Rural revitalization: Villagers play basketball to build healthier community
By Du Chenxi ,Liao Hongqing, Jin Yiling
Spectators cheer for a 3-point shot during a village basketball match in Fengqiao Town, Zhejiang Province.
In a little-known village in Fengqiao Town, a fierce 30-minute basketball match was going on. At halftime, a horde of aunties rushed to the court and gathered around the sweating players, fanning them like diligent bees, handing out bottled water, and wiping the sweat off their faces with towels.
It's not a national competition, nor even a city game. Instead, the two teams represented two small villages in Zhuji, east China's Zhejiang Province. Known as a basketball city, Zhuji, with a population of just 1 million, boasts more than 2,000 basketball courts, well above the national average. Until last year, it has hosted matches for three consecutive seasons of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).
CunBA, or Village BA, was at first a slightly jocular coinage, named after the CBA, the country's leading professional basketball league, for basketball matches held in a village in Guizhou Province in August 2022, after videos of the matches went viral.
It became official after a June 7 circular from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs upgraded the basketball league from a regional competition to a national one, as part of efforts to address rural fitness.
The Tujiawu team in Fengqiao Town has proved to be a strong contender. In the latest tournament from April to June, the team came out on top after beating the other 31 village-level communities and villages.
A Tujiawu team player (in red) attempts a slam dunk during a village basketball match.
A Tujiawu team player poses with his family after winning a match.
However, for CunBA, participation matters more than anything else.
In this village with only about 1,500 residents, nearly a hundred people are involved on a regular basis in matches as players, cheering squad, or mere spectators, according to Tu Lijun, Party secretary of the village.
Strangely, the rise of basketball in the village can be traced to an outsider, Tu Hongbiao, who came to the village from the provincial capital Hangzhou in the 1960s as part of a campaign to send educated urban youth to the countryside to help local development.
He settled down in the village and started his auto parts business. In fact, almost every villager here is engaged in this line of business in a village also known as the hometown of auto parts.
As a sports enthusiast, Tu was itching to get his hands on a basketball. Since there was no basketball court in the village, he and his friends made do with a makeshift court, which was little more than a tract of earthy plot.
Then in the 1980s, it evolved into a rudimentary court with paved field and the installation of two wooden boards as basketball stands. This makeshift venue has since become an integral part of village life, particularly after Tu organized the first local basketball team soon after.
With the love for the game taking root in the village, the tradition is being carried on today by sports lessons provided in schools, or even extra tutorials some parents arrange for their children.
In his 70s now, Tu, the coach, is more valued for his role as an organizer than for his professional expertise.
Whenever the coach shares some information about a forthcoming match in a WeChat group, players who are available respond immediately, or pass on the information.
Members of the Tujiawu team at this year's CunBA
Though a coach from a sports school can offer more professional advice, Tu is still very much on the sports scene. As one village player put it, in the future, our coach may turn into our cheerleader, but as long as he's around us, we're at ease to enjoy the game.
For residents of Tujiawu Village, there are few things more exciting than watching or participating in a basketball match.
Since the venue for the CunBA match is 11 kilometers from the village, in Fengqiao Town, busloads of villagers are often shipped to the venue ahead of the match.
Some villagers can be seen holding rice balls in their hands as, fresh off from a day's work, they have no time for a proper meal.
Once a young man, who worked outside the village, spent hours traveling thousands of miles by air to watch a match.
The benefits of these matches go beyond mere entertainment. Villagers used to be addicted to mahjong, but not any more. It's a change Party secretary Tu Lijun succinctly characterized as one more basketball court, one less casino.
A player from the Tujiawu team chats with his 90-year-old grandfather on the sideline of a match.
It's really amazing seeing people coming together for a common goal through a simple game, the secretary said, with a smile.
During a recent interview, he talked glowingly about his vision for an indoor basketball court in the village.
Nestled on the slope of mountains far from the center of Fengqiao Town, Tujiawu Village remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world.
As village leader Tu observed, With a new indoor court, we can invite teams from other villages to play, so that more people can have a direct experience of the basketball culture rooted in this remote village.
And CunBA is certainly playing a big role in the country's rural revitalization drive. With such matches being promoted all across the countryside, the vigor and verve of sports will enliven the rural scene, and narrow the gap in economic conditions between the rural and urban areas.
(The authors are MA candidates in international journalism at Shanghai International Studies University.)