China's Basketball Brawls: Aggression vs. Etiquette on the Courts and on the Road

This image by Reuters comes from the Forbes website

I'm writing this entry in appreciation of fellow China scholar and Dartmouth alum Victor Mair's analysis posted on the MCLC e-list (see below) of the recent basketball game between the Georgetown Hoyas and Bayi Rockets, which ended in an orgy of violence involving the players and the mostly Chinese audience.  It strikes me that the dark reading of this event by some Western media outlets e.g. "Basketball Brawl Symbolized Growing U.S.-China Tensions" goes a bit too far.  Mair's analysis, putting the game into context with other similar events, has much greater explanatory value.  

Perhaps one of the underlying reasons for this fracas, other than the obvious fact that the Chinese team was composed of PLA soldiers, is that Chinese athletes and audiences here in the PRC haven't yet developed a more sophisticated sense of etiquette and sportsmanship.  One might argue that sportsmanlike conduct in team sports competitions has evolved over the decades in the USA and other countries, though in some contests such as football (European and American) and rugby matches, one is still reminded of the bloodlusty gladiatorial cultures of the ancient Roman Empire as described by Saint Augustine.

To be honest, I'm fairly ignorant of organized team sports and have little interest in them.  While I do not understand the obsession that most of my fellow Americans have for these events and their "heroes," I'd also venture to guess that players in the US are limited in their actions by the severe financial penalties imposed on them by their violent behavior.  I don't know if such penalties exist in China or how they compare to the USA, but I wonder if Chinese basketball players have as much to lose by kicking their opponents when they are lying on the floor, or striking them over the head with their fists, as seems to have happened in this case.

I would guess that if you look into the history of basketball and other sports in the US such as baseball, these events were far more violent a few decades ago than they are today.  Just one example comes to mind:  I seem to recall that the famous baseball player Ty Cobb used to sharpen the spikes on his shoes so that he'd cause serious damage to his "opponents" while sliding into a base if they were in his way.  Again, real sports enthusiasts can enlighten us further on these matters.

The basketball melee also reminds me of my everyday experience of driving in Shanghai.  Drivers here are relatively new to the game as well, and at times it seems to be an all out battle for supremacy over the road with no quarter given.  The "me first" mentality is very strong when it comes to driving etiquette or lack thereof.  This in turn leads to far more accidents, which cause traffic delays ratcheting up levels of anxiety, leading to more fender-benders and so on in a vicious cycle.  And people end up spending more time and money on the road and getting their cars fixed.  But it is all worthwhile if one can shave that second off the road trip by cutting in front of another vehicle.  This used to be true of lines here in China as well, such as the queues formed at a bank or a ticket counter.  People have become far more polite about lining up since I first arrived in China in the 1980s.  I suspect that over time, people in Shanghai will develop a more sophisticated sense of etiquette when it comes to driving.  But who knows?  Only time will tell.


On Tue, Aug 23, 2011 at 9:59 PM, Denton, Kirk 



From: victor mair (
Subject: basketball brawl (1)
Some Little-known Aspects of the Basketball Brawl between the Georgetown
Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets
By Victor H. Mair
University of Pennsylvania
August 22, 2011
The infamous melee between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets that
took place this past Thursday has been widely covered in the American
press (so I won't rehearse the basic details here), but has been mostly
scrubbed from Chinese media.  It is unfortunate that this donnybrook
happened while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting China, and that is
one of the reasons often given as an excuse for the general effacing of
this sorry event from Chinese news sources -- so as not to embarrass the
Vice President of the United States of America.  Another common
explanation is that this was supposed to be a goodwill game, and it is a
great loss of face for China that it turned out to be something altogether
different -- a full-court free-for-all in which the home fans participated
by booing, throwing bottles (some of them full of water), and showering
the Hoyas with other objects as they left the court.
To begin to grasp the real dynamics of what happened on Thursday, we need
to understand that the Bayi Rockets are an army team.  Indeed, all of its
players are members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and their very
name (8-1) signifies the date (8/1[/1927]) of the founding of the PLA on
August 1, 1927, which is still celebrated annually as PLA Day.  The Bayi
Rockets have also perennially been one of the best professional basketball
teams in China.  Because the Hoyas would have demolished any Chinese
college basketball team that could have been put against them, they were
made to play one of the premier professional basketball teams in China.
One can imagine the extreme frustration felt by the Chinese -- players and
fans alike -- when the college boy Hoyas kept up with the professional
Rockets.  The tension grew all the greater in light of the fact that the
Chinese referees clearly were doing some home-cooking in the foul
department, calling 28 fouls against Georgetown and only 11 against Bayi.
Nor did it help matters that the Rockets were all soldiers trained to
Thus it was virtually inevitable that a skirmish would break out.  Some
commentators even declared that -- instead of being a show of goodwill,
the now fabled Georgetown-Bayi "Basketball Brawl Symbolized Growing
U.S.-China Tensions
" as Max Boot wrote in Commentary (August 21, 2011).  At the very least,
as Josh Chin declared in the online Wall Street Journal (August 19, 2011),
"A Basketball 'Friendly' Fouls U.S.-China Mood
It is not uncommon for basketball games in China to erupt into fisticuffs.
 It seems that Chinese players do not quite understand that, unlike rugby
or football, basketball is not supposed to be a brutal contact sport, and
it certainly is not meant to be a boxing or wrestling match.  In one
notorious instance that took place last October, a massive melee broke out
early on between a visiting Brazilian team and a Chinese team during
another supposedly "friendly" match.  If you type   brazil china
basketball fight   (no quotation marks) into Google, you can find plenty
of accounts, photographs, and videos of the vicious combat that took
place; here is one
There are a number of media reports (e.g., Washington Post, Wall Street
Journal) about wild free-for-alls between Chinese teams and American teams
playing in China, together with Chinese players and fans throwing things
(including chairs) at the Americans, with little to no intervention by
Chinese police and security personnel.
The USA Today for Friday, August 19, 2011, p. 7C has this paragraph:
"The melee [between the Georgetown Hoyas and Bayi Rockets] was the latest
instance of on-court fighting by China, whose players have been fined tens
of thousands of dollars by the world and Asian federations for scrapping
with opponents."
A self-confessed apologist for Chinese basketball, who cleverly calls his
website "niubball" ("niub" [two syllables:  niúbī] is generally explained
as meaning something like "awesome" or "fantastic," but actually is an
extremely vulgar obscenity, as explained here
<>), admits
(August 22, 2011
<>) that
basketball as played in China is much more physical than anywhere else.
In any event, nearly everyone, including many Chinese commentators on
microblogs and other venues, recognizes that the Chinese players both
instigated and escalated the fight.  This is obvious from the the limited
video footage <> and photographs
tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi> that are available at many places on the
web.  In one scene, a Chinese player pushes Georgetown's Aaron Bowen
through a partition, then pins him to the ground and pummels him.
Taiwan's Next Media produced an animated version of the fight, available
-chinas-bayi-rockets-animated-video/2011/08/19/gIQA1z5VQJ_blog.html>, that
emphasizes the pugilistic predilections of the Chinese players.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III pulled his players off the court with 9
minutes 32 seconds left to go.  It is beyond a curious coincidence that
the score was tied at 64-64 when the game was called off.  The symbolic
significance of 64-64 has not been lost on some observers, for example,
here <>
and here <>, and
there are many others who make the same point.  What such interpreters see
in the 64-64 tie between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Bayi Rockets is the
PLA suppressing students on June 4, 1989.  Naturally, no one is suggesting
that either the Hoyas or the Rockets wished for the game to end at
precisely 64-64 (certainly, the Rockets would not have wanted that to
happen!).  Yet the fact remains that this was the score at the conclusion
of the game, and it shall remain so forever.  Hence the desperate need for
the custodians of the media to wipe it from the consciousness of Chinese
citizens.  The intense humiliation surrounding such an unseemly occurrence
on Chinese soil only adds to the desire on the part of the Chinese
authorities for everybody in the PRC and abroad to forget that it ever
happened.  The problem is that these ruckuses keep recurring in Chinese
basketball games with foreign teams.  If the habit of physically attacking
visiting opponents is not changed, China's reputation as a pugnacious
nation will only grow.  Somehow, China needs to stop the escalating cycle
of violence.  If it does not, chances are good that other nations will
grow wary of engaging in sport and other types of exchanges.
Incidentally, CND or Chinese News Digest (source of the first item cited
in the third sentence of the previous paragraph), is the oldest overseas
electronic Chinese language news magazine/service first set up by Chinese
students in the U.S., probably just before 1989.  It is considered the
most serious and "mainstream" among the mainland Chinese community who
came to the U.S. as students (now mostly professionals in various areas),
and is still run by volunteers.  The authors of the posts are usually
those living in the U.S., but it often carries important news items and
articles from other sources.
The Independent Review 独立评论 is also based in the United States. Its
is interesting in that it is borrowed directly from the name of a
publication associated with the famous Republican scholar, Hu Shi 胡适, and
carries on its masthead a 1932 statement of the ideals upon which the
earlier journal was founded.
The fracas between Georgetown and Bayi has special meaning for me because
I was the Dartmouth basketball captain in 1964-65 and for three years on
the varsity team was assigned to guard Bill Bradley every time we played
Princeton.  One of the most glorious moments of my basketball career was
when I stole the ball from him at mid-court in the Princeton gym; one of
the most inglorious moments was when -- after being stunned for a moment
-- Bradley came roaring down the court to slap the ball off the backboard
as I attempted an easy layup after stealing the ball from him.  (Bradley
didn't tackle me after I stole the ball from him in front of thousands of
people, and I didn't shove him after he ruined my layup.)  Now, with the
Georgetown-Bayi mixup, my basketball and Sinology backgrounds have come
together and compelled me to write this brief essay.
[A tip of the hat to Anne Henochowicz and Sanping Chen]
Victor H. Mair