Stefan Huebner’s Pan-Asian Sports And The Emergence Of Modern Asia combines 60 years’ worth of archival materials spanning three continents to highlight how sporting events were used in Western efforts to “uplift” the Asian region to white American Protestant standards, and how those efforts inspired and shaped anti-colonial sentiment throughout Asia.

Huebner’s book begins by introducing Western intentions, focusing particularly on the American branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and its desire to “civilise” Asians through the medium of amateur sport. In the view of the YMCA at the time, Asia was a singular entity, united by its “backwardness” and in need of guidance by the West.

Huebner’s book explores a significant period of 19th-century relations between East and West, from the Far Eastern Championship (FEC) Games and the Western Asiatic Games, to events post-World War II that sought to modernise the region through development and international peace.

A particularly interesting section of Pan-Asian Sports recounts the inadvertent, though predictable, rise in anti-colonial sentiment, which developed through the 1920s and 1930s. This “Asiatisation” process sprung from the desire to reject the Christian norms espoused and introduced by the American branch of the YMCA.

str2_sandysportsR_cover_ma_1The FEC Games was taken under the control of Asian politicians and sports officials who embraced and propagated pan-Asian rhetoric. Paradoxically, it was the pan-Asian rhetoric that was being challenged by individual nationalisation processes, which eventually led to the breakdown of the Games in the 1930s.

The FEC Games – the biggest regional sports event during wartime – was held on 10 occasions and was instrumental in modernising East Asia, perhaps most notably through the emancipation of women. Conversely, the Western Asiatic Games was held only once, in 1934 in India, and therefore had a minimal impact on the sociopolitical landscape of the Asian region, primarily due to a lack of funding and poor organisation.

Pan-Asian Sports is a charming read for those interested in how sports helped to shape the East through Western ideals (and vice versa). Huebner provides a comprehensive account of how sport can be used to wield powerful influence in developing societies in moral standards and political and societal shifts.

The book makes you think about how “soft power” (ie, influencing through culture, sports and the arts) can be just as effective – if not more so – than political and military force in the introduction of new ideals and standards.

If there’s criticism to be made, it’s perhaps that Huebner’s book is, at best, accessible academia – while it’s much more readable than the average academic journal, anyone outside academia might find it an effort to get through the book.

Having said that, Pan-Asian Sports is clearly an important book that explores key points in Asia’s history and would no doubt enthral readers who are interested in the historical relationship between East and West, and how sport played a major part in helping to shape that relationship.

Pan-Asian Sports And The Emergence Of Modern Asia (1913-1974)

Author: Stefan Huebner
Publisher: NUS Press (Singapore), non-fiction