During the Warring States period that began about 2,500 years ago the gulf between the nobility and the rest of society was a gaping one. However, the aristocratic boundary was made a little more porous by the emergence of a new class known as shi, as younger princelings recruited their own retinues of retainers.
Lord Mengchang of the Qi state, for one, was said to have attracted 3,000 shi, including warriors, assassins and scholars, under his patronage.
The shi system contributed to some of the most important concepts in what we know as Confucianism, although it is little understood outside scholarly circles in China.
That’s why onlookers were stunned when Fabio Cannavaro, the manager of Chinese football club Guangzhou FC, showed that he understood the ancient idea rather well himself.
The Italian had been confronted by reporters on Guangzhou FC’s poor start to the new Chinese Super League season after losing one match and drawing another (the team was better known as Guangzhou Evergrande before new rules came in to de-commercialise football franchises, see WiC525). Through an interpreter, the World Cup winner confessed that the ultimate goal of the club owner – aka the property developer China Evergrande – was not necessarily to win the CSL championship this season but “wei guo yang shi” – which translates as “raising shi for the country”.
The hashtag of “Cannavaro wei guo yang shi” swiftly became one of the most discussed topics on social media. Fans of the team were irritated that the manager of a club that has won the CSL in eight of the past 10 seasons would publicly write off its title hopes so early in the campaign. But neutrals were more amazed that the 48 year-old seemed to understand the shi system.
Cannavaro has spent most of his managerial career in China but his Mandarin is said to be limited. Perhaps his interpreter added a few localised flourishes to his comments, although the sports media later explained that Cannavaro was attempting to convey the message that Guangzhou FC’s longstanding policy has been to focus on developing younger, homegrown talent. That means more game time for local players in the hope that they might grow into genuine stars that contribute to the Chinese dream of winning the World Cup.
In this context Cannavaro was using the analogy of the shi to talk about his task in elevating younger, less celebrated players into the footballing elite, or soccer nobility. The current squad at Guangzhou FC is a mix of local players and stars that were born overseas. At a stretch there is a case that the team could be considered as an “all Chinese” side in its own right as the squad boasts five Brazilian-born players (such as Elkeson and Ricardo Goulart) that have been naturalised and could thus represent China in international matches.
However, the club has been implementing an unofficial rule that the team should play only two of these naturalised players per league game, while Cannavaro is also said to be required to give game time to all 18 players on the team list in any single match. Quite how that complicates the tactical and managerial challenges for Cannavaro has gone unremarked in the media. But he seems to be happy enough to be part of a bigger project to lift China up the footballing ladder.
Of course, Cannavaro was captain when Marcello Lippi led Italy to World Cup glory in 2006. Lippi is now managing China’s national side, which means that he is picking players from clubs like Guangzhou FC. It could be said that Evergrande’s boss Xu Jiayin now views the club as a ‘shi academy’ for the Chinese national team.
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