We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Boxing was banned in China in 1959 because it was too American and too violent. When it returned 30 years later, its popularity boomed and China began to train high-potential boxers discovered in rural schools. For these students, the sweet science can be a ticket out of poverty. And the sport and the lifestyle attached to it remain distinctly Chinese. As one coach explains, boxing is not a barbarian sport: It’s about virtue. Work hard, the young boxers are told, and you can succeed and bring honor to your country. But the training is grueling and success does not come quickly. The boxers have to reconcile their own ambitions with parental expectations and the hope to do their ancestors and country proud. One dreams of going pro and becoming a boxing king even though his coaches say he hasn’t had enough training yet. Canadian director Yung Chang focuses on a few students and their coach—who also becomes enamored of honor and wants to resuscitate his own career in the ring—but this is largely a story about modern China: commercial and globalized, yet still plagued by poverty and rooted in ancient virtues.