The Rise of Boxing in China Part I: The Evolution

Zhenyu LiContributor IIIAugust 2, 2012

The Noble Art in China. (Photo by Zhenyu Li)
The Noble Art in China. (Photo by Zhenyu Li)

As the 2012 London Games is underway, Olympic boxing may grab more attention than prizefighting in the coming weeks.

China, the biggest winner at the previous Olympic boxing tournament, is a hot favorite to shine in the brightest spotlight.

On a hot afternoon four years ago in August, at the Beijing Workers' Gymnasium, China closed its 51-gold solo Olympic show with two golds, one silver and one bronze medal in the square ring, emerging as the new king in the amateur boxing world.

The Asian giant smashed the triopoly of Cuba, Russia and the United States, each of whom had ruled the tally table in boxing at every Olympics since 1942.

However, only two decades ago, during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, competitors were delighted to face off against Chinese boxers. The best that the Chinese coaches hoped for was that each of their fighters might stay on his feet a bit longer than the one before him.

In the following decade, no Chinese boxers had ever stood on an Olympic podium.

By the close of the 2008 Summer Games, China had ruled the roost in boxing gold medal tally.

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This sports documentary series is conceived to reveal the hidden secrets behind China's pugilistic success and uncover the untold stories of the noble art in the exotic ancient land.

The first episode — The Evolution will take you on a journey from the age-old Shang Dynasty to the epic battlefield of China's Anti-Japanese War.

The Evolution

China has a centuries-old boxing history, yet it was rather different from boxing today.

The history of China's boxing dates back 3,700 years, when China was in the Late Shang Dynasty, and the sport was one of the subjects for military training conducted by aristocrats.

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), boxing became the mandatory subject for soldiers.

Unlike boxing of the early-times in western countries which was a mixture of both the boxing and wrestling, boxing in China was apparently distinct from wrestling as early as 3.7 thousand years ago.

The book, The Combat Arts of Two Hands, which was written exclusively for boxing, appeared around 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, this book was not handed down from generation to generation.

Moreover, wearing boxing gloves and protection started in China approximately 700 years ago.

The above shows that China has a long boxing tradition.

Modern day boxing in China, which was initially called "western boxing", was first introduced in the late 1920s in the port city of Shanghai, along with a book, titled The Technique of Western Boxing, which was then translated into Chinese.

In the '30s, some sports academies put boxing classes in their major curriculum and fostered a number of Chinese boxing talents.

At this stage, the sport of boxing was mainly carried out in the city's western rental area, where the majority of players were western sailors, soldiers and merchants, only a handful of Chinese took part.

Before the Anti-Japanese War, boxing became prevalent in some port cities of China when the middle schools and colleges founded by Christian and the Catholic Church listed boxing as one of the major subjects in their physical education classes.

In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, China assigned 69 participants, two of which participated in the boxing competitions. However, they were all eliminated in the qualifying matches.

By the start of the Japanese invasion, western professional boxers began to withdraw from China, and the number of local fighters grew.

The professional bouts at the time were limited to four, six, eight or ten rounds, at maximum, which was for the championship fight.

In the early 1940s, boxing agents began to show up.

It was reported that one local fighter received a maximum premium of 4,000 yuan (approximately $570 US ) for a single bout.

After the liberation war, various forms of boxing matches were held in such big cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Probably one of the grandest boxing pageants in Chinese history — 20-city boxing championship with the total number of competitors of 142 was staged in Beijing in 1958. 

Judging from the case in this period, the number of athletes taking part in assorted boxing matches was growing, and the host region of boxing was becoming larger and larger.

Although there were no international Chinese boxing champions up until the '60s, the national tournaments held in this period laid the foundation in China for future development of the sport.

In 1959, the first National Games — which was the biggest domestic sports event in China — was held, and the Committee once listed boxing in the National Games' lineup.

However, due to the Great Leap Forward of this sport and its violent nature, a number of incidents concerning serious physical injuries of participant occurred. After several incidents, the committee felt that it was not the right time to develop boxing in such a large scale. Consequently, they temporally removed boxing from the National Games.

In March of the same year, boxing was outlawed by the government as a result of several unannounced reasons.

As Hong Fan, a scholar who specializes in China's athletic history, puts it, "People believed that boxing was very brutal, very ruthless. So it was banned."

Two decades later, boxing was revived in China. The philosophy of the "Ping Pong Diplomacy" triggered the restoration of the fight game.

In December 1979, the former undisputed heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali paid a visit to China at the invitation of Chinese Chairman Xiaoping Deng. The little giant man hugged the boxing titan. They sat, and the word that boxing could also be the factor to push for the understanding and friendship between the Chinese and the Americans went out. 

Right after that, boxing began to regain its status and exhibition matches were carried out.

The year 1986 and 1987 are two significant years for Chinese western boxing.

In March 1986, boxing officially returned to validity. The next year in April, the China Boxing Association was officially founded. In May, the first national boxing championships was held and in June, the China Boxing Association was officially admitted into the International Amateur Boxing Association as the 159th member.

From then on, China began to appear on the international boxing stage.

Another two decades has passed and China has experienced even more great changes in the sport of boxing.

The hidden Eastern Dragon finished the evolution and is now set to soar into the heaven!

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Zhenyu Li, a boxing historian and contributing columnist for some of the world's leading boxing publications, authors the "Beyond Gold" column for People's Daily Online in China.


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