Thursday, September 24, 2009


Ma Yanhong and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

(Ma, one of the first to promote the reputation of the ever-elegant Chinese)

Ma Yanhong was a gymnast who not only excelled in her sport, but excelled in a time when there was barely enough to eat, things we consider our rights such as an education were not granted, and when any one who did not obey the country's leader, Mao Zedong's increasingly tough communist strictures was punished by prison or even death.

The Chinese Cultural revolution began when Ma was two years old.  To explain it briefly, for those of you who don't know, the Cultural Revolution was a particularly horrible time in China, when Mao became convinced that the communist country was slipping back toward capitalism.  In response, he decided to destroy absolutely anything and everything that did not represent or respect the communist way.  Ancient art was destroyed, religious shrines set on fire.  Chinese youth, along with many city folk with university educations (who might dispute or influence others to question Maos tough new laws) were forced to out to work in the countryside, making steel or raising crops where they could not cause upheaval.

(Children of the Red Guard obeying Mao's Orders)

Universities were  closed down and an entire generation went uneducated, rather than risk they learn anything they shouldn't.  Governments were "purged" of anyone who didn't have a communist background (ussually in the form of torture or death).  Young people were forced to become 'Red Guards' working for the communist party while loudspeakers were installed all over cities and spaces so people were forced to hear communist propaganda all day and night.  Young people were forced to destroy the four 'olds'; customs, habits, ideas and cultures in their lives and behaviour.

Ma Yanhong happened to be learning one of the few sport that were considered beneficial for young children in this new, more frightening world, and at age 10, she was selected by the army to train as a gymnast for them.  Like in Russia and Romania, gymnastics was a sport that could be centralised and was used to teach discipline and bring success to each army club.

(Ma, on left, in training)

In an article by Wright Thompson, Ma told the writer that the army had it's benefits, as their was plentiful food and a job which was scarce whilst living with her family, though, as she said she "could barely hold the gun" she was given and she was taken from her parents.

Ma remembers seeing Nadia Comaneci perform in Montreal during a video that was shown in the army training centre, though, of course, the Chinese hadn't been able to compete.  She said it made her realise that that kind of perfection and success was all attainable.  Before that, it had been all training.  China rarely competed internationally.  Now, she understood what it was all about.

Ten years after the Cultural Revolution began,  Mao died, and for the first time in a long time, under the new government, the Chinese gymnasts were allowed to perform internationally.  Their first major international competition was in the USA no less, at the Fort Worth gymnastics Championships.  It was here that Ma Yanhong brought the first gymnastics fame to her country by winning a gold medal on, you guessed it, the uneven bars.
Watch her perform, and witness how truly advanced the Chinese gymnasts were, even as far back as this.  And a truly incredible dismount, named the MA for her! (or HERE )

After this, Ma Yanhong's fame in her country was massive, as she gave hope and glory to a people whose lives had been destroyed in the cultural upheaval of the decade before.  Her unexpected blossoming into a champion caused her to be known as the "Fairy Primrose" in China, after a flower known for its sudden and surprising growth.
Ma competed for China right through to 1984, though she was becoming tired and less fit and had hoped to retire in 1983.

(After her first major medal)

 She vowed, however, she would compete at the first Olympics China had ever entered and help her country as they asked her.  Ma told the reporter, however, that she kept a calender and ticked off the days until she could stop competing.

As physically and emotionally exhausted as she was, Ma helped the Chinese team to a team bronze.  She personally came sixth in the AA,  highest of any of her team mates, and made it to two event finals, where she won a gold on her event, bars.  The Wikipedia article on her claims that she was suffereing from appendicitis too, at the time of her bars win.  I have found nothing to confirm that, but if it is true, she is even more magnificent than I first thought!
Watch her bars routine then.  (or HERE )

And when the Olympics were finished and Ma was finally allowed to retire, the Chinese system apparently kept the vow it made to her too, and Ma was permitted to go and study and coach overseas, and while in China to engage in business opportunities that would provide her with a good life.  Ma studied both in Britain and USA and coached gymnastics at the LA Gymnastics Club.  She returned to China in the mid-nineties.  Ma was the first Chinese woman to be inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

(Older, but not forgotten)

One of the most touching moments I have heard of Ma Yanhong's life story,  is when she finished competing in Los Angeles, she walked back to the Olympic village and asked a team mate to cut off her pony tail, the pony tail the Chinese coach had made each of the girls wear while they were gymnasts.  She was now free.

(Shorn and fancy-free!)


  1. this was a really great post and those routines were wonderful!

  2. Thank you for posting. I knew almost nothing at all about this marvellous gymnast. Has anybody done her stunning dismount again?


  3. I'm still looking at those routines. My god training that high-low bar transition had to hurt.