Written by Lu Zhouxiang
Since the early 20th century, when modern sport and the Olympics were introduced to China, sport has been consistently interwoven with politics and nationalism. In the Republic of China era (1912-1949), against the background of imperialist expansion, foreign aggression and domestic unrest, sport and physical education were promoted as a means of cultivating healthy citizens and promoting patriotism. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, sport and physical education continued to be promoted by the communist regime as efficient ways to train strong bodies for the country and help the PRC to achieve international recognition and domestic unity. From the early 1980s, China’s status and relative strength among nations came to be measured by the country’s success at international sporting events. The determination to revive China gave rise to a ‘gold medal fever’ which has placed great pressure on athletes, especially world title holders, who have had to shoulder the burden of the nation’s expectations. Many ordinary Chinese people, believing that sporting success enhanced the dignity of the nation, also wanted to show their patriotism and demonstrate a can-do spirit through sport. The story of China’s Yangtze River rafters is a prime example of those who devoted themselves to their country in this way.
Along with the Yellow River, the Yangtze is the most important river in China, credited with giving birth to the ancient Chinese civilisation and regarded as the mother river of the Chinese nation. It is famous for its dangerous currents and fast-moving, turbulent rapids and whirlpools. It therefore has a reputation as a killer river among rafters around the world. Until the early 1980s, no one had been brave enough to raft down the Yangtze River.
In the early 1980s, an American rafting team led by Ken Warren, a pioneer of adventure travel, set in motion a plan to conquer the Yangtze, and his proposal was approved by the Chinese government in 1985. After the news was reported in China, Yao Maoshu, an amateur adventure traveller in Sichuan Province, announced that he would compete against the Americans to be the first to descend the Yangtze.
Yao was a photographer who worked at Southwest Jiaotong University. He had been dreaming of rafting the entire length of the Yangtze since 1979, and had been planning to do so in 1986. After hearing about the Americans, he decided to bring his plan forward. Yao explained why to his brother in a patriotic tone in March 1985: ‘I won’t allow the foreigners to raft our mother river ahead of the Chinese!’
Yao named his rubber raft ‘Descendant of the Dragon’. His adventure, which began on June 12, 1985, was reported by local media and when he arrived at Yushu in Qinghai Province on July 16, he was welcomed as a hero by the local people. However, after travelling down the river for about 1,270km, his raft overturned in the major rapids in the Jinsha River section on July 24, and he drowned.
With its nationalist tone, Yao’s story became a shockwave that ran throughout the country and sparked a nationwide discussion on the Yangtze River conquest. Many young people began to plan their own Yangtze adventures. Some wanted to carry on Yao’s unfinished quest. Others hoped to conquer the river in different ways, such as by swimming and hiking. A Sichuan Daily commentator explained why, from a sociological perspective, so many ordinary Chinese people were eager to conquer the Yangtze River:
The 1980s saw the beginning of reform and opening-up. Chinese people were eager to see the outside world and make their voice heard by the international community. A big event was needed to achieve this goal. The Yangtze River rafting gave them the opportunity. The adventure was linked to the honour of the country. It is all about the face of the Chinese nation. Nobody would accept the Americans conquering the Chinese mother river ahead of a Chinese team.
In September 1985, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) announced that it would send a rafting team to conquer the Yangtze River and called for volunteers to join in the adventure. More than a thousand application letters, accompanied by consent forms, were sent to the CAS. Many were signed with passionate pledges, such as ‘Win Honour for the Country’ and ‘Die for Honour’.
Finally, a forty-man CAS team equipped with thirteen rubber rafts travelled to the geographic source of the Yangtze and initiated the campaign on June 16, 1986. At around the same time, a seven-man team from Luoyang City also began from Lake Qemo. Like the CAS team, they saw their journey as part of the fight for China’s dignity, aiming to be the first to descend the Yangtze.
The members of the two teams came from all walks of life – workers, teachers, doctors, retired soldiers, policemen, journalists, photographers – and five ethnic groups – Han, Tibetan, Yi, Qiang and Hui. The mission was very clear: to conquer the Yangtze River ahead of the foreigners.
Following hot on the heels of the two Chinese teams, an American team joined the race in July 1986. In order to downplay the already intense Sino–American competition and quell nationalist fervour, the Chinese Sports Ministry sent three Chinese athletes to join the American team and persuaded the team to change its name to the Sino-American Yangtze Expedition.
This team suffered a series of setbacks and struggled to finish the 1,770km that took them from the source to Sichuan Province, and eventually had to abandon the adventure when their rafts were smashed onto rocks. Some members hiked for several days in search of help and were finally saved by two rescue teams. Although no one on the Sino-American Yangtze Expedition drowned, their photographer, David Shippee, died of severe altitude sickness.
In contrast to the experienced and well-equipped Sino-American team, the two Chinese teams had virtually no rafting experience and their rafts were ill-suited to the journey. Nonetheless, both teams were excited. The entire adventure was reported in detail by major newspapers in China, in reports full of tales of heroism and patriotism; but over-heated public expectation turned the Yangtze River rafting competition into a death match. Although the CAS team and the Luoyang Team joined forces to overcome difficulties, they suffered heavy casualties.
The CAS and Luoyang teams finally arrived in Shanghai in November 1986. At the cost of ten lives, they had travelled the entire length of the river and beaten the Americans to accomplish the first descent of the Yangtze River.
The rafting of the Yangtze River was regarded by the media and the general public as a great sporting success of the Chinese nation. Members of the two teams became heroes and role models. Their spirit of bravery and determination was greatly prized, and they were invited to give speeches to students, workers, soldiers, public servants and local communities. The young rafters who had sacrificed their lives for the mission were honoured as martyrs, and a commemorative statue was built in Yao Maoshu’s hometown.
Inspired by the Yangtze River rafting and fanned by the ideals of heroism, nationalism and patriotism, more and more young people joined the river-rafting campaign. In 1987, volunteers from Beijing, Henan and Ma’anshan City established three rafting teams and launched a Yellow River rafting expedition. This time, seven people lost their lives in the conquest of the second-longest river in China.
Although the media and the general public praised the adventure as a heroic deed, the heavy casualties of the 1987 Yellow River rafting expedition drew criticism. The government issued decrees to regulate similar adventures and to dampen the growing rafting craze, and in 1987 it announced that it would no longer advocate, welcome or support voluntary rafting activities.
In the years that followed, the Yangtze River and Yellow River rafting expeditions were harshly criticised by some scholars and commentators as products of an extreme form of nationalism. Later, in 1988, together with the gold medal fever that took hold of elite sport, the rafting adventures were highlighted in a Central China Television mini-series, River Elegy, as prime examples of the so-called ‘inherent weaknesses of the Chinese culture’. These criticisms and discussions made many rethink their attitude toward these heroic but ill-conceived adventures, as well as the negative sides of nationalism, patriotism and heroism.
Lu Zhouxiang is a Lecturer in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Maynooth University, Ireland. He is the author of A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity (2019) and Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts (2018), and co-author of Sport and Nationalism in China (2013), from which some of this piece is taken. Image credit: Xinhua.
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