Bulking up in the world of Chinese bodybuilding

One Beijing competitor talks fitness, future and making gains overseas

Shape Fitness 赛普健身
You could say that, before he was a Californian politician and kindergarten cop, Arnold Schwarzenegger helped ignite something of a fitness revolution. His arrival on the scene in 1977’s Pumping Iron not only exposed a far wider audience to competitive bodybuilding, but also thrust extreme male physiques firmly into the public eye.

That same year, the inaugural World’s Strongest Man competition took place, while the ‘80s saw a boom in Hollywood macho flicks, fronted by sculpted action men such as Stallone, Lundgren, Van Damme, and Arnie himself; Men’s Health magazine launched in 1987, the Internet made super-fitness content just a click away in the ‘90s, and today, Instagram carries the torch, continuing to shape the West’s often virile notions of masculinity.

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'Sly' Stallone taking no prisoners in 1982's First Blood

Of course, fascination with muscular males is nothing new for Western civilisations, which since the ancient Greeks and Romans have had a fluctuating flirtation with sculpted physiques. Conversely, Chinese history has featured a distinct lack of such strapping characters; in a nation whose culture, strongly influenced by the teachings of Confucius, has always put more stock by brains than brawn, it is only in the past century, and the last few decades in particular, that more of an emphasis on physical fitness has begun to emerge.

The cultural crossovers, increasing middle-class affluence and evolving beauty standards of a globalised China are fuelling a fitness boom, and a sports and fitness industry expected to generate 90 billion RMB this year, growing to 123 billion RMB by 2020; at the more extreme and dedicated end of the scale, this boom might just be the spark that sees China’s own bodybuilding scene make real gains on its foreign counterparts.

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Chinese bodybuilders promote bodybuilding in a 1950s Shanghai parade

It should be said that the history of the sport (jiànmei 健美, literally ‘strengthen beauty’) in China actually dates back as far as the 1930s, to the efforts of a ripped Shanghai student called Zhao Zhuguang, who sought to spread the physical principles and practices he had picked up during a brief sojourn to the States. By 1953, however, competitive bodybuilding had been officially banned across the country, after the Communist Party labelled it as a 'bourgeois' pursuit.

It was not until the 1980s that the ban was lifted and the sport was able to gather steam once again; in 1985, the Chinese Bodybuilding Association (CBBA) finally became a member nation of the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), though comparatively prohibitive economic conditions meant its trajectory lagged far behind the West in the following decades.

But there are ever more hopeful signs of progress in narrowing the gap, as well as many hurdles still to overcome, according to one experienced insider, David Jing, a Beijing-born bodybuilder who we spoke to at a tournament a few months back.

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‘Of course, there’s still a long way to go to catch up with the States,’ David remarks, ‘but the progress in the last five to ten years has been rapid and remarkable. It’s gotten far more competitive.

‘When I first started competing 12 years ago, there was a lot more travelling for tournaments, as you might only be guaranteed a few a year here in Beijing,’ 35-year-old Jing remembers, ‘but now, across the country, the schedule is more regular, competitive and also diverse, with extra divisions and disciplines making it much more accessible.’

I’ve just watched him win the 90kg+ division at the One Fitness Cup, a relatively small, city-level tournament being held in a conference centre out in Fengtai district by Shape Fitness. Indeed, I’ve been treated to a packed programme spanning weight brackets, ages and genders.

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Unfortunately, the arena is only half full, half the audience are on their phones – surprise – and I feel like there’s a concerning lack of cheering and recognition for these physical marvels I’m witnessing. Perhaps they’ve seen it all before, but I’m engrossed. As someone who’s never watched the sport live, or even picked up a weight for that matter, it’s a fascinating introduction.

Essentially, this is grassroots level of a sport that takes years of dedication to reach any competitive level at all. But the setting, the attendance and crowd indifference belies the pedigree of its many competitors, including David himself, whose career has already taken him to tournaments in both France and Australia.

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In a sport where height is often considered a disadvantage, he’s a relative tower, standing at just over six foot – actually just a little shorter than myself, but I guess someone becomes much more of a presence when they’re stacked. And stood before you in just a pair of Speedos. And sprayed gold.

Funnily enough, when I ask David how it all began, he traces it back to Hollywood: ‘I guess it all started when I was 6 or 7 after I watched Rambo! I looked at Sylvester Stallone and thought, “Now that’s how a man should look!”’ It wasn’t until he reached university, however, that he really committed to his physique, and not exactly to the approval of those around him.

‘My parents, family and many of my friends disapproved, saying that they couldn’t see a future in the sport for me,’ he recalls, ‘partly because they thought I was too tall, but I think it had more to do with values – in China, academic success is given far more credit than anything else. I was going against standard practice doing what I was doing.’

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Image: Weibo/@morgana牟丛

Even after all these years, David says such perceptions of bodybuilding are a notable obstacle to its domestic growth: ‘We’re still struggling for widespread recognition, perhaps because of beauty standards. It’s a real issue for the men, but even more so for female competitors.’

Our conversation moves onto the recent success of Mou Cong (above), who, back in March, swept up both her weight division and overall champion at the prestigious Arnold Amateur tournament in Ohio, to become China’s first internationally successful female bodybuilder. ‘The reception’s been mixed,’ David laments. ‘Some people think her success is fantastic for the sport and for women, too, but it seems the majority have struggled to accept it. They feel it’s not appropriate for a woman.’

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Booming: Activewear brand Lululemon hosts a yoga class in the Forbidden City, August 2016

As China’s fitness boom continues, energised by health-conscious, affluent millennials with changing values, such perceptions will possibly evolve. At the competitor’s level, however, David speaks of other difficulties facing Chinese bodybuilders if they wish to truly raise the sport’s reputation and make a further impact on the international stage. ‘Money is the biggest challenge,’ he bemoans.

Most competitors, like David himself, are trainers by profession. While convenient in helping them keep fit on the job, in a country where 60% of personal trainers earn less than 8,000RMB a month, the lack of lucrative sponsorship contracts seen overseas puts a strain on training programmes, finances and free time.

One hopes that, in the face of the nation’s burgeoning lust for all things fitness, an increasing demand for trainers – and good-quality trainers, David emphasises – will push earnings up. Additionally, the growing profile, public exposure and social media advertising potential of competitors such as Mou Cong mean that wider sponsorship and increased backing can’t be too far away, whatever people think of their physiques.

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My time at the tournament and chat with David have made me realise, much like those who doubted him in the past, I’ve had it all wrong about bodybuilding. I suppose I’d never really taken it seriously as a genuine sport as such, thinking of it as some self-obsessed vanity pursuit, but that’s just so wide of the mark; these are high-level athletes making huge lifestyle sacrifices and showing admirable dedication to their craft – David will work out at least five hours a day in the weeks leading up to a tournament, for example – and under often challenging circumstances.

I ask what keeps him going – his fitness and health, his image, or the glory: ‘It’s prizes that keep me pushing myself harder. Competitive sports demand you be faster, stronger, bigger – always striving to be go one better – so as a sportsman, titles are the reward you chase, the recognition for the dedication you’ve shown.’ With many bodybuilders continuing to compete well into their fifties, there’s still plenty of time for David to taste further glory.

From Qian Jicheng to Zhuo Zhonghua and now Mou Cong, Chinese bodybuilders have already seen some success overseas, but only time will tell if David Jing and his muscular Chinese fellows can help make a sustained impression on the international scene. The signs are positive, though, and the nation’s growing economic strength that has seen them become a world leader in, well, pretty much everything could yet provide the springboard for future success.

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