Yung Chang on Boxing, Mao, and Individuality in China

OpenCanada talks to the director of the documentary China Heavyweight.
By: /
May 4, 2012
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China increased its military spending by 11 per cent this year. But it's also investing in another kind of fighting. OpenCanada talked to Yung Chang, director of China Heavyweight, about what China's approach to boxing tells us about the country's approach to the world.

What did Mao have against boxing?

The history is that there was a fight and, in this fight, a Chinese boxer died in a competition with a western fighter. It was 1959, and communism at the time was very anti-western and anti-capitalist. In Chinese culture, aggressiveness was not something that they wanted to teach. China is about humility, reserve, and containing your anger in the face of confrontation. Boxing was seen as something so American that they decided to put an end to it.

In 1987, just as things were opening up in China, they lifted the ban on boxing. Primarily, this is because the Olympics had just opened to China and there were 13 categories in boxing. That meant 13 medals. So they decided to start training these kids.

At the time we started filming, the Olympics had just opened up to female fighters, so there were 13 new categories for potential media glory. So they started recruiting female boxers.

Without a boxing history, how does China just start producing champions?

In China, as in Russia and other former communist countries, they have this national sport policy where they recruit, say, 100 kids, and maybe 10 of those will become potential athletes and champions.

In the film, we follow the coaches in their recruitment process. It’s so arbitrary how they pick the people they want – literally based on the effect of the punch. For me, it was interesting that your future could be held in one split moment – that opportunity could be held in one split moment.

How is boxing’s newness in China interesting to you?

Boxing is really a sport about the individual. It’s about fighting for yourself. I went to visit a Chinese professional boxing gym, and the coach there told me that when somebody walks into the gym and wants to join, he always asks, “Who are you fighting for?” If the person says, “I’m fighting for the country,” he closes the door. If they say, “I’m fighting for myself,” he lets them in.

That, for me, perfectly identifies what the film is about, and also what the country is going through. Right now, you have people who are trying to reach success by any means, and they want to define it on their own terms. They don’t want to do it for Confucianism or filial reasons. China has a collectiveness mentality. And you would see it in the boxing training, what the kids go through. This film is really about the individual: It’s about how you stand up on your own, and how you survive on your own – or not.

Or not?

I had the idea in my mind that maybe Yao, the young boxer I follow throughout the film, would leave the amateur program and go professional, and then be a champion and win, and it would be perfect and wonderful. In fact, that didn’t happen, and it’s good that it didn’t happen that way. What we get out of this movie is something a lot more real.

More real, but more troubling.

When you look at China now, in this day and age, there’s so much bad stuff in terms of corruption and greed. There’s a moral void. That’s why I was attracted to coach Qi Moxiang – in my mind, the last Chinese hero. He’s trying to instill certain moral character and value in these kids.

China’s never been a perfect place. There have always been problems. But I think what the Chinese still hold true to themselves is this notion of Confucianism – the filial duty to the family. I think that things are changing so rapidly and the culture is not able to adapt to these new vices.

Is there a connection between the rise of boxing and the rise of China as a military superpower?

The film does address this notion of the heavyweight. Maybe – and I don’t want to be too overt about it – I think there is a commentary about a superpower, and what it means to be a heavyweight.

China Heavyweight will be opening on 11 May at the AMC Forum in Montreal and the Varsity in Toronto.

Photo courtesy of eyesteelfilm.com

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