A Champion for Socialist China

“Do you know who Wu Chuanyu is?” Mao Zedong asked a group of swimmers from Wuhan in 1958. “Is there anyone now who can do better than him? You should learn from Wu Chuanyu and surpass him!”

The first question was rhetorical. Wu would have been a household name for any swimmer; he’d won China’s first ever gold medal, in swimming, at the 1953 Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS) held in Bucharest, Romania. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) had sent a delegation of eighty athletes to the event to compete in men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, track and field, and swimming, but the 25-year-old’s win was the highlight of the trip. Wu instantly became a media sensation in China: his image graced the front cover of New Sport and PRC leaders arranged for foreign reporters to interview him.

Wu Chuanyu on the front cover of the October 1953 issue of New Sport.

Perhaps it seems unsurprising that Mao would praise Wu as a model for others to emulate given his own penchant for swimming. (Mao’s famous Yangtze swim may have caught the headlines in 1966, but his private doctor noted that for years the leader had spent more time at the swimming pool than in offices.) Wu’s superstar status was, however, atypical in China in the 1950s — internationally known Chinese athletes were few and far between, and he was the only swimmer among them. To this day, Wu’s win in the men’s 100-meter backstroke in Bucharest is still cited in Chinese sports yearbooks and official publications as “the first time that the five-star flag was hung.” Chinese participation in socialist bloc competitions became regular during these years, and Wu was one of the first successful athletes to emerge. The PRC leadership found such model athletes helpful in relaying to ordinary citizens the importance of international sports participation for the nation.

Following the Second World War, the WFYSs were founded by the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the International Union of Students. In the first decade, they took place every two years in the Soviet-led socialist bloc — Prague 1947, Budapest 1949, Berlin 1951, Bucharest 1953, Warsaw 1955, Moscow 1957. Given the sponsorship and locales, they are generally understood to have been fronts for Soviet interests. They were a common feature of the international socialist landscape to promote friendship, unity, peace, and similar ideals. Festival organizers also strove hard to make these events high profile and attract the attention of media worldwide. The socialist bloc and Soviet-leaning nations like China sent large delegations, but representative delegations from many other countries also attended the festivals. For several weeks every other year, these mega-events became sites for the circulations of and interactions between young people from many countries. Political and academic meetings, cultural events, sports, and sightseeing were all on the agenda; festival guides and maps in multiple languages were distributed to attendees. And a significant component of each festival — as indicated by event programs and the high numbers of athletes listed in delegation rosters — was sports competition.

The oft-told story about PRC sport in this period is the battle with the Republic of China (Taiwan) for sole recognition by the International Olympic Committee. However, the WFYS provided a more fruitful space for those in the Chinese sports world to forge new connections, and for Chinese athletes to compete internationally at a time when their Olympic participation increasingly seemed like a pipe dream. Soviet and socialist bloc athletes, among the best in the world, attended these festivals. A brochure for the 1951 Berlin WFYS boasted the attendance of world-class athletes and boldly stated that the festival was “the only international event where every aspect of the culture and sport of all the peoples of the world finds its highest expression.”

China sent its very first WFYS delegation of athletes to Berlin, two years after the official establishment of the PRC in 1949. For the new leadership, the appeal of participation in the WFYS was primarily about fostering “friendly” relations with new political allies and promoting a positive national image. But it was also about legitimacy of the new regime at home and abroad. The leadership had been working hard to establish its control nationwide, while also rebuilding a country devastated from years of war and sending off its soldiers to fight in the Korean War (or as it’s known in Chinese, the campaign to “Resist America and Aid Korea”). International sports competition, though on the Chinese radar in these years, was understandably less about producing top competitive athletes and more about strengthening the socialist state’s legitimacy and political solidarities.

Athletes like Wu were nevertheless important members of new networks in sport. The socialist world of sport in the 1950s was particularly transnational in this respect. Translations of various materials — sports news, technical handbooks, and articles on or by famous coaches and athletes — circulated throughout the Eastern bloc and China. People also made their way around via state-sponsored visits. China received official sports delegations at home and sent their own abroad, not just to mega-events like the WFYS but also to smaller events and on goodwill tours. Athletes and coaches also traveled for the purposes of training abroad or exchanging technical skills.

Sometimes, in the case of China, a potential future coach or athlete could be “found” through the nation’s participation in an event like the WFYS. What’s rarely mentioned about Wu — and he was not the only one — is that he was barely a Chinese citizen by the time he competed in Bucharest. Born and raised in Indonesia, Wu was ethnically Chinese and had “returned” to China (hui guo) following his second-place performance for the Indonesian team at the Third WFYS in 1951. In other words, PRC leaders recruited him explicitly to compete for the new socialist state, which must have been difficult given that he initially did not speak Chinese and had to communicate through translators using English. Leading up to Bucharest, Wu was sent to the Soviet Union with a larger sports delegation. There he completed several weeks of training with top Soviet swimming coaches and, according to Chinese sources, made rapid improvement.

Arguably the most famous Chinese athlete of the early 1950s, Wu also set a precedent for future PRC athletes when his international success won him official roles beyond sport. In September 1954, Wu was the only athlete named as a representative to the First National People’s Congress (NPC). Other famous athletes from the 1950s later held similar positions, or became prominent sports leaders. Some became coaches and traveled in the 1960s and 1970s to African and Asian countries as part of official exchanges to build “friendship” and solidarity. We often don’t think of athletes or coaches as particularly interested in politics, but my anecdotal research suggests that in China they were highly conscious of their diplomatic importance. Unfortunately, we’ll never know about Wu. A month after his appointment to the NPC, at the age of 26, he tragically died in a plane crash while on his way to resume training in Hungary.