The past couple of days, traffic to China Sports Today from people searching for “Ding Hui” has seen a little uptick. Could it be a coincidence that a recent story in The Guardian said that Ding Hui, the Chinese national volleyball team’s first black player, was booted from the national team last year, implying that it was because Ding Hui is black? But If you came to find out about the volleyball player who was kicked off the Chinese national team for being black, you won’t find what you’re looking for because it didn’t happen.
Here’s the passage in question, from The Guardian’s Stephen Vines:
A stark reminder of official racism came last year when Ding Hui, of mixed Chinese and African parentage, was barred from representing his country in the national volleyball team.”
In fact, Ding Hui was selected for the training group for the Chinese national team in the spring of this year. Coach Zhou Jianan had high praise for his play, saying he was one of China’s top five players. But Ding’s skin color and mixed parentage (his mother is Chinese, father is South African) attracted more media interest. The 20-year-old Ding Hui, the first black player to get a spot on any Chinese national team, competed for Zhejiang in the national games.
Ding Hui is part of a small but growing minority in China—people with one Chinese parent and one black parent (often African) who grow up side by side with children whose appearance is more consistent with what is generally considered Chinese. Another such young person is Lou Jing, who recently made waves when she made it to the late stages of a Chinese reality show competition called “Go! Oriental Angels.” (We’ve chronicled her travails extensively)
It seems likely his career with the Chinese national team will go forward and include major international competition. As it does, Ding Hui will certainly be in a different sort of spotlight than his teammates.
Ding Hui’s presence on the national team has the potential to improve or worsen China’s issues with racism—and it will probably do a little bit of both. On the one hand, it reinforces stereotypes of African blood endowing people with exceptional athletic gifts—and, conversely, Asian blood being a distinct disadvantage in that area. On the other hand, his presence in the public eye will make more people aware that people like him do exist, do speak native Chinese (media repeatedly remark that both Ding and Lou speak Chinese, and only Chinese), and absolutely expect and deserve an active role in Chinese society—including representing their country in athletic competition.
History has shown the sports world to be a place where a society can make progress on some of its problems surrounding race. At its best, sport is an equalizer, where people who would otherwise keep their distance come closer, at least for a few hours at a time. And the end goal—a world championship, a gold medal—becomes so important that coaches, teammates, and team administrators are willing to set aside some of their insecurities to move toward it.
If Ding Hui makes the lineup for the London Olympics in 2012, he will be in a global spotlight, and millions of people around the world will ask the same questions a lot of Chinese are asking now: “Black AND Chinese? Is that even possible?” This should result in a batch of stories in international media about what it means to be black and Chinese, on the situation of Africans living in China, about evolving Chinese perspectives on race. Some of these stories will be nuanced and thoroughly reported, and some will fail miserably as they try to impose American (or British, or French, etc.) history and culture on the situation in China. Hopefully most of them will at least stick to the facts.
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