Guest Post: History of Chinese Weightlifting Part 2: Republican Period – Great Leap Forward

Today’s post comes primarily from the Ma Strength Olympic weightlifting book written by Manuel Buitrago, an expert on Chinese weightlifting techniques.

In part 1, we finished off with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. From here, China entered a tumultuous period to establish itself as a Republic and gain international recognition. Therefore, reformers kept learning from the West, and the YMCA and YWCA continued playing a leading role in organizing physical education programs and events (Figure 1). Iron barbells were introduced in foreign consulates, but by 1929, the Shanghai Jingwu Sports Committee made an iron barbell to launch competitive weightlifting activities. And in 1930, the Shanghai Hu River University fitness committee launched weightlifting and bodybuilding activities with barbells and dumbbells.

Figure 1: Training at the YMCA in China
Chinese Drill

However, in exchange for international recognition, the Chinese Nationalist government ceded ports, territories, and industries to foreign powers. This situation created anti-imperialist resentment among the people, disunity among provinces, and the rise of warlords. In response to these pressures, the Nationalist government promoted sports and physical education in schools to strengthen the bodies of the Chinese people, build bravery, and create national unity (Lu 2011).

Additionally, missionaries and Chinese converts organized national and international competitions to integrate China into the global sports scene and enhance China’s international status. Part of this effort included China joining the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) in 1935. And in 1936, China sent its first weightlifters to the Berlin Olympics (Figure 2). Huang Sheji (60kg class) totaled 255 kg between the snatch, clean and press, and clean and jerk (70 + 80 + 105), while Shen Liang (60kg class) totaled 242.5kg (72.5 + 75 + 95), and Wang Kangting (67.5kg class) did not total (77.5 + 75 + 0). While they didn’t win any medals, their representation in the Games helped the sport of weightlifting gain greater acceptance in China and served as an outlet for expressing national unity.

Figure 2: 1936 Chinese Weightlifting & Boxing Olympic Teams
Chinese w/lers
Source: weightlifters are on the left

While China used international events to gain legitimacy and attempt to stave off foreign powers, Japan still invaded China launching the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Drained by the war and on the verge of collapse, the Nationalist government had limited funding to send a weightlifting team to the 1948 London Olympics. The athletes in other sports were poorly prepared and failed to win a medal. Due to the lack of funding, the athletes couldn’t even afford the travel expenses and had to return to China with the support of overseas Chinese in London (Lu 2011). However, China still hosted national events. Weightlifting was formally listed as a competition event at the 7th China National Games in Shanghai in 1948 (Figure 3), with 23 athletes from 5 weight classes competing. The Games attracted 100,000 spectators and were an opportunity to celebrate national unity (Fan & Lu 2012).

Figure 3: The 7th China National Games

The 1950s were a significant turning point for Chinese weightlifting. The Chinese Community Party (CCP) established the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, but they did not send a weightlifting team to the 1952 Olympics due to 1) the PRC not being an IOC member and 2) confusion over the PRC or Nationalist government in Taiwan would represent China. Eventually, the PRC received an invitation the day before the opening ceremony, so PRC athletes missed most of the competitions. However, the PRC delegation saw the USSR placed 2nd in the gold and total medal tables (behind the USA). The CCP immediately realized the role of sports for international legitimacy and diplomacy.

After the Games, the CCP signed Friendship Treaties with the USSR in which Soviet experts assisted their Chinese counterparts in building all aspects of training, sports management, and facilities. This model (Figure 4) included a policy called Laoweizhi, which financed sports in rural areas, established a centralized system of sports schools at the city and provincial level, required track and field, gymnastics, and weightlifting in schools, and integrated exercise at work (Fan, Fan, & Lu 2010).

Figure 4: Sovietized Chinese Weightlifting Model
Chinese drill
Source: Adapted from Dong 2001


These policies laid the foundation for the modern Chinese weightlifting system. They had the economic impact of opening sports as a paid profession for the first time since coaches were needed to teach technique and develop athletic abilities. Gifted athletes were also able to receive financial support at various stages of their development for their performance.

In 1955, 9 Chinese weightlifters trained in the Soviet Union for five months (Yang 2013). The Chinese delegation found four significant deficiencies in their training (Chen 1985). First, their athletes had less endurance than their Soviet counterparts because Chinese athletes primarily trained with low sets and reps. Second, Chinese athletes didn’t incorporate very much upper body training. This imbalanced training showed in their technique as Chinese weightlifters relied on lifting more with their quads than assisting with the hips, back, and shoulders, which limited their range of motion during the pull. Third, Chinese weightlifters only used recovery methods when an injury occurred rather than as part of a systemized plan. Fourth, their nutrition plan had more fat and carbs with fewer vitamins and protein than Soviet athletes, resulting in significant differences in body composition. The delegation considered all these differences and sought to copy Soviet practices in China.

All these differences heavily influenced the early systemic organization of Chinese weightlifting. The nine athletes increased their results by a total of 272.5 KG and convinced Chinese weightlifting teams to adopt systematic Soviet training (Yang 2013). Chinese coaches also adopted the squat style for the snatch and clean and jerk, which significantly improved weightlifting results quickly. For example, in 1956, a year after the delegation visited the Soviet Union, Chen Jingkai set the first world record by a Chinese weightlifter by jerking 133kg in the 56kg class in Shanghai (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Chen Jingkai World Record
Chen Jingkai World Record

However, China did not display this performance on a global stage. In 1953 – 1958, the IOC recognized the PRC but decided on a two China policy for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The PRC pulled out of the Games in protest and eventually withdrew from the IOC 2 years later. In 1956, Mao Zedong was shocked when Khrushchev denounced Stalin and removed key institutions that helped Stalin hold power. Mao questioned the USSR’s commitment to communism and grew skeptical of their support. Meanwhile, the weightlifting totals of Chinese weightlifters over seven weight classes increased 12.5kg per year, while the world totals increased 2.7kg each year (Yang 2013).

With this backdrop, Mao Zedong ended the Friendship agreement with the USSR and confidently launched the Great Leap Forward (GLF) in 1958 (Figure 6). The goal of the GLF was to make China a communist leader and surpass foreign powers economically. Part of this goal included mobilizing mass and elite sport to overtake the world standards in 10 sports within 10 years: basketball, volleyball, football, table tennis, athletics, gymnastics, weightlifting, swimming, shooting, and skating (Fan, Fan, and Lu 2010).

Figure 6: Propaganda Poster “Great Leap Forward of Sports” 1959
chinese weightlifting

However, the Great Leap Forward disrupted the supply and demand of resources and led to economic decline within its first year. While the China National Games were already three years into preparation (Figure 7), the CCP moved forward, inaugurating the Games in 1959 to propagate the idea of building the strength of the people and nation (Fan & Lu 2012). Delegations from France, the Soviet Union, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, North Korea, Sudan, Poland, East Germany, Mongolia, and Vietnam attended, adding to national prestige and a political victory for the CCP. Additionally, the Games boosted the confidence and hope of Chinese people and helped them to believe that China could catch up with the economically advanced countries in the West.

Figure 7: Propaganda Poster of the 1st National Games
Propaganda Poster of the 1st National Games
Source: Fan & Lu 2012. Poster says, “Learn from Them, Overtake Them, Create New World Records!” Notice Chen Jingkai on the left.

However, it will take much more than 10 years for this dream to come true. While the PRC established the foundation for Chinese weightlifting through the 1950s, the system will encounter significant changes in the coming decades and take a unique form before becoming a dominant power.


Dong, Jinxia. 2001. “The Female Dragons Awake: Women, Sport and Society in the Early Years of the New China.” The International Journal of the History of Sport. 18(2): 1 – 34.

Chen Guanhu. 1985. “The training investigation of the Soviet and Bulgarian national weightlifting teams and our preliminary experiments.” China Sports Science and Technology 22: 1 – 15.

Fan, Hong, and Lu Zhouxiang. 2012. “Representing the New China and the Sovietisation of Chinese sport (1949–1962).” The International Journal of the History of Sport. 29(1): 1 – 29.

Fan, Wei, Fan Hong, and Lu Zhouxiang. 2010. “Chinese State Sports Policy: Pre- and Post-Beijing 2008.” The International Journal of the History of Sport. 27(14-15): 2380 – 2402.

Lu, Zhouxiang. 2016. “Sport and Politics: The Cultural Revolution in the Chinese Sports Ministry, 1966 – 1976.” The International Journal of the History of Sport. 33(5): 569 – 585.

Yang, Shiyong. 2013. A Course on Weightlifting Sport. People’s Sports Publishing House. Beijing.

Author Bio:

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