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.