Wrestling at school gives ‘left-behind children’ a fighting chance
China / Freedom Stories / 27 oct 2017
Wrestling is not the most popular sport in China, so when the new head teacher at Matian Central Primary School proposed starting a wrestling club at his school in rural Jianxi, many assumed it wouldn’t catch on. But the sport has captured the hearts of the children of Matian. More than 70 percent of the students at Matian Central Primary School are ‘left-behind children’ whose parents work in distant cities, leaving their children in the care of their extended family. The wrestling training provided at their school has given many of these children a space to enjoy themselves and to grow in confidence.
China’s mass migration from rural to urban areas by those searching for work has disrupted traditional family relationships and many fear that rural children growing up without their parents will face difficulties in their adult life. Head teacher Zhu Zhihui hopes that wrestling will help his students become confident, humble, and self-disciplined. When he took over as head teacher in 2006, the school was run-down with insufficient facilities and an outdated curriculum. Although other teachers feared that teaching wrestling would take away from other core school subjects, he was convinced it would create opportunities for the children, teach them discipline and perseverance and perhaps most importantly, make them smile.
Twelve year old Lin Hongyu is shy until he gets onto the wrestling mat; there he is transformed into a different person, competitive, confident and devoted. He joined the wrestling club four years ago and was selected for the school team after excelling in several fitness tests. Now he trains after school every day and takes part in competitions and tournaments. ‘I’m not worried about how hard wrestling is, all I know is that wrestling makes me happy.’ He dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, a dream that is not as lofty as it may seem - this year five students leaving the primary school continued on to sports schools to focus on wrestling training. But head teacher Zhu emphasises that this is not the ultimate goal of the programme: ‘Our goal is not to raise each child to become a professional; instead, we aim to cultivate healthy students who are strong in body and mind through wrestling training.’
When the school first offered the sport in 2006, the young students practiced in an outdoor sandpit. A few years later they moved to a shed with a second hand wrestling mat. In 2016, after providing more than 100 graduates to professional sports schools and winning over 200 medals in provincial and national competitions, the local government funded a brand-new wrestling arena in the school. Now, all 600 girls and boys in the school take part in wrestling as part of their physical education lessons and head teacher Zhu couldn’t be prouder: ‘all the students at the school can do some basic wrestling moves’, he explained. ‘It’s a way to plant character traits that will influence them throughout their lives.’