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Charles Zhu

Netizens Close Ranks Behind Chinese NBA Star – And It's Not Jeremy Lin

Linsanity! Lincredible! Lindestructible!

But how about some Yi-lation or even just some pla-Yi-ng time? Not only has Lin shown the world that Asians can ball, he’s also unlocked the full potential of Chinese surnames as portmanteaus.

As Jeremy Lin has shot up in popularity, so too has the debate on China’s only NBA player – Yi Jianlian. Yi is hugely popular in China with 6.6 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter; Lin has 2.1 million in comparison.  Yi Jianlian should have the star power to keep millions of Chinese basketball fans engaged in the post-Yao Ming era, but after a hyped sixth pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the backup center for the Dallas Mavericks has since struggled to make a name of himself outside China.

Last week, several bloggers criticized Yi as a casualty of a sports system that funnels imposing physiques into special “sports” schools at an early age, instead of acknowledging  “smarts” are important to the success of a player: “What’s the difference between Jeremy Lin and ‘King’ Yi? One graduated from Harvard, the other hasn’t graduated from elementary school,” said @南城一宿.

But as Lin became the unexpected star Asian player of the league, one of the most popular re-tweeted posts for this week was @童裕斌Oliver‘s impassioned defense of Yi:

Yi Jianlian is China-born, China-bred. He speaks Chinese and competes for China. When he previously had a poor NBA record, we could belittle him. But now, as we’re simultaneously praising Lin and belittling him, it’s a little too much. Lin’s got a Chinese name and a Chinese face, but he grew up in the U.S., has U.S. citizenship, and has refused to represent China in international competition. We can praise Lin, but let’s not forget the only Chinese player that’s still in the NBA.” {{Chinese quote}}[[Chinese quote]]易建联是土生土长的中国人,说中国话代表中国比赛。他在NBA成绩不好平时调侃他一下也就算了,现在为了捧林书豪而贬低他是不是有点过了,林书豪不过是起个中国人的名字,长了副中国人的脸而已,他生在美国长在美国拿着美国国籍曾拒绝代表中国国家队比赛。捧他可以,但不要贬低唯一还在NBA打球的中国人。[[Chinese quote]]

Indeed, as the calls to support Yi have grown, the Chinese blogosphere this week is filled with tweets critical of Lin’s rise. For some, national differences trump shared ethnic background, leading to the conclusion that Yi > Lin, as far as where Chinese support should be allocated. According to Bloomberg, as Wang Shuai, the sports editor for Northeast News, asked: “If he’s not named Jeremy Lin, but rather named Jeremy Park or Jeremy Yamamoto, but with the same yellow skin, will you praise him so highly?”

Many posted words of support and encouragement to Yi, who sat on the bench during the Mavericks v. Knicks game on February 19 when Lin scored 28 points and 9 assists. “Let Yi play,” an appeal that has been around since Yi’s drafting, made a strong resurgence on various microblogs.

But for others, highlighting the national differences between Yi and Lin led to deeper conclusions. Bloomberg reports that on February 12, Mao Maozi, a cameraman with the state-run Shanghai Education Television network, tweeted: “If Jeremy Lin lived on the mainland, he would either be a semi-literate CBA (Chinese Basketball Association, China’s state-run professional league) player or an ordinary undergraduate who likes basketball in his spare time. We admire him not because he is an ethnic Chinese, but because he has proved for a fact that the main reason that Chinese don’t play basketball well is because of the system, and not their physique!”

Others were more skeptical of the “systems” thesis. As @秦皇岛de杨帆 tweeted, “With Lin on the rise, we can’t help but reflect: why can’t China put out a Lin? Some conclude that it’s another problem with education and the societal system. So then for all those countries who are bad at ping pong, or diving, or shooting, it must be the system!”

Many netizens have asserted that Lin in fact has “no connection whatsoever” with China. One netizen (@我们都爱意淫) took the analysis a step further, comparing Lin to an iPhone: “Jeremy Lin is an iPhone. The accessories are made in China; a Taiwanese invested in its assembly; Chinese people want to own one; but at its core lies American technology and software, and in the final analysis it is an American brand without a cent’s worth of connection to China.”

As Linsanity reaches fever pitch, Yi continues to look for his own shot at international stardom. Meanwhile, Chinese basketball  fans can ponder a question put forth on Sina Weibo from the People’s Daily: “How can we allow young people to grow and develop, pursue their dreams, and allow them to play their own role in society? – that’s the question for our times.”

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Charles Zhu

Charles works at an energy and climate change think tank in Washington, D.C, and is a recent graduate of Yale University.
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  • Guest

    seems not a lot of netizens have lives, dreams or their own role in society yet …

  • Guest

    seems not a lot of netizens have lives, dreams or their own role in society yet …

  • http://beijingcream.com/ Tao

    Nice piece, Charles. I think what Lin has proven is that there are more world-class basketball players than there are roster spots in the NBA, but the circumstances have to be right for a little-known player to really shine. Yi Jianlian has the ability to be an NBA starter — he’s a sixth-overall draft pick, after all. If he ever develops Lin’s level of confidence and winds up on a team with a true need for a forward, he could blossom yet. Big ifs, though.

  • http://beijingcream.com/ Tao

    Nice piece, Charles. I think what Lin has proven is that there are more world-class basketball players than there are roster spots in the NBA, but the circumstances have to be right for a little-known player to really shine. Yi Jianlian has the ability to be an NBA starter — he’s a sixth-overall draft pick, after all. If he ever develops Lin’s level of confidence and winds up on a team with a true need for a forward, he could blossom yet. Big ifs, though.

  • Tomosaurus

     but ummm.. Lin is Taiwanese not Chinese..

    • Sonicjimi

      He’s actually American. His parents were Taiwanese. He’s as American as any Italian, Irish, German, Brit mixed ancestry caucasian whose parents chose to immigrate. He’s as American as I am. He was born in Los Angeles. Get over the fact that he looks Chinese. Americans look like all sorts of ethnicities. But his NATIONALITY is American. The Chinese aspects of culture and background contribute to the mix of cultures that make up America… Just like the Irish, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Nigerian, Mexican, Innuit, Tamil, Sikh, Hmong neighbors I had in California. They were American too.

  • Tomosaurus

     but ummm.. Lin is Taiwanese not Chinese..

    • Sonicjimi

      He’s actually American. His parents were Taiwanese. He’s as American as any Italian, Irish, German, Brit mixed ancestry caucasian whose parents chose to immigrate. He’s as American as I am. He was born in Los Angeles. Get over the fact that he looks Chinese. Americans look like all sorts of ethnicities. But his NATIONALITY is American. The Chinese aspects of culture and background contribute to the mix of cultures that make up America… Just like the Irish, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Nigerian, Mexican, Innuit, Tamil, Sikh, Hmong neighbors I had in California. They were American too.