Marrow of the Nation: A History of
Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China

By Andrew D. Morris

Reviewed by Denise Gimpel
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January 2005)

Andrew D. Morris.               Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China.              Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 368 pp. ISBN: 0-520-24084-7.

Andrew D. Morris.  Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 368 pp. ISBN: 0-520-24084-7.

In many ways Andrew D. Morris’ history of sport in Republican China is a timely publication. Beijing will be staging the Olympic Summer Games of 2008, and readers will be pleased to be able to trace the development of China’s inclusion into the global performances of “war without the shooting,” the sporting competitions that feign to be healthy competition between the youth of friendly but rival nations but whose often primitive nationalistic appropriation is consciously guided by governments and willingly shared by the general public.

Morris formulates his aim as wishing to show how the “all-embracing ‘body cultivation’ that tiyuoffered the Chinese was a key concept in plans to transform the hoary Chinese imperium into a modern and fit nation-state” (p.3) and to write “a history that examines the relationship between physical culture and the modern nation-state’s concern with the individual citizen’s every move and the way in which individuals’ movements acquire new meanings in the context of twentieth-century nationalism” (pp. 15-16). In many ways he succeeds admirably in his aims. All through this well-written and tightly structured book, the reader never loses sight of the close affinities between physical education regimes and sporting events with political regimes and the Chinese project of a nation that can compete with and ultimately best the rest of the world.

In the chapters of the book, Morris takes us chronologically through the various, as he terms it, “totalizing” national sport projects that have beset China since the early twentieth century, and it would seem that the old adage holds true in this respect as well: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Nation, nation and yet more nation dogs the sporting trajectory of China since the late Qing. And this is understandable because, as we know, wealth and strength were major aims of Chinese government and society throughout the twentieth century. Moreover, if we subscribe to Morris’ final analysis (p. 244) that China is in a position to lead a sporting reformation through its hosting of the 2008 games, a reformation that somehow seems to include more than the promise of “improved human rights standards, higher living standards, environmental progress, cleaner air, faster infrastructure development, new communications and sewage treatment facilities, unification with Taiwan, and even cleaner public toilets” (ibid.), we should, according to Morris, understand “the medals won and records set by Chinese athletes in Olympic and other international competitions … as unquestionable proof of China’s superpower status in the world and of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s hegemony within the PRC” (ibid.). Nation, nation and more nation. And, above all, there is (still) the Darwinist notion of not only the survival of the fittest; it is a matter of the hegemony of the strongest, a masculinist national project (as opposed to the horrors of the “feminized non-nation” [p. 193]) that seemingly pervades almost everything China has had to do with sport and physical culture.

This latter impression is not coincidental. Throughout his study Morris constantly emphasizes the masculinist nature of the national sporting project, and when he speaks of “the Chinese” or “the individuals” who were to be developed through regimens of physical exercise he almost always means “Chinese men” and “male individuals,” respectively. In order to validate this, the reader is offered a few short excursions into the fact that women were largely excluded from the male and national project of the strong nation. Thus, the study reflects its approach: women are accorded small niches in the historical narrative of sport in China (pp. 32-33; 86-95; 112-119), and only once does it contain a moment of insecurity, when Morris’ observations on the shock that “many people, even urban elites” (read: men) felt at seeing visibly active women cause him to note that this attitude of shock “hints at the complexity of the phenomenon” (p. 36). Morris has clearly recognized the maleness that permeated the discourse of physical culture in China since the nineteenth century, but he has not reflected upon this in his analysis. It is accepted at face value. Thus Morris’ undoubtedly competent and well-researched study of an important aspect of China’s recent (and contemporary) history has itself become another masculine depiction of the icons of the sporting movement, of national and international games and political directives. This is the book’s weakness. The exclusion (or appropriation) of the female voice and body by male Chinese reformers since the nineteenth century was clear indication of the precariousness of Chinese masculinity, of the threat to the maleness that had pervaded Chinese culture and society throughout most of its history. A national movement built upon and conditioned by threatened masculinity is one that cannot simply be named, delineated, or celebrated by descriptive phrases such as the “masculine, muscular boost [of physical training]” (p. 42), the “modern and masculine nation-state” (p. 50), “modern masculinity and nationalism” (p. 192), etc. “Masculine” here is not tongue-in-cheek; it takes on a positive, modern, nation-building strength that Morris at no time questions. Manhood, as he asserts, “would be the currency in which China proved its ultimate worth as a nation” (p. 26). One begs to doubt whether it has, can, or should.

The book would undoubtedly have gained from an approach that also accepted gender “as a useful category of analysis.” This does not mean that it should be another one of those “women’s studies” that still tend to be a source of unease for some male colleagues; what it does mean is that recognizing the trend of a public discourse (here sport = masculinity = the nation) is not the same as analyzing it, and that analysis can include questions about such issues as who was left out of the discourse and why or, more important, why the discourse was couched in the particular terms it was. Women were certainly excluded from much of the discourse on physical education and sport in China, but not from all of it. Furthermore, there was another, a women’s discourse on physical education and sport that, on the one hand, did not neglect the national concerns for a strong race and international recognition but, on the other hand, was very much concerned with the mental or intellectual liberation that could, and often did, accompany the control and development of one’s own body and that made the fashionable Spencerian pedagogical threesome (intellectual, moral, and physical education) ultimately meaningful. Thus an acknowledgement of the gendered structure of the discourse would have provided an analytical tool for and added an important dimension to this study. The fact that the issue of gender is largely excluded may perhaps explain why this study concentrates on sport rather than physical culture, a term Morris finds “regrettable” and “ham-fisted” (p.16). One wonders why. An attention to the term and its cultural component could have proffered deeper insights into the modern project aimed at control of Chinese citizens through a control of their bodies, for instance that such a project is not new in Chinese history. Order in the Chinese world had always rested upon the knowledge that controlling bodily habit was a function of controlling thought patterns. As Francesca Bray puts it, “The Chinese were keenly aware of the power of bodily habit to form mental patterns”[1]; the body was a metaphorical embodiment of society.

Concluding this review on a positive note of praise, it has to be said that Andrew D. Morris’ study is rewarding reading in many ways: it is eminently readable and clear in structure, qualities that cannot be praised enough in a scholarly world where, one sometimes must assume, deep insights are merely obfuscated by a veil of jargon. Moreover, as a reviewer, one cannot help but admit that the very clarity of the argumentation makes one’s nit-picking job so much easier! It also obviates the need to produce the staple of the reviewing task, the chapter-by-chapter description of the book. As the first study to aim at a comprehensive chronological depiction of the appropriation of physical culture by the various ruling bodies in the first half of twentieth-century China, it will rightly belong on the shelves of good sinological collections. I would recommend it to undergraduate and postgraduate students both as an introduction to the politics of sport in Republican China (and its source materials) and as a case study in the limits of approaches to history that do not look beyond the public rhetoric they are based on. Morris’Marrow of the Nation is a study of sport in the social engineering of the modern Chinese citizen that opens up a field of further research by laying a wealth of information at the feet of the scholars who will surely be encouraged to look into the history and development of physical culture in China in other ways.


[1] Francesca Bray, Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), p. 168.

Denise Gimpel
Institute for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen