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Monday, February 27, 2012

The Lintrinsic Value of Jeremy

In 1986 Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France. Until that point cycling was still a European sport. It was where Italians, Belgians, Germans and of course the French could reign supreme. Americans did not have the pedigree to win the Tour... any Tour.


Taiwan's Jeremy Lin fixation has now washed over to taint cycling as well as every other aspect of daily Taiwanese life.

The Chinese language Liberty Times is reporting on a cycling club that rode from Bagua Shan in Changhua to Beidou where some of Lin's extended family resides. According to the report, the Taichung based Shanjiao Mao Bike Club rode 80km to Beidou Township to eat local delicacies and bother the Lin family, despite Jeremy Lin's explicit request to leave the family alone.

The bicycle club roused one of Lin's relatives into showing them the bicycle that had been ridden by the Knicks newest basketball sensation and darling of the Chinese language media.


I find the Jeremy Lin story to be interesting on a number of levels and the Taiwanese fixation on Lin's success speaks volumes on the state of Taiwanese athletics, nationalism and the future of Taiwanese cycling.

The most obvious issue is the degree in which the unfolding "Linsanity" has hinged on concepts of race.

In the American media, Jeremy Lin has provided just enough of a shockwave to remind all Americans that prejudice still lurks in the unexpected corners of our minds. The fact that Lin's numbers, though commendable on a middling team, are nothing near the dazzling bombardment of shock and awe laid down by the likes of Jordan, Johnson, Stockton-Malone, Payton-Kemp and numerously more dominating and dazzling players and combos. The fact that many Americans were surprised that an Asian-American could slip between the triangle offense and the playground to make an impact is enough to bring out feelings of associated guilt. Commentators in America have been as quick to draw attention to the issue of "race" as often as they are to exploit it. Americans are aware that ideas of race are a sensitive issue.

What may be more interesting and worthy of attention is the manner in which Jeremy Lin's portrayal in Taiwan has also skirted the uncomfortable lines of race and ethnic nationalism with much less caution.

Ever since the Lin story broke, Taiwanese and Chinese nationalists have been clamoring for a piece of Jeremy Lin as the star has been used to represent Chinese, Taiwanese, Asian-Americans and everything in between to fulfill a desire for international recognition and plaudits. In Taiwan we frequently see this phenomenon when anything related to Taiwan or Taiwanese is singled out for international commendation. Sadly, this type of "racial pride" still plays to prior and existing colonial relationships between the Orient and the Occident, in which an entity referred to as "the West" is often still looked to for recognition and authentication.

The competition for ownership and recognition may be more related to where it lacks. As Taiwan has struggled for international recognition as either the R.O.C. or as simply "Taiwan", the desire to fill the void with anything prized has driven people in Taiwan into an arms race of clout against the constant bullying by the neighboring People's Republic of China (PRC), which seeks every opportunity to deny international space for Taiwanese to showcase a separate, non-Chinese national pride.

By the same "token" (ouch!)... Chinese nationalists would like to hop on Lin's coattails to both exert territorial claims to Taiwan as a lesser part of a Greater China, and also to affirm the Chinese nationalist mythology of persistent victimhood at the hands of the west. Lin is often propped up by these Chinese nationalists as a defender (or in this case, Point Guard) of "the race".

As Americans, with their immense baggage of a history smeared by racial conflict, try to play down and pass censure on the issue of "race", modern Chinese nationalism is founded on a bedrock of racialism that hopes to exploit the west's own vehicle for colonialism to further their own goals of territory and wealth.

For these types Lin represents an odd paradox.

Chinese Nationalism has taken a strange, ambiguously bifurcated path, toggling between definitions of "Chineseness".

Sun Yat-sen, the nominal founder of the Republic of China (ROC), who is revered in both the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC), as an important figure in establishing a post-dynastic China, was also a great practitioner of racialism and keenly wove the 19th century beliefs of social darwinism and racialism into his modern Chinese republic.

“Considering the law of survival of ancient and modern races, if we want to save China and to preserve the Chinese race, we must certainly promote Nationalism. To make this principle luminous for China's salvation, we must first understand it clearly. The Chinese race totals four hundred million people; of mingled races there are only a few hundred million Mongols, a million or so Manchus, a few million Tibetans, and over a million Mohammedan Turks. These alien races do not number more than 10 million, so that, for the most part, the Chinese people are of the Han or Chinese race with common blood, common religion, and common customs-a single, pure race.”

Sun Yat-sen in San Min Zhu Yi (1927)

On the one hand, Sun adopts the belief in a modern, multiethnic nation, where Han is the dominant and transformative culture that will unite the people. On the other hand he views the divisions in the now dated terms of "race" and "blood".

Sun left his definition of "Chinese people" ambiguous to achieve the goals of fueling anti-Manchuism among the Han ethnic-nationalists, while incorporating the vast territory in the west that was appropriated by the Manchu Qing empire (Taiwan was not a consideration at this point as it had been a Japanese colony since 1895).

Chinese nationalisms in both the PRC and the ROC, continue to use the dated and logically incongruous Sunist construct for defining "Chinese" and "Chineseness", as a shared system of culture, customs, language, history and people. The need to create uniformity in this model that might incorporate vastly different cultures, languages, customs, histories across a wide geographical area under a single national Chinese nationalist umbrella, took the form of a fascist style of state culturalism, in which the state became the creator and promulgator of a centralized and monolithic state Chinese culture. China is not a homogenous place by any means and the fear of regional nationalisms was, and still is, a real threat to maintaining the old Qing borders.

This is where the problem of Jeremy Lin comes into play.

Lin, an American born, non-Chinese speaking Christian, must give Chinese nationalists fits. This is where ideas of lineal descent from the mythic Yellow Emperor come into play-- Chinese nationalism's own race card to extend power and influence beyond its borders and rise up in the face of western hegemony-- while playing to that same hegemony in a quest to be granted validity or authenticity.

Both of Lin's parents come from Taiwan, which was, itself, not "Chinese" enough for the Chinese nationalists and their centralized state culture.

Moreover, Lin grew up in the United States, which, as the leading consumer of professional sports, has an established system of recreational, prep and collegiate athletics.

Race is a colonial construct, and ethnicity is merely something shared, negotiated and renegotiated.

Lin is the only person who can, with good conscience, claim himself for any of these competing groups.

Lin's success is the result of a culmination of factors that are unique to Lin. He was raised where he was raised. He made choices based on his experiences. He studied and trained like many other successful Americans, with the resources he had available. Lin's experience is an American experience if, for the only reason, it happened in the community of the United States.

If others would like to seek inspiration from Lin, that is their choice. If Taiwanese would like to look at Lin and question the balance in Taiwan between academics and athletics, that is fantastic.

What the racial nationalism does with "Linsanity", is that it adroitly shifts the emphasis away from the systemic changes that are needed for Taiwanese to emulate Lin's own success, while oddly validating the existing systems (no matter how flawed) as having resulted in "our own" vicarious success through Lin.

It is easy to see why any shift in the status quo is unlikely, and the continued appropriation of Jeremy Lin and others like him will be inevitable.
  • The system of Taiwanese education is based on standardized evaluations, which not only supports a massive economy of peripheral education (cram schools, certification, publishing, alternative education...etc.) but it also appeases the Taiwanese cultural demand for the perception of fairness. The competition for higher placement on entrance examinations has led to greater and greater reductions in P.E. classes (90min/wk).
  • Finding parity between education and athletics might also threaten the racial/class based perceptions of athletics. Although early Chinese nationalists believed that a strong nation required strong citizens, the pre-existing association between physical athleticism and barbarism or racial degradation, has largely left athletics to be regarded as the vocation for the poor or the indigenous people. These divisions between the "civilized" and "uncivilized" have been negotiated and traversed for centuries on Taiwan and it seems unlikely, at least in the in the short to medium term, that Taiwanese society is ready to redraw these hard fought boundaries.


It would be easy to demonstrate how Taiwan's education and athletics systems would, more often than not, discourage the rise of a local Jeremy Lin. I recall a heated debate between departments last year in which the foreign teachers were reprimanded for rewarding students with a little basketball. The idea of a school basketball team was D.O.A. as it would interfere with valuable cramming time. Now the Education Bureau is calling for more basketball time in schools. Taiwanese students have little choice other than cramming for test scores, or, if they would like to pursue athletics, going to a vocational school specializing in physical education. No, pointing to the systemic hurdles in replicating Lin would be easy.

Instead, I think the focus on Lin is masking the real success of Taiwan's direction in athletics--cycling.

Taiwanese have embraced cycling for a variety of reasons and the sport has enjoyed nearly a decade of sustained growth. Taiwan's topography and infrastructure, with its well maintained road surfaces, provides an amazing training ground for the future of professional cycling.

The Taiwan-based RTS Racing Team just finished up competing in the Tours of Oman and Qatar. The team DS is Taiwanese and three of the team's riders are also from Taiwan.

Lee Rodgers from RTS reports in Velonews:

The pack splintered from there and I just dug in and pushed. The first 2km were 10%, the third 12% and then finally it leveled slightly at 6% for the next kilometer. Popovych (Radioshack) was chasing and up ahead my ‘nemesis’ from Champion Systems dangled. Then up again, the final 2km at 13%.


Again I dug in. I reminded myself that though this was hurting, it was nothing compared to the climb I did in Taiwan just 5 weeks ago. Zero meters to 3275m over 90km. The final 2km kick up at an average of 17%. Now,that is a climb. So, 6km? Nothing…

Taiwanese might really want to step out of the sycophantic game of racial ownership, and focus more on promoting and developing local athletes by giving them choices beyond the current binary of either academics or athletics.

Cycling may be able to provide a better source of national pride for Taiwanese and it seems inevitable that a Taiwanese will one day arrive at a grand tour.

With all this "Linsanity" it seems Taiwanese have lost focus on their real assets in competitive athletics.

The best I can hope for is that Lin will inspire Taiwanese into demanding more than just a few superficial changes in these systems to provide more opportunities for everyone interested in professional and amateur sports.

Moreover, I hope, for the sake of diversity, Taiwanese will one day reject Chinese nationalism with its racialist root, in favor of a system that can put every citizen equidistant from the center.

The problem of race is not just a western problem.


Maxxis, the Taiwan based maker of auto and bicycle tires, has signed Jeremy Lin as the company's newest spokesman.