The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream

The first account of China’s modern embrace of golf

Former Shanghai resident Dan Washburn first started covering Chinese golf tournaments in 2005 for ESPN. His first assignments involved the likes of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Luke Donald. However, he quickly gravitated towards China’s fledgling domestic golf tour, the Omega, and less illustrious names, such as Zhou Xunshu. In this debut book, the American journalist packs a decade’s worth of experience into the first account of China’s modern embrace of the ‘forbidden game’.

Outlawed under Mao Zedong as a bourgeois custom, golf did not gain a foothold in China until the 1980s, when new leader Deng Xiaoping ushered in widespread reforms.

While golf’s popularity in the PRC may be nascent, its story is nonetheless a powerful demonstration of the country’s economic growth. As GDP has expanded, so has the appetite for Western status symbols, sport cars, wine collections, designer handbags – and golf.

Rather than offering a customary narrative, Washburn tells his story through the words of colourful characters, ranging from an American golf course builder whose escapades through the murky world of Chinese business in the ’90s shocks and delights in equal measure, to the humbling climb of China’s latest pro golf star.

It is this story of China’s new golfing talent that is most interesting. Former sushi chefs, stunt motorcyclists, kung fu experts and PLA soldiers have all ‘somehow stumbled into a sport that for most of their lives they never knew existed,’ says Washburn. He compares them to their 19th century British counterparts, blue-collar workers who toured the country, sleeping in rough inns, scraping together tournament entry fees along the way.

Energetic, poignant and revealing, Washburn’s account expertly articulates how the ‘rich man’s game’ has become an instrumental force in realising the much vaunted Chinese dream.