Can Mao Zedong's poetry rekindle the fighting spirit of the Chinese women's volleyball team in time for next year's London Olympics?
The team, with only five players from the bronze-medal-winning squad of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has been in a month-long, closed-door training session that will end on Monday. Part of the session was a six-day crash course on some of Mao's poems, the China Volleyball Association said on its website.
The study and reading of the poems represent another sign of a revived push for 'red culture' by the Communist Party. The push is one method being used to hold together an increasingly fragmented society. Flamboyant Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai has been spearheading a revival of revolutionary culture there, with one television channel broadcasting revolutionary songs, films and artworks extolling the party.
The volleyball association said that, among other things, the players were required to study Mao's famous poem The Long March, which chronicles the painstaking, treacherous retreat of the Red Army to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang army between October 1934 and October 1935. 'By undertaking such activities ... the women's volleyball team can immerse themselves in the same morale with which Chairman Mao led the Long March in their daily training and preparations for the London Olympics,' the association said.
The team's victory in the 1981 World Cup inspired millions of Chinese at a time when the country was in the early stages of its reform and opening after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
The team went on to win four world titles in a row, including their first Olympic gold medal in 1984, and catapulted it to national heroism. But it has been a slide for the team since then, although they were ranked first in the world in 2004 and won the World Cup again in 2005.
They lost the Asian championship for the second time in a row in September 2009 in a crushing defeat to Thailand, and finished 10th in last year's World Championships in Japan, which has led fans to decry a weakening of the Chinese team's fighting spirit.
Some online commentators say that Mao's poems are not just well written but have a powerful message, and that they hope the women's team can look beyond the poems' literary beauty to their essence.