Wrestling School Gives ‘Left-Behind Children’ a Fighting Chance


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.

I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is. All I know is that wrestling makes me happy.

“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.

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Lin Hongyu walks through a rice field in Matian Village, Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 6, 2017. Fan Yiying

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.

[Wrestling is] a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives.

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.

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Coach Zeng Hanjin instructs two students during wrestling practice at Matian Central Primary School in Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

“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.

If I didn’t wrestle, I’d probably have ended up being a farmer at home or a migrant worker in a faraway city.

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.

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Students play on the grounds of Matian Central Primary School in Luxi County, Jiangxi province, Sept. 5, 2017. Fan Yiying

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.”

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Sports and education should be combined


Zhang Shangwu, a champion gymnast who was forced to turn to begging after injury ended his career prematurely has become a media sensation recently.

His case throws the spotlight on the plight of top athletes in China, who are taken from their homes as young as four to be trained in special sports schools, then struggle to adjust to normal life once their careers are over.

Everyone has his own views on this issue. From my perspectives, related sports ministry or society doesn’t have the direct responsibility, but we need to rethink profoundly of what our athletes lack.

In China, most athletes are not well educated. That’s because they are isolated from cultural education when they are little. These potential sports starts are being trained intensively at sports school and the main goal is to win the medals. Even they are arranged to study a couple of hours a day, all they can do is to pretend they are listening or just sleep in class. “I was too tired after the training and our teachers just turned a blind eye,” my friend, a former fencer sighed.

Currently in China, sports and education seems two parallel lines. It could be dangerous and pricy. Once the key potentials fail to make great achievements, it would affect the entire team performance and the athlete’s future. Take Yao Ming as an example. He was trained as the hope ever since he was little. But what if he turned out to be average or couldn’t make it to NBA? It’s way too risky to bet on a couple of athletes.

In the United States, almost all the athletes are selected from regular schools. They don’t have sports schools. The biggest talent origins for NBA is colleges. Coaches at university select excellent players from high schools and universities offer full scholarship. These basketball players are required to pass recruitment test. Their training period is strictly limited to make sure they have enough time to study. They can’t graduate if they don’t earn enough credits, just like every other average students.

Back home, our athletes are spending way too much time on training. They don’t have time and energy to learn what they’re supposed to learn. System is to blame, but I also sensed some of these athletes are guilty too.

As a top-level fencer, my friend didn’t study hard at high school because she knew she would go to university anyway. She only got less than 200 out of 630 scores in Gaokao but was still admitted by one of the top 3 universities in Shanghai. She then represented that university to compete in University Games domestically and internationally. But the reality is that even though she was entitled as a graduate from a top university, it didn’t help her at all when she was looking for job. She was too busy training and competing in the games. As a result, she didn’t learn any skill rather than fencing at school.

What about those athletes who don’t even have a chance to go to the university through bonus policy? Their situation would be even worse. However, in the U.S, athletes, no matter they are top ones or average ones, basically don’t have a problem of finding them other jobs after retirement. The combination of sports and education makes the society value sports. Often times, in the U.S, those who used to be athletes or are good at sports are popular and respected in all walks of life. But in China, unless you’re an elite who has won golden medals in world first-class game, your life after retirement would be harder than you can ever imagine.

In fact, the theory of combining sports and education has been spoken over 20 years in China. It’s just not working in the way we expected. I know our system is different from the U.S and other counties and we have difficulties that we haven’t figured out how to tackle, but we do need to speed up if we want to see the next Yao Ming soon.

We can’t just copy the model how American cultivate their sports talent, but we could at least let sports be part of the education. Sports and education are not supposed to be separated in the first place. In order to do that, we need to create a surrounding where sports and education are combined and it cannot be realized without the efforts of parents, coaches and athletes themselves. We need to help them understand the importance of education and how it will benefit their whole life.