LIKE MILLIONS of migrant workers, as soon as the opportunity arose, Zhou Xunshu escaped his poor village in China’s interior for the southern coast’s boomtowns. Jumping from job to job, Zhou eventually created a middle-class life for himself with all its material trappings: an apartment, a car, and top-label Western brand clothes. By the age of 40, he had achieved his version of the Chinese Dream. But unlike most migrant workers, Zhou didn’t accomplish this by toiling in a factory or construction site.
Instead, he did it through playing golf.
But first he was a security guard, patrolling the fairways of a golf course in southern China’s Guangdong Province. Watching businessmen from Hong Kong and Taiwan tee off as they discussed deals, Zhou developed an interest in a game he had never even heard of before arriving in Guangdong. Soon, he began scavenging broken clubs and lost balls to practice in secret behind his dormitory. Officially barred from playing on the course, Zhou managed to squeeze in covert rounds here and there, but it wasn’t enough. After eight years of frustration, Zhou quit his security guard job to pursue his dream of becoming a professional golfer. It was a decision that those around him could be forgiven for thinking somewhat bizarre: statistically, zero percent of the Chinese population plays golf.
Yet as Dan Washburn writes in his compelling new book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, golf “offers a unique window into today’s China,” a country of paradoxes perhaps best exemplified by the fact that although construction of new golf courses has been banned in China since at least 2004, more than 400 were built between 2005 and 2010, making China the only place in the world experiencing a golf boom. Government officials who enjoy hitting the links register at golf courses under false names, afraid of leaving a paper trail connecting them to a game most often associated with capitalism and corruption. And while massive golf course complexes lined with luxury villas populate large tracts of land outside Chinese cities, their owners attempt to hide the courses in plain sight, giving them convoluted names like the “Anji China Ecotourism and Fitness Center.” Like so much else in contemporary China, golf occupies a gray zone: officially forbidden, yet tolerated — even encouraged — behind the scenes, as local government officials and land developers reap massive profits from the construction of new courses.
Washburn tells this fascinating and complicated story through following three men who never meet but whose lives and fortunes are all intimately tied up in the growth of Chinese golf. A disproportionate amount of the book is devoted to Zhou and his journey from peasant farmer to security guard to aspiring pro golfer. Even Washburn admits that he grew un-journalistically close to Zhou as he followed him to golf tournaments around the country, waiting to see if Zhou would pull it together and perform well (which he managed to do sometimes) or be plagued by the inability to get his mental game in shape (far more common).
The other two men featured in The Forbidden Game are supporting actors to Zhou, but their stories are no less important for understanding how China’s golf boom in the past two decades has changed lives. Martin Moore, a golf course construction project manager from Florida, never imagined that he would spend nearly 20 years overseeing the construction of golf courses outside Chinese cities he previously couldn’t have found on a map. And Wang Libo, a fruit farmer living on Hainan Island in south China, recognized opportunity when an enormous golf resort moved in next to his family’s home, but at the same time saw his village break apart under the strain of this development.
Golf has never enjoyed widespread popularity in China. Expatriate foreigners living in the treaty port of Shanghai had several courses to play on in the early 20th century, including a nine-hole one next to the Shanghai Racecourse, in the very center of the city. But after the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, Mao Zedong condemned golf as a rich man’s game, antithetical to the egalitarian values of socialism, and banned it. That nine-hole golf course in Shanghai, as well as the racetrack next door, was plowed under and turned into People’s Square.
Bringing golf out of the political doghouse was a pragmatic decision when China’s post-Mao leadership decided to encourage economic development in the early 1980s. Foreign businessmen, they realized, saw a round of golf as a way to conduct business in an informal setting. Eager to attract investors from Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the government sanctioned the construction of Communist China’s first golf course, located in Guangdong Province and designed by no less a legend than Arnold Palmer.
Golf grew slowly in China during the 1980s and early 1990s; only about a dozen courses were added to the country’s landscape in that first decade. Unlike American politicians, Chinese government officials hung back from partaking in rounds of golf — the major exception being Zhao Ziyang, an avid golfer and General Secretary of the CPC at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He advocated taking a moderate line toward the protesters and wound up falling out of favor after Deng Xiaoping sent in the military to crush the demonstrations. Zhao spent the next 15 years under house arrest, permitted out only for the occasional trip to the golf course, before dying in 2005. No high-ranking Chinese official since has admitted to picking up a golf club (though current president Xi Jinping reportedly enjoys the game).
China’s golf boom began in the early 2000s, when local officials and land developers realized that the growing ranks of the country’s status-conscious wealthy class would snap up houses built alongside golf courses and pay top dollar to become members at lavish country clubs, regardless of whether or not they could actually play the game. But, as Washburn notes, the wave of golf course construction that swept the country over the last decade brought with it many of China’s worst ills: “corruption, environmental neglect, disputes over rural land rights, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.” Farmers often received only moderate compensation for their land — more money than they had ever seen before in their lives, for sure, but paltry sums compared to the prices fetched when the government turned around and sold that same land to golf course developers. This is one reason why the Communist Party — which came to power on the strength of support from the rural peasantry in the 1940s — banned the construction of new golf courses in 2004.
But directives from the central government are often ignored in distant provinces, especially when there’s money to be made. The golf course ban proved not just ineffective but also completely absurd as course owners disregarded it left and right. Golf complexes grew bigger and bigger. Why build one course when you could build five, or 12, or 36? Martin Moore saw nearly his entire industry transferred to China during the first decade of the 2000s. At a time when more golf courses in the United States were being closed than opened, China was the place to be. Despite the challenges of running construction projects in China — corruption from nearly every angle, demanding club owners with little understanding of the work involved in building a course, difficulties in meeting deadlines and getting paid — Moore and his colleagues have focused their energies on the country because they’ve had few other choices. Over the past decade-plus, project managers said, if you weren’t working in China, you weren’t working at all.
Quite a lot of that work was taking place on Hainan Island, known as “China’s Hawaii” for its semitropical climate and beautiful beaches. Officials in Hainan were banking on tourism to grow the historically poor province’s economy. They encouraged the construction of luxury golf resorts. In August 2007, Hainan officials announced that they would be taking control of a large tract of land in the village of Meiqiu, which was needed for a mysterious enterprise known only as “Project 791.” Meiqiu’s farmers — who officially did not own their land but rented it from the government — would receive compensation for losing access to it.
Although other Meiqiu villagers rejected the initial compensation offered for their land by the government, Wang Libo was mostly okay with the deal. A bricklayer-turned-trishaw (cycle rickshaw) driver as well as farmer, Wang was tired of working long days away from his family. The money the government would give him for his farmland was enough to allow Wang to imagine doing something else. What that “something else” should be became clear when he realized that enormous workers’ dormitories were being built on his former farmland. Wang and his wife opened a small convenience store, selling bottled drinks, packaged snacks, and sundry items to the laborers building Project 791. In time, Project 791’s true identity became an open secret among not just golf industry insiders but also Wang and the other Meiqiu villagers. The land was being developed into Mission Hills Haikou, initially touted as the world’s largest golf complex, with a planned 36 courses. (It’s since been reduced in size and stands second to Mission Hills Shenzhen, which is owned by the same family.)
Wang Libo’s dreams were smaller in scale than Zhou Xunshu’s but no less dependent on a random encounter with golf to be realized. After his convenience store business took off, Wang and his wife added a small restaurant and a few pool tables, attracting a steady stream of workers from the Mission Hills dormitories. The family worked long, tiring days, but they were able to be together, and the money from the land sale and their businesses enabled them to build a large new house and make plans for their children’s education. Not all of their neighbors had made the same choice; some spent years fighting for more compensation for their land. Wang thought those people were merely delaying the inevitable, and failing to see that the Mission Hills complex would be good for long-term development in Hainan. “People may lose land in the short term,” he explained, “and their quality of life may not immediately improve. But their children will have better opportunities.”
Zhou Xunshu and many of his competitors on China’s early pro golf circuit grew up swinging scythes, not sand wedges. Almost all of them stumbled into their semi-professional golf careers after holding other jobs, and it’s likely that most of their family members would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what the men do for a living. Washburn vividly describes the decidedly nonglamorous life of a hopeful pro golfer on the now-defunct Omega China Tour: nights spent in grimy hotels; battles with cab drivers to get a ride out to the golf course, usually many miles from the city center; purses so small they often didn’t even cover travel expenses for those who earned prize money by placing in the top 60 at a tournament.
Zhou, who by the 2008 season was married with a young son, probably should have quit and focused on his work as a golf coach. But his dream of earning a pro card pushed him to keep going, even when the numbers — his scorecard and his bank account — didn’t quite add up. As Washburn points out, Zhou is among the first generation of Chinese who have the freedom to pursue their dreams, even when doing so defies logic. For many decades, China was too poor and government control too strict for people to imagine that their aspirations might come true. It was better to accept one’s lot in life and get on with it.
As Washburn notes toward the end of The Forbidden Game, however, the days of self-taught players like Zhou sitting atop the leaderboard in Chinese golf might already be passing. Grit and soul — qualities that Zhou has in abundance — are quickly being replaced by money and education, as middle-class parents push their children into intensive golf lessons at a young age. Aspirational parents hope to raise the next Tiger Woods — not the next Zhou Xunshu.
It might seem an odd choice for Washburn to focus on a game that only a handful of Chinese even play, and readers may walk away thinking that golf is more important than it truly is in China today. But Washburn uses the sport with surprising effectiveness as a lens into the country’s development over the past two decades, as Peter Hessler has done with car culture (Country Driving, 2010), and James Fallows with the airplane industry (China Airborne, 2012). Golf sheds light on China’s engagement with the outside world; on the relationship between the country’s government and its citizens; on how a variety of people — from former farmers to foreign project managers — can find opportunities in China that wouldn’t be available anywhere else. Some of that will disappear in the coming years, as the construction of new courses slows and blue-collar players like Zhou are edged out of the sport. But for a time, as Washburn shows, golf has embodied everything that makes present-day China what it is, for better and for worse: corruption and complications, yes, but also aspiration and opportunity and the chance to take a swing and drive toward one’s individual version of the Chinese Dream.
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a historian and writer living in Shanghai, China.