive, but rather to hail them as heroines and warriors (Brownell, 1998/9, 2008).
Given that there are strict rules regarding dating and marriage between elite athletes, there is little doubt that the Chinese women gymnasts are all virgins. The press made no secret about the virginal bodies. They refer the women gymnasts as gu niang, roughly translated into "adolescent girl", and ya tou which means "kid". The press could have used the term shao nu, which also means "adolescent girl," but this term does not reflect one's virginity status. On the other hand, gu niang implies the gymnasts are virgins. They were further likened to be "little flowers," "little lilies," and "golden flowers". The athletes' sexualities are passive; they wait to be awoken (Brownell, 1998/9). Before the time of this awakening (after the gymnastics career, certainly), the Chinese press does not see the gymnasts' bodies as aesthetically pleasing and sexual. Instead, their bodies are assessed as if they are machines: one gymnast was said to have a "small body," but with excellent arm and leg strength. Another has "short arms" with "slow movement."
Deng's Reform Era and Contemporary China
Scholars commonly agree that the "New Woman" has returned to China since Deng's economic reform in 1976. The "New Woman" re-embraces femininity, sexuality, and fashion. The "New Woman" is not represented by Chinese gymnasts, but American women. To Erwin (1999), white women are used in the media to create a transnational ideal of modern urban Chinese identity because their bodies have a closer link to global capitalism. Further, Brownell (2000) and Erwin (1999) wrote that Chinese men seek to re-affirm their masculinity in the global economy. One way to re-gain male potency is to own the bodies of white women, which was previously denied to Chinese men. The Chinese press restricts their sexual imagination to this modern Western body.
Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin were singled out and treated like celebrities by the Chinese press. Liukin was called a mei nu, or "beautiful woman" with "a head full of blond hair" and with "elegant" movement. She was the "girl next door" who liked shopping, swimming and playing with dogs. The white woman was sexualized: Liukin was said to aspire to be an actress and model after the Olympics. The press also mentioned that a man proposed to Liukin at the airport when she returned home.
Adopting the narrative of competition among beautiful women, Johnson was treated as Liukin's rival for media attention. She was said to have a "Barbielike," "round" face, a "slightly retrousse nose," and "big eyes." Her smile was "relaxed," and "lovely," which "came from the heart." On the other hand, the press did not mention how the white body performed in competition; the white body neither labors nor produces. It does not sweat, bleed, or cry. The Western body was granted the freedom to shop, to swim, to paint, and to date. Meiren, or "beautiful women" in traditional Chinese paintings and poetry were multi-talented leisure class women (Man, 2000). In contrast, the Chinese body does not have meanings beyond the gymnastics arena. The Chinese body belongs to a proletarian athlete who labors and produces. There was no description of the Chinese gymnasts' faces and no mention of their hobbies and aspirations.
There are cases in which Chinese women athletes successfully uprooted themselves from the state by questioning the ownership of their bodies. However, it is debatable whether their actions were forms of resistance. Some women athletes resolved to marry up in social and professional class; attractive women athletes have also married Chinese men outside the mainland. For example, former Olympic diving gold medalist Fu Mingxia was married to a former financial secretary of Hong Kong. "Diving Princess" Guo Jingjing was rumored to date a wealthy Hong Kong man. The state and corporations also reward medalists with prize money, gifts, and sponsorships. These economic means enable athletes to launch their own careers. For example, the then 15-year-old gymnast Lu Li received a handsome sponsorship and later immigrated to the US to be a gymnastics coach.
Conclusion and Discussion
This paper aimed to achieve two things: first, to fill in a void in current literature in Chinese Studies and Communication by looking at how the Chinese press interpreted Chinese athletes' bodies; second, by critiquing how women's bodies are used for nationbuilding. The paper worked toward these goals by employing a Third World or Transnational feminist perspective in order to help clarify the role of Chinese women's bodies in the continually changing global economy in this historical context.
Using a historically-grounded, critical textual analysis, we found that the Chinese gymnasts' bodies were inscribed with contesting discourses that drew on anecdotes of different historical periods. The continuity of the meaning of the body was not found in previous studies wherein the body tended to reflect and constitute historical disjunctures. Textual analysis allowed an interpretation of a deeper meaning of the body-the "what-goes-without-saying" meaning. However, the press made no direct reference to Mao's China, for example, the journalists' understanding of women athletes' bodies were shaped by a Soviet-styled sports system and Mao's erasure of gender difference.
Chinese Studies scholars commonly agree that the women's bodies, both material and symbolic, are closely tied to Nationalism in 20th century China and nationbuilding of the People's Republic of China. Our analysis supports this claim. However, there is a question of which woman's body type is used for nation-building. The history inscribed on the Chinese body stops at Deng's reform era. In other words, the Chinese gymnast body was there before the Beijing Olympics; the Games only provided a chance for the body to manifest.
In the analysis, Western women's bodies, namely American ones, belonged to the "New Woman" body, a body that is sexual, fashionable, and modern. The fascination with the bodies of white women may seem to contradict the purpose of nation-building. We however argue that this is not the case. People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the PRC, illustrates how the state sees the Olympic Games: they are an international exchange where the West can experience a "real" China, and where the West can learn about China beyond the madein-China goods and the images in the Western media (Lu, 2008). In exchange, the state believes that the Games have engaged Chinese people to think about their national identity through the inflow of international ideas, forces, and trends (Xu, 2008). One idea is the imagination of the White woman's body, the possibilities that it enables, and the lifestyle that it reflects. The White woman's body is now distant and the forbidden (Brownell, 2000; Chow, 1991), similar to the bound feet from the old days.
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Suffolk University & Courtney Smith, Independent Scholar