A basketball game turns violent: China, Russia, and the crossroads of imperialism

Society & Culture

In 1926, a youth basketball game — the championship of a citywide tournament in the northeastern city of Harbin — between Chinese and Russian players ended in controversy. It was a microcosm of the times: A country on the rise reckoning with the remnants of colonialism.

Jump ball illustration Chinese basketball Harbin 1926
Illustration by Derek Zheng

This Week in China’s History: September 15, 1926

On September 15, 1926, 300 people gathered to watch a basketball game. That’s not a big number as spectator sports go, but this game was played in Harbin, China’s northernmost metropolis, and pitted Chinese students at a Christian middle school against Russian refugees organized by the American YMCA. Three hundred, then, seems like a lot.

In the championship game of a weeklong, citywide tournament between nine teams drawn from Harbin’s Chinese, European, and Russian communities, more than bragging rights were at stake. Modern Harbin had been founded as an arm of Russian imperialism, a Trans-Siberian shortcut that would take several hundred miles off the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok by going through Qing territory. A Russian community — effectively a Russian colony — had grown up there starting in the 1890s.

By the early 20th century, Harbin resembled a European city more than a Chinese one in most ways other than its population. Russian orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, as well as synagogues and mosques, rose out of the Manchurian plain. An Art Nouveau train station brought new arrivals to a broad cobblestoned street lined with the consulates of a dozen countries. Down near the banks of the Sungari River, “Kitaiskaya ulitsa” — China Street — appeared not very Chinese at all.

The dynasties that had ruled Russia and China, born within a few decades of one another in the 17th century, fell almost simultaneously: the Qing emperor Puyi (who decades later would be imprisoned in Harbin) abdicated in 1912, and his Romanov counterpart did the same five years later. In combination, the two revolutions created a problem for Russians in Harbin. The first revolution undid the Qing dynasty that had made the treaties with Russia and replaced it with a new republic eager to promote its legitimacy and expand its power. The second revolution did away with the Russian dynasty that had been protector of its subjects in Manchuria and also drove refugees fleeing the civil war into Harbin. For several years, the Republic of China did not recognize the Soviet Union, and once it did — in 1924 — many of the Russians in Harbin wanted no part of it.

The result was that, in the fall of 1926, Harbin was a cauldron of nations and nationalisms, many of them facing real and imagined threats, and all of them uncertain of the future. (I elaborated on these and other trends in the city in a book, Creating a Chinese Harbin, that also opens with the clash between the Donghua School and the YMCA on the basketball court.)

The championship game of the 1926 tournament brought together the two strongest threads in Harbin’s post-revolutionary fabric: Chinese nationalism and Russian expatriates. The Chinese Donghua school had been founded by a Christian modernizer, Dèng Jiémín 邓杰民, who installed a curriculum aimed at building modern, cosmopolitan citizens. The YMCA was funded and run by Americans, but it served the city’s Russian refugee community (organizationally, the Harbin branch was part of the Russian, not the Chinese, division of the “Y”). Its head in 1926 was a Michigander named Howard Lee Haag. He and his wife, Florence, had been sent to Harbin in 1921.

These two trajectories crossed on the basketball court. The students and staff at the Donghua school were part of a revolutionary generation that had seen imperial rule toppled and was now working to see China take its place as a respected nation. The Russian students were also part of a revolutionary era, but they were on the other side: they had been part of a great power that had disintegrated; the Russia they had known was gone.

Fortunes and power relationships reversed with lightning speed. And in Harbin, the feelings were personal. Just a few years before, Russians in Harbin had been colonial rulers of the city, beyond the reach of Chinese law and protected by armies; now, many were stateless and with little protection of any kind.

The two communities were largely segregated, so most Chinese, or Russians, would not encounter the other in the course of their day. But the basketball tournament placed the two groups together. According to Haag, the game was “rough and poorly played” from the start. When it ended, the Russian team had won, 29-17.

Most of the spectators were Chinese students cheering on their Donghua classmates and friends. Throughout the game they protested what they saw as biased officiating by the referee, a Russian, employed by the YMCA. When the game ended, Haag watched a crowd of Chinese spectators surround the referee, demanding an explanation. When the referee turned to leave, violence escalated.

“There was general striking on the part of the Chinese as well as the Russians till the Chinese left the playground,” Haag wrote in his journal. Bricks, roof tiles, and stones were thrown through the YMCA windows. Haag enlisted a passing Russian policeman to help restore order, and also called the American consul, who dispatched Chinese police to the scene. Tense moments passed as weapons were drawn on both sides, but no shots were fired. Eventually the incident was ended with a handshake between the school directors and a promise to investigate.

The lasting significance of the event was not in the dozen or so students who were injured, but rather in the impressions the fight left on both sides.

“This is a fine example of the spirit of hostility which has grown up among the Chinese toward foreigners,” wrote Haag. The American consul wrote in his dispatches to Washington that event like these were “indicative of the strained feelings that exists between the Chinese and Russian population at Harbin.”

The most lasting account of the incident was in the Chinese press. The Harbin newspaper Bīnjiāng shíbào 滨江时报 published a series of editorials in the wake of the battle that made plain what was at stake to Harbin’s Chinese community.

“China today is not the China of 20 years ago, where Chinese could be abused,” the paper opined. “If the foreigners believe that we Chinese can be abused, then all Chinese people will oppose them vigorously. It is not playacting. Foreigners need to pay special attention to these sorts of issues.”

Comparisons are easily drawn between these moments in the 1920s and the recent past, when assertions of Chinese nationalism have drawn attention to past colonialism as a warning to foreign countries asserting their interests. “China today is not the China of 20 years ago [that] could be abused” could easily be a line from one of Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平speeches.

For the Chinese residents of Harbin, the 1920s were a heady moment: Chinese sovereignty was asserted, government was remade, streets were renamed. The city’s built environment retained its European flavor (and in recent years many of those buildings have been renovated, including the train station and synagogues), but distinctive Chinese elements (Buddhist and Confucian temples, for instance) were added.

It was short-lived, though: In 1932, Japanese armies captured the city as part of the campaign that separated the northeastern provinces from the rest of the Republic of China and created the state of Manchukuo. A reminder that sudden transitions are often followed by even more dramatic changes.

Today Harbin wears its past awkwardly. The Russian architecture has been burnished and renovated in some places, but razed in others. The tourist office celebrates the city’s multicultural history, but examples like the Jewish heritage museum — housed in a former synagogue — is mostly kitsch and caricature, with few valuable relics. Harbin’s cosmopolitan past has been retconned to be part of a narrative that claims a millennium of “Chinese” history for the city, traced back to a settlement in the Jin Dynasty of the 1100s, a city dozens of miles from today’s Harbin and established not by Chinese but Jurchens (forerunners of the Manchus).

Which is all to say that while it is easy enough to draw and redraw borders and treaties, history gets complicated when people get involved in a place — as they did on the basketball court of the Harbin YMCA on September 15, 1926.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.