A Ping-Pong Affair

By understanding the presence and role of sport in different cultures, we learn why nations hold sport close to their hearts and why they are seen as a part of their national identity.

To understand culture, and our own cultural experiences, we often turn to Asia. The Earth’s largest and most populous continent, enriched with diversity and culture. Digital Asia open’s the doors to a variety of concepts, ideas and functions throughout the Asian culture. Research has shown that apart of this culture, sport is influencing factor that not only show cases athletic ability, but also opens the doors to understand diplomacy and history. For this digital artefact, I have chosen to explore China’s reigning sport, Ping-Pong also known as Table Tennis.

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Culture throughout the ages has progressed, it is “always evolving, dynamic and hybrid” and “cannot be understood as static, eternally given and essentialist”. In order to understand culture, and we must understand its foundations past and present. Table tennis is apart of Chinese history; we acknowledge its integration into society through communism and its role as national identity. Understanding these components allow us to broaden our intercultural understandings, due to my own cultural background and worldview, my research on Asian sporting culture and more broadly has been very much characterised by new understandings.

By applying autoethnography as a research methodology, we are enabled to have an authentic and unaltered experience. Ellis describes autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)”. Autoethnography combines the characteristics of autobiography and ethnography, which allows you to selectively write about your past, thoughts and perceived moments that you feel influence your understanding of your area of study.

Through my existing topline understanding of table tennis, I found a likeness to tennis. This is significant as tennis is a sport I grew up playing and was heavily involved in – and this connection allowed me to find a commonality with my research topic. Ellis explains, “[autoethnographers] study a culture’s relational practices, common values and beliefs, and shared experiences.” Self-narrative “can take us to the depths of personal feeling, leading us to be emotionally moved and sympathetically understanding.” Exploring the culture and training of table tennis, I have been able to empathise with the athletes and take an appreciate to the consistency and focus of the game.

The following digital artefact will explore the game of table tennis in China and its cultural value, and how my understanding has been bolstered and impacted by my personal experiences and culture.

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Paddle Back in Time

Table tennis made its first impression as a “parlour game” in that it was open to anyone who was able to access a table, paddle and ball. The name “Ping-Pong” was first coined by the English firm J. Jaques and Son at the end of the 1800s, and later trademarked in the US by gaming company the Parker Brothers.

Ping-Pong has long been a revered game in China, and at the beginning of its emergence it was one of the only sports nationwide. Today, China sits at the top of the leaderboard across nearly every table tennis category and since the sport was introduced into the Summer Games in 1988, Chinese players have won 28 out of the 32 gold medals. It is estimated that China’s win percentage is 57.7 of the players, and of this they have managed to achieve 87.5% of gold medals.

 

But why is China so good at the game?

 

Table tennis took China by storm in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was in power. At the time, officials felt the sport was able to connect the People’s Republic to the rest of the world. CCP’s leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai were playing the sport and, as a result, it quickly became the national sport of the country.

 

In 1959, the country made its first major breakthrough in the sport; Rong Gutuan won the men’s singles title in the World Table Tennis Championships in Germany. Gutuan’s win saw national pride skyrocket, and propaganda took the victory to another level as it occurred during the 10thanniversary of the People’s Republic founding.

Since then, table tennis has always been China’s most prominent sport. It not only was used as a political tool, it also suited the Chinese lifestyle, an easily stored and does not take up a large amount of room. Today speaking to the younger society, it seems that the sport itself is not as popular as it once was. This is as a result of the gradual western influence that has slowly crept up on the culture of sport and has directed its attention to many more sport.

The Experience.

While some may consider table tennis a “lesser sport”, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is a sport of focus, skill, endurance and consistency.

On September 1st2018, the world saw another year of the Asian Games but in particular the Men’s Table Tennis Finals. Perfect timing for this digital artefact, right? The final’s was a showcase of China’s best male table tennis talent, Fan Zhendong vs. Jeoung Youngsik.

While the match is commentated in an Asian language, the athleticism on display transcends this barrier:

My initial attitude approaching this viewing was anti-climatic to say the least. Having spoken to friends who have watched and played table tennis their reactions were repetitive “it’s a fun game to play, but its like watching tennis… lengthy and boring until the end”.

Prior to watching I wanted to understand the skill behind the table tennis player, and I was able to narrow down the four core professional skills:

Understanding only some of the skill this sport requires, I still struggled to understand how it is set apart from other sports in the world. My readings prompted me to reflect on my past experiences training and playing tennis. Reaction, spin, speed, surface and self-management are also at the core of tennis as a whole.

Understanding the skill of the sport was an epiphany in my understanding of the game, and in turn leads me to develop my appreciation for Ping-Pong.

Here are the highlights of the final match:

My newfound understanding of the game’s skill, rules and regulations enhanced by viewing of this match and the game more broadly.

giphy.gifIt was interesting to recognise the similarities between table tennis and tennis. As a former tennis player, I was able to reflect on the likeness of training patterns across both sports – and this further allowed me to understand and appreciate the technicality of table tennis through my own experience. It extends past western perceptions of Ping-Pong as a game of leisure, and associations with Australian drinking culture and the game of ‘beer-pong’.

This triggered yet another epiphany – much of western sport (particularly in Australia) is deeply entwined with our drinking culture. Most recently, with the end of the NRL season, many teams have been called out for their excessive drinking behaviours. To draw a comparative analysis, I researched instances where Chinese table tennis athletes have been a part of alcohol-related events – and I was unable to find any article that explicitly recounts an occasion. This is interesting to note, as I found it reflective and aligned with Asian culture.

China is known to be a heavily governed and reserved society, where discipline and order are key values. The history of table tennis reflects this as it was introduced during China’s peak of Communism, with the governance of Mao during the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the sport has continued to be apart of the countries identity.

I have found it incredibly interesting to analyse how politics has influenced and the shaped the sport. Not only has table tennis been used as a diplomacy tool, it is a sport that is reflective of a disciplined society. I found that watching the table tennis players’ strokes during a rally, you can clearly see how carefully selected and executed each shot is. The ball is on return within five seconds of the ball contacting their opponent’s paddle.

I have a strong understanding of the endurance and stamina it takes to hold a rally on a tennis court and the continuous back and forth these athletes engage in despite the limited boundaries of the table has left me in awe. I have never understood the accuracy table tennis possesses but it is very stark through the Asia Games men’s finals, where we see the Ping-Pong ball brushing the very edge of the table. However, with applied spin and strength of the opponent, this allows them to contact the ball at a certain height in order to keep the ball in play.

This clip is just one of the many examples I found when researching Ping-Pong training methods. It is so interesting to see how disciplined training rituals are, commonly completed in large groups with a mentor and trainer consistently calling out shadow drills.

I took a minute to reflect and try to imagine the intensity of these training sessions. Could I have done this when I was playing tennis? Yes and no, I think for many Australian sports and in particular tennis, we don’t only focus on the common strokes, rather we take an all round focus on fitness and diet. Much of my training was broken into days, some days on court, some day’s footwork training and others general fitness. By doing this I was able to train majority of my body and it gave me an element of diversity and ‘fun’.

As an observer of table tennis training, I feel as if I would particularly struggle when consistently training one type of stroke and also being indoors. However, this comes with the type of sport. It’s interesting to notice how training methods dramatically shift when it comes to sport, and what type of physical endurance and focus that they require.

Uncovering China’s agenda for Ping-Pong

Table Tennis is not for the faint-hearted, it is a sport of endurance, stamina and utter focus.

Sports presents itself in all forms and sizes, as an individual of the Western World I was not always aware of the extent of ping-pong. In Australia, I associate ping-pong with the legendary game of Beer Pong and a casual muck around with friends. In China, Table Tennis is the countries biggest sport. China is ranked number 1 in the world and holds the three top seats in the Men’s and Women’s leagues. Of China’s population, it is estimated that there are around 10 million citizens who regularly play the game. During the 2008 Bejing Olympic Games, a solid 300 million people of China tuned in to watch the mega show-down between China’s Table Tennis athletes Ma Lin vs. Wang Hao.

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno). As part of autoethnography, researchers are challenged to participate in their own self-evaluation, this stems from the concept of epiphanies. Epiphanies are remembered moments percieved to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life. Epiphanies require a level of self-awareness, they reveal the ways and ‘whys’ a person reacts to particular circumstances or situations.

My first step of investigation for my digital artifact was to sit down and watch a clip of the best rallies in table tennis history. My mind was blown by the skill and endurance these athletes have. My next aim was to sit and attempt to watch a full game to get the feel. My past is grounded in tennis, as a former Australian athlete I thought to myself, it really is in essence tennis but on a way smaller level. So I sat down and had a go, after 30 minutes past it was safe to say I was bored. Some people say its because Youtube provided me with an old and ordinary game, but I also think it’s because I had no clue what was going on…..

I researched the rules and training behind the sport and spread my wings to watch a variety of different games at various levels and tutorials. What I found interesting was that undoubtedly each tournament was filled with spectators; views on YouTube videos were consistently more than 400,000+. Interestingly an epiphany popped into my mind, “what makes sport so culturally valuable in society?” “Why do certain countries choose to invest in particular sports?” To narrow down my scope, I researched the history behind the emergence of table tennis in China, why it is a cultural value and to further my own understanding of the game in order to try and value it the same as the Chinese people do.

To validate my epiphanies against Ellis theory of autoethnography – Ethnography is, the study of a culture’s relational practices, common values and beliefs and shared experiences for the purpose of helping insiders and outsiders better understand culture.

As previously stated in my other blog post, China was first introduced to Table Tennis by its former leader Mao Zedong. The sport swiftly became a cultural value of the country, the sport was ‘bizarrely‘ popular amongst the Communist Party of China’s military force during the 1930s. Not long after do we see China using Ping-Pong as a source of diplomacy, this is through the games introduction to the Olympic Games and also communication with other countries.

I found that a brief look into the its history in China and the values that extend past the social norm of sport generate yet another element for my digital artefact. In order to fulfil the criteria of autoethnography, my aim will be to reveal the history of ping-pong in China and explore its globalisation and diplomacy. It will not only allow me to understand the value the country holds for the sport, but also allow me to uncover the hidden agenda government’s hold for sport.

A sport for every nation.

The world of sport is much larger than what society understand. Sport provides not only a source of health and fitness, rather sport has created unity in communities, it has broadened inter-cultural communication and brought into effect the realities of globalisation. Sport can be named as a ‘peacetime’ event, occasions such as the Olympic Games have bought peace amongst countries in the modern day. Government’s are utilising sport as a platform for global attention and political activity.

I have always had a profound interest in sports, as a former athlete and as a fan and spectator. I have been particularly interested in what sports are largely followed in selected countries, for example, in Australia, our biggest and most followed sports are NRL, AFL and Cricket. Across each sports, fans, coverage and the match itself differs.

For the upcoming research project, I endeavour to take a focus on China’s value of sport with a particular focus on Table Tennis, also known as Ping Pong.

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To get the ball rolling, I turned to trust Google to help me understand a little more about the sport. Little did I know that my views of Ping Pong have been completely wrong.

The game of table tennis actually began during the 1880s in England, as a lawn tennis player adapted their game to play indoors during the winter. It has had its humble beginnings grounded as a ‘parlour game‘, for anyone who had the access to a table, paddle and a ball. The name ‘Ping-Pong’ followed shortly after, it was coined by the English firm J. Jaques and Son at the end of the 1800s, and later trademarked in the US by Parker Brothers, the board game company. The game expanded and caught wind during 1901, the earliest dates of tournaments show that there were more than 300 participants. In 1922 the first Ping-Pong Association was formed and renamed The Table Tennis Association.

Mind-blown? Me too.

But when was ping-pong introduce into China?

China has been infatuated with table tennis since the 1950s, it was during this time Chairman Mao declared it as the national sport. The communist leader thought it was a logical decision, a sport that can be played at a cheap expense and was a sport that was not as popular in the West. Today, China holds the top three ranking in the Men and Women’s League as well as the top spot in the world!

Fun Facts:

  • China is ruthless in their national team selection
  • Chinese players train for a minimum of 7 hours a day
  • Players work with specialised practice partners, even sometimes two against one
  • Chinese teams have the most extensive and strategic analysis about competitors and are pioneers for new techniques

For this digital artefact, I want to immerse myself in the culture of Ping-Pong. I endeavour to watch, research and write about the ins and outs of the sport.

I am a self-proclaimed sports fanatic (sports journalist is the ultimate goal), but I have very limited knowledge to play with. With the help of autoethnography, my digital artefact will be a reflection of my understandings, conclusions, opinions and epiphanies concerning ping-pong and its stance throughout the Chinese Culture.

I have chosen to present my artefact in written form, a mixture of reviews, analysis, cultural understandings and a sports report. I believe this is an effective way to convey my findings, as well as allow my brain explosion to flow and explore a range of different avenues ping-pong influences and flows amongst.

First stop! Watching re-runs of the Table Tennis games during the 2018 Asian Games.

Let the games begin!

Akira

Usually I wouldn’t openly express my profound interest in all things cyber, dystopian and futuristic. But it seems BCM320 is making me do just that.

Our screening of Akira, made my geeky senses tingle and I became intrigued.

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Akira is a Japanese anime movie set in 1988, which explores the Japanese government dropping an atomic bomb on Tokyo after ESP experiments on children go ‘awry‘. The film illustrates the repercussions of the bomb almost 31 years after it destroyed the city. The movie is all things dystopian and cyberpunk, and shows strong similarities to your favourite movies and shows like Blade Runner and Stranger Things. It’s crazy to evaluate the similarities between the successes despite being decades apart. But it seems the themes of dystopia and cyberpunk will continue to reign as current and adaptable themes for futuristic movies.

We were given the challenge to channel our thoughts and understanding of the film in an autoethnographic account. ‘Autoethnography’ is “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience“. Autoenthography is a combination of autobiography and ethnography, fundamentally autobiographies are often written based on epiphanies of the researcher. Such epiphanies are “remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life“.

Autoethnography all the researcher to analyse their content from an outsider and cultural perspective. “Scholars began recognising that different kinds of people possess different assumptions about the world…Auto-ethnography, on the other hand, expands and opens up a wider lens on the world…

Attempting to live tweet while focus on the movie and research the film’s themes proved difficult, and this is exhibited by the minimal tweets I was able to curate. My cultural understanding of anime has never been broad, or my preference. However, I have always had an interest in post-apocalyptic film and the analysis of the repercussions of war and corruption.

During the viewing I noticed constant references and similarities to Blade Runner, and began thinking about the correlation between the movies and their overarching themes. Akira, like Blade Runner incorporate the themes of globalisation, technology and capitalism. It is these themes that we can see transcend over time, to portray a dystopian society which reflects war and destruction. This was evident throughout Akria, understanding these themes helped me to gather the cultural understanding of how Japanese people have dealt with the repercussions of atomic bombs.

The post-apcolyptic destruction reflects the ruins and fear of the Japanese people. What once was and what now stands, are the effects of military and political corruption which are common themes in Japanese film and literature. Being set in 2019, as the repercussions of WWIII caused me to constantly question, I questioned how filmmakers have the capacity to create films that reflect times that we have not yet experienced or predicted. It caused me to question, whether these themes of political corruption, war, globalisation and technology will continue to be labelled as ‘time-less’. And it lastly caused me to question the Japanese culture and its preconceived predictions for the future, and their immersion with western culture.

So I attempted to draw a conclusion.

Akira is a futuristic reflection of the repercussions of Atomic Bombings present and future. As a result of a Western influence and Japan’s technologically advanced society, they predict that military and political corruption will lead to ultimate destruction. Cross-cultural understanding and autoethnography allowed me to understand that Japanese culture largely influences post-apocalyptic and dystopian films. The value of Japanese anime and film culture is preserved and treasured amongst the film industry. Anime is ‘time-less’.