The ‘wrong-footed soccer maiden’ who bridged Manhattan, Beijing

“That’s a writer’s life—indulging your curiosity, and not only indulging your curiosity in terms of pursuing it but sometimes taking a long time, having the patience to stay with the subject,” says Talese of how Liu became so central to his narrative of nonfiction craft and its relationship to the writer’s experience. The Los Angeles Times in a profile of Talese calls the Beijing trip his biggest reporting challenge, comparing his work there to Truman Capote‘s Midwestern sojourn while researching In Cold Blood. Both Talese and Capote, far removed from Manhattan, were exemplars of the non-native. “Especially with a language barrier,” Talese continues, “you’re not going to get much from what people say, because they’re guarded with a foreigner. … So the language as spoken isn’t as important as your capacity to hang out with people, to spend time with them, to observe.”

Talese set about writing the interior of Liu’s life—literally from inside 74 Wuding Hutong, part of a warren of communal dwellings in downtown Beijing decimated in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. This was where Liu was reared, where her football boots formed part of the landscape of household effects. Talese knew that Liu was not a central character in world football, but a symbol of cultural transformation. Through Liu’s moment of mass-consumed anguish, Talese could speak of gains and losses at the level of society, especially within the erratically unfolding story of Chinese women’s physical liberation. “I imagine their grandmothers having bound feet,” Talese says of the women soccer players of China, “and here are the granddaughters running around in cleated sneakers in front of the world kicking the ball.”

Historians of Chinese sport date the cessation of footbinding, a thousand-year-old custom, to challenges to Confucianism mounted by spirited peasant women in the mid–19th century and also to the arrival of Christianity, which helped bring to women “the normality of unmutilated limbs.” In millennia past, based on evidence preserved in fresco paintings, women had participated in the stylized kicking game of cuju, one of football’s earliest forms. In the modern era, as early as 1924, a physical-education teacher in Shanghai translated an English football rule book into Chinese. Backed by the school principal, who saw soccer as symbol of sexual liberation, women students started playing the game against men. Such physical emancipation continued under Communism, motivated by a desire to boost military and economic development.

But despite Maoist rhetoric of women “holding up half the sky,” Liu’s penalty-kick miss in Talese’s work presages a cataclysm of loss. Her sobs, transmitted via telephone to Beijing early on Sunday morning, spread in close quarters within the hutong. Her twin sister must apologize on her behalf; her grandmother, Madam Zhang, cloaks the television screen in black. “It is a part of life,” she tells neighbors. In the coda to the book, we learn that this hutong lies in ruins, an early victim of the Olympic improvements. Although Talese followed her career for several more years, Liu fades from view as she faded from the consciousness of most Americans, drunk with victory, on July 10, 1999.

At last contact, in 2003 or 2004, Talese says that Liu, now 35, was teaching high school soccer. “That’s a worthy profession,” he says.

In this chiastic framing of A Writer’s Life, the writer’s regard for craft develops in parallel to Liu’s existence. At the opening Talese confesses a conflicted relationship to the game (“I am not now, nor have I ever been, fond of the game of soccer”). Liu meets her nadir as Talese acknowledges his own fascination with defeat. But to him, the women players exist at a remove, as objects for consumption. Talese rakes his subconscious for forthright observations that are far from politically correct:

It … appeared to me that the Americans’ bodies were more curvesome and fully feminine than the Chinese. The latter were inclined to be quite narrow-hipped and boyish in figure, and, with one or two exceptions, to have smaller breasts than the Americans. Actually, I had not noticed large-breasted women on either team.

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