JIANGXI, East China — Sixth-grader Lin Hongyu is shy until he gets onto the wrestling mat. There, he becomes a different person: effusive, competitive, and devoted to his dream of becoming a champion.
“I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is,” the 12-year-old tells Sixth Tone between cartwheels. “All I know is that wrestling makes me happy.”
Wrestling is not particularly popular among either spectators or athletes in China. Yet the sport has won many hearts in Matian, a village of around 10,000 people in western Jiangxi province, because of a rural elementary school that has specialized in wrestling since 2006.
“All the students at the school can do some basic wrestling moves,” says Zhu Zhihui, the principal of Matian Central Primary School. The school has integrated wrestling into morning fitness drills and physical education lessons for its 600-plus students in first through sixth grades. Some students, like Hongyu, dream of pursuing wrestling professionally, but Zhu says that’s not the point.
“Our goal is not to raise each child to become a professional; instead, we aim to cultivate healthy students who are strong in body and mind through wrestling training,” Zhu explains.
More than 70 percent of the students at Matian Central Primary School are “left-behind children” whose parents have migrated to find better-paying jobs in distant cities. Hongyu, who lives with his grandma, is one of them.
Hongyu joined his school’s wrestling club four years ago and was quickly selected for the school team after excelling in five fitness tests — sprinting, long-distance running, pull-ups, sit-ups, and the standing jump — that the school uses to evaluate prospective wrestlers under national sports bureau standards. Now, he is one of around 30 students on the team who train from 3:30 to 6 p.m. every school day and almost every day during the summer break. They are registered with the provincial sports bureau and take part in the municipal and provincial games each year.
When Hongyu told his grandmother, Liu Qingyun, that he’d taken up wrestling, she had no idea what the sport was. Later, she saw the boy and his cousin practicing together in a field in front of the house. “I support him wrestling as long as it’s free of charge,” she sighs, as the pair live on government welfare. In August, Hongyu came in second in the annual citywide games. He walked home with a silver medal around his neck but didn’t show it off to his grandma.
Left-behind children and elders are the subject of ample media coverage and public concern in China, as the country’s mass migration to urban areas has disrupted traditional family relationships and social structures. Many fear that rural children who grow up without their parents will face psychological issues and developmental difficulties. School principal Zhu hopes that wrestling will help his students become confident, humble, and self-disciplined.
“It’s a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives,” says the 40-year-old headmaster.
When Zhu transferred to Matian Central Primary School in 2006, it was a typical rural Chinese school with run-down infrastructure and facilities, insufficient faculty, and an outmoded curriculum. Himself a former wrestler, the new principal sought ways to revitalize the school and thought wrestling could create opportunities — but other teachers opposed the idea.
“They argued that as a school, our chief role is to teach core subjects,” Zhu says, referring to Chinese, math, and English. But he insisted that youth wrestling wouldn’t affect the students’ grades, and that it would even boost the students’ confidence and strength of mind.
Teachers gradually changed their attitudes as the school began to receive more government resources as a reward for their growing number of wrestling medals from all levels of competition. More and more families have been drawn to Matian Central Primary School’s success: In the last decade, the student body has nearly doubled.
Yet prioritizing wrestling over academics is still something of a dilemma for students who have a shot at a career in the sport. When members of the wrestling team graduate, they must decide whether they will go to a regular middle school or a professional sports school. This year, five students continued on to municipal or provincial sports schools to focus on wrestling training. It’s a difficult decision, especially if they’re doing well academically. Most parents would still prefer to see their children continue their studies and hopefully make it to university.
But wrestling can be a life-changing opportunity for children from poor families who aren’t academically gifted. Coach Zeng Hanjin says he’s a living example: Now 29, Zeng never excelled in school. He took up the sport when he was just 11. Coming from a poor family, his parents looked to wrestling as a way out — but they also saw that success came with painful costs for their little boy. “My mom cried when she saw me being brutally thrown to the mat repeatedly,” Zeng recalls. But she didn’t stop him from training, and he eventually made it onto the national team.
“If I didn’t wrestle, I’d probably have ended up being a farmer at home or a migrant worker in a faraway city,” Zeng says. Though he had to stop competing before the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to injuries — the sport has left him with back pain, cauliflower ear, and broken fingers — he still sees wrestling as his lifelong career. “This is the spirit of sportsmanship,” he says.
Girls, too, are increasingly getting in on the action: After the 2016 Indian movie “Dangal” — which tells the true story of two sisters from rural India who became world-class wrestlers under their father’s tutelage — emerged as a breakout hit at the Chinese box office, more villagers started to see wrestling as an option for girls.
“Before watching the movie, I thought wrestling was just boys fighting with each other,” says Lai Xuehui, whose 11-year-old daughter, Wu Yujie, took up the sport in March. The sixth-grader signed up for wrestling after watching her classmates train after school. “I think they’re awesome, and their moves are amazing,” Yujie tells Sixth Tone while sitting on the mat before practice.
Yujie is one of just a few girls on the school team. Zhu says his next goal is to recruit more female wrestlers. “It’s easier for the girls to attain wins, as the competition isn’t as fierce,” he says. “But they also need more attention physically and mentally.”
When the school first started offering the sport in 2006, the young wrestlers practiced in an outdoor sandpit. A few years later, a shed was set up with a secondhand wrestling mat provided by a sports school. “The temperature in the shed was over 50 degrees [Celsius] in the summer,” says coach Zeng.
After Matian Central Primary School provided more than 100 graduates to professional sports schools and won more than 200 medals in provincial and national competitions, the local government paid for a brand-new wrestling arena at the school in 2016.
Zeng, who has never won an international medal himself, dreams of seeing his students become world champions — the Chinese flag fluttering in the wind and the notes of the national anthem echoing in the air. “I know it’s extremely difficult,” he admits. “But if we work hard together generation after generation, I believe this dream will eventually come true.”