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What I've Learned
In the film Queen of Sports, Lin Ying, an athletic but untrained country girl, comes to Shanghai to attend college. Her track coach turns out to be the brother of a childhood friend. This handsome (though solemn and brooding) fellow not only makes her heart go pitter-pat, he teaches her the fundamentals of competitive running, including how to place her hands on the starting chalk line, how to rise from a kneeling to a ready position, and how to step off properly for the fastest start.
Lin soaks all this up and begins, thanks to hard work and natural talent, to win races.
She continues to win, and becomes a celebrity. During her rise in prowess and fame, Lin begins to shirk training, go to parties, and lose sight of the purity of athletic competition. She becomes aware of her waywardness and renews her dedication to her sport. A tragedy near the time of the national 200-meter finals changes Lin even more. She takes the starting crouch for the big race a very different girl than she had been.
Though Queen of Sports is a silent black and white film released in China in 1934, it has a Hollywood feel to its blocking, pacing, and style, the director having studied in the United States in the 1920s. It is a movie worth seeing, if for no other reason than to watch a young Li Lili play the part of Lin Ying. (Reminder: Chinese names are written with the family name first.)
Queen of Sports—and another movie that came out around the same time, The Big Road [also known as The Highway]—made Li a huge star in China. She had an energy and modernness about her that captured her country's imagination.
Li married Luo Jingyu, a section head at China Film Studio who later became head of the studio. Li tells of the time, before they were married, when the two of them were part of a trainload of people fleeing the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. Li had no mattress or blanket.
"I had been sleeping on a bare wooden board, but one day I suddenly found I had a mattress, and when I looked over at where Luo Jingyu was sleeping, I saw he was sleeping on the board and had given his mattress to me. ... He slept on the wooden board and gave me a quilt that he couldn't afford [to give up], so I thought that this guy was really all right."
In the early 1940s, the couple visited the United States for five years. Li studied acting at Catholic University in Washington, language and singing in New York, and make-up at the University of California.
By the mid-1960s, Li and her husband, both around 50 years old, had settled into a quiet, comfortable, productive life in China. Then the Cultural Revolution began.
In an effort to give the country an attitude adjustment, the Chinese government arrested millions of people and sent them to "re-education" facilities and work camps. For re-education, think torture and brainwashing.
Re-education methods were of the slow, intensely painful kind. The idea was to make you confess things—it didn't matter if they were true or not—and to make you denounce family, friends, and acquaintances so they could be arrested and re-educated as well. The goal was to break your mind and your will through prolonged pain, exhaustion, and hopelessness.
One of the architects of the Cultural Revolution was Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao Tse Tung. Jiang Qing was not her real name. Earlier in life she had been known as Lan Ping, a not very talented movie actress. She had acted—in films such as 1936's Blood on Wolf Mountain—with Li Lili.
Lan Ping became Jiang Qing, the most powerful woman in China, and she used her position to settle personal scores. Jiang resented Li for overshadowing her in the movies some 30 years earlier. She ordered the arrest of Li and Li's husband, and personally directed, with a vengence, their re-education.
Li's husband didn't survive. Somehow, Li did. And despite all she suffered, Li never denounced anyone. Not family. Not friends. Not acquaintances. No one.
In time, things changed. Mao died. The Cultural Revolution ended. Jiang Qing, herself, was arrested and sent to prison.
Li, 63, began to put her life back together. She remarried. She became a professor at the Beijing Film Academy. She lived to be 90, dying in 2005.
Last year, I read a charming piece at the Forbes website entitled "What I Learned From China's Angelina Jolie" by a fellow named Shaun Rein. When he met Li, she was an old woman and he was about to marry her granddaughter. At their first meeting, Li told him, "Sometimes you need to swim against the current. Even if everyone is going in one direction in a bad way, you do what is right and moral. Even if that means going against everyone else. Never forget that."
There is a DVD available—I ordered it through Netflix—that has both Queen of Sports and The Big Road on it, with the silent-movie text subtitled in English. There is a free version of Queen of Sports on line, but it doesn't have the English subtitles. I saw this version first and was able to follow the story reasonably well. Go to archive.org and search for the movie's title.
If you watch Queen of Sports, you will have the pleasure of seeing a young woman with the athleticism of Angelina Jolie and the loveliness and acting ability of Julia Roberts. And you will have the opportunity to see honor and greatness in embryo.