Guest Post: History of Chinese Weightlifting Part 3: Crash and Recovery through the Cultural Revolution

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

After the failure of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and subsequent natural disasters affecting crop harvests, China entered the Great Famine of 1962–63 (Fan & Lu 2012a). Additionally, while the experience with Soviet teams laid the foundation for the Chinese weightlifting system, the Sino-Soviet split reduced resources available for sports development and brought the Laoweizhi policy to an end. Given this economic situation, Chinese coaches realized that the indiscriminate copying of Soviet training practices was unsustainable and stifled innovation. However, two former lifters and world-record holders became young coaches and changed how China approached Olympic weightlifting.

The first was Zhao Qingkui (left, Figure 1), a lifter from Tianjin who joined the national team 1955 – 1960, breaking world record in the clean & jerk and winning national and international titles. He attributed part of his rapid progress and success to conceptualizing the lifts in his way, summarized by 3 words: close, fast, and low. After retiring from competition in 1960, he became a coach and rose to become the head coach for the National Team and director of the National Technique Commission.

The other record holder was Zhao’s older teammate, Huang Qianghui (middle, Figure 1), who fell in love with weightlifting while studying at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Harbin Institute of Technology. He also entered the National Team in 1955 but relied on his biomechanical knowledge to improve his understanding and performance. As a lifter, he broke the clean and jerk world record in national and international competitions before becoming a coach in 1960.

Figure 1: Founders of Chinese Weightlifting: Zhao Qingkui, Huang Qianghui, & Chen Jingkai

Due to the Sino-Soviet split, the US invasion of Vietnam, and a Sino-Indian border conflict, China faced more military threats than ever before. By 1961 the Sino-Soviet split was evident. China’s foreign policy was to oppose USSR revisionism and US imperialism. Additionally, 50 nations claimed independence in the 1940s and 1950s and formed a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961. China joined this movement, providing political and financial support in exchange for recognizing the PRC as the only legitimate representative of China (Lu 2012a).

Against this backdrop, sports took a more military turn in China (Figure 2). Athletes were required to live in the army barracks and perform military training with the soldiers (Lu 2012a). Political instructors and teachers accompanied all sports teams to help athletes study Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought.

Figure 2: Militarization of Chinese Sports
Source: Lu (2012a), the poster says, ‘Athletes should learn from the People’s Liberation Army and equip their minds with the right focus- like the direction of a rifle.’

To further China’s ambitions, Zhao and Huang combined their understandings to develop a concept of technique and training grounded in scientific analysis. They engaged in weightlifting research and recruited researchers to analyze training theory, loads, methods, techniques, and strength training. Zhao’s philosophy eventually expanded to 5 Words and 3 gravity principles, each with an underlying scientific analysis.

Through developing their philosophy and implementing evidence-based training, 8 Chinese athletes broke 11 world records in the press, snatch, and clean and jerk. To this day, Zhao and Huang receive credit as the founders of the Chinese weightlifting system, and educated coaches still use their methods throughout China (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Huang Qianghui Teaching Young Chinese Weightlifters

This upward trend came to a crashing halt when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in early 1966. The campaign was a political struggle to regain control over Party decisions from right-wing CCP leaders and re-establish the ideological purity of communism (Lu 2016). The Cultural revolution opposed elitism and advocated the rise of the proletariat. In sports, the struggle arose between promoting mass sport and elite sport. Revolutionaries viewed mass sport as a way to unite the workers, improve their health, and improve national defense (Figure 4). But winning medals at international sports competitions indicated bourgeois behavior and a defection toward capitalism.

Figure 4: Fitness During the Cultural Revolution
Source: China Underground

As the revolution grew, sports officials who had foreign relations or connections were seen as counterrevolutionaries or spies, which led to their exile or imprisonment. Additionally, celebrity champion athletes were condemned by rebels as representatives of bourgeois and capitalist ideology. This persecution resulted in disbanding many national, provincial, and regional sports teams, closing sports schools, and stopping participation of international sports competition for 6 years (Figure 5).

Figure 5: International Competitions and Sports Exchanges Attended by the Chinese National Team 1965 -1970 (Wu 1999)

In 1969, the political situation changed after a clash with Soviet troops on Zhenbao Island created concern within PRC leadership that the PLA would probably be incapable of defending a major Soviet attack (Fan & Lu 2012b). China realized the need to improve Sino-western relations and figured good relations with the West could undermine escalations from the USSR.

Therefore, Premier Zhou Enlai instructed in late June 1968 that elite athletes must be protected and immune from struggle sessions (Lu 2016). Despite releasing coaches and athletes from prison, the training situation was unstable due to power struggles among factions in the Chinese leadership. Athletes and coaches could still be persecuted based on their political allegiances. Additionally, teams did not have a unified understanding of training due to a lack of access to information and fear of using foreign developments. Therefore, China’s weightlifting considerably lagged at the world level.

However, the goal of sports shifted away from defense to the purpose of ‘Friendship first, competition second,’ which means the competition result was not important, but rather the ability to create friendly political relationships (Fan & Lu 2012b). After the famous ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ in the early 1970s, the PRC resumed participation in the 1974 Asian Games where Chen Manlin (Figure 6), the younger brother of Chen Jingkai, secured a silver medal in the 56kg class. China’s provincial and national weightlifting teams toured Albania in 1973, Pakistan in 1974, and West German in 1974. And the PRC applied for entry into the IOC as the sole sports organization for China.

Figure 6: Chen Manlin (1977 Photo)
Source: Bruce Klemens

This successful diplomacy motivated the Beijing national sports conference in 1973, which called to restore all sports commissions and promote the following goals: 1) promote mass sport, 2) develop a sports school system; 3) raise the technical level of sports; 4) continue international sports performances; 6) promote sports science research; and 7) reopen physical education institutions (Fan & Lu 2012b).

Unfortunately, implementing these goals was difficult as the Cultural Revolution lingered. After a failed coup attempt against Mao Zedong in 1971, he launched another political campaign to secure his authority. In 1972, Mao’s supporters who ran the Sports Ministry called for the promotion of mass sport in the countryside. And a revolutionary program transferred urban secondary school graduates and other elites to rural villages.

The Cultural Revolution finally came to an end with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. At this point, the army took over critical media, security, and sports bureaus and ousted extremists to preserve political stability (Lu 2016). Deng Xiaoping came into power and started implementing the Reformation and Open-Door policies. And the sports ministry adopted a formal policy of promoting both mass and elite sport but emphasized elite sport to catch up to the rest of the world. At this time, Huang Qianghui and Zhao Qingkui returned to research and develop a weightlifting system.

Figure 7: The Olympic Press

Since the clean and press (Figure 7) was abolished in 1972, countries adapted their training programs to specialize in snatching and clean and jerking. This change required China to adjust and learn from other countries. The result adopted training 8 – 9 times per week and increasing daily volume to 50 – 60 sets while continuing research on weightlifting technique. In 1979, Chinese athletes broke 20 youth world records, which signified the recovery of Chinese weightlifting and set the stage for future dominance.


Fan Hong, and Lu Zhouxiang. 2012a. “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, Hong, and Lu Zhouxiang. 2012b. “Sport in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).” The International Journal of the History of Sport. 29(1): 53 – 73.

Lu, Zhouxiang. 2012a. “Sport, Militarism and Diplomacy: Training Bodies for China (1960–1966). International Journal of the History of Sport29(1): 30 – 52.

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.

Wu, Shaozu (ed.). 1999. The History of Sport in the People’s Republic of China. Beijing: China Book Press.

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

Author Bio:

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