It is nearly impossible to be in China right now and not feel the pain of Yao. Not the mythic Golden Age Yao who was reported to have lived until he was 119 and served as the model of the moral ruler for all emperors who followed. I’m talking about the 7’ 6” Houston Rockets’ Yao, who, on the threshold of the Olympics, is sporting a stress fracture in his left foot. Adrian Wojnarowski has an insightful look at what Yao Ming faces as he stares down the barrel of the greatest Chinese show on earth. He will play in the Olympics come hell or high water, though anyone who knows Beijing knows the only high water in northern China this summer will be coming from somewhere else.
Yao’s normal yearly schedule is one that is physically insane. Add the stress of a broken foot and the nationalistic pressures heaped on him by whatever ministry micromanages the every move of every athlete so as to ensure that they will either win or forever end up as goats, and we can get a slight glimpse into the psychological pressures that this giant of an athlete, who is also a star human being, faces.
I am reminded of two passages from a pair of books two millennia removed from each other. The first is from Mengzi (Mencius): “As Yao and Shun ruled the empire, it could not have been done without their fully devoting their minds to it, but they did not devote themselves to tilling the fields.”
The other is from John King Fairbank, the American Chinese historian, who, in his last book before his death in 1991, wrote: “On the Long March the Red Army-CCP high command rode much of the way asleep on two-man litters, as the column followed the stone paths over hills and paddy fields. Usually they had been up most of the night handling the army’s intelligence, logistic, personnel and strategic problems to prepare for the next day’s march or fighting.” (China: A New History, p. 233)
It is clear that Yao is no Mao; there will be no one to carry him when his body fails. He will till the fields like all the rest who are not of the ruling class, and he will drop face first in the furrows before anyone will allow him a chance to heal his wounds. And if he fails to produce, he will never be allowed to forget it. This is what he knows. This is the way it is, row after row, for as far into the distance as he can possibly see. The Chinese might love their heroes, but they all know that no one carries a farmer.