Ding Junhui: Prodigy to Master
On September 26, 2016, 29-year-old Ding Junhui won the Snooker Shanghai Masters for the second time by beating Mark Selby 10-6. Previously winning the event in 2013, Ding became the first-ever player to take the Shanghai Masters twice.
The title was Ding’s first in 30 months and 12th of his professional career. The victory also brought him even with Australian Neil Robertson in total tournament wins. Only five players in the history of the sport have won more.
At the 2005 China Open, a young Chinese boy surprised the snooker world by beating legendary seven-time world champion Stephen Hendry in the final. Because of the 18-year-old rookie Ding Junhui, an estimated 120 million Chinese people, as many as the combined population of the U.K. and France, watched the game on TV. The teenager continued to shake up the sport later that year by defeating Steve Davis to win the U.K. Championship and become the first player from outside the U.K. to win the tournament. In many ways, Ding was an overnight sensation for the Chinese public.
For a long time, media outlets from both China and beyond used “prodigy” to describe Ding. Born in Yixing, a small city in Jiangsu Province, in 1987, Ding’s unusual snooker gift was discovered by his billiards-obsessed father when the boy was only eight. Some media outlets recounted a story of his father leaving a game with friends to use the restroom, and his son running the table before he returned.
Soon, no one in his hometown could even compete with Ding. Realizing that their child would benefit greatly from systematic billiards training, Ding’s parents took the boy to Dongguan, Guangdong Province, where China’s national snooker team trains. To pay for Ding’s training in Guangdong, the family eventually sold their home in Yixing. “They didn’t tell me they were selling the house at the time, so I didn’t feel the pressure,” Ding revealed. “But playing with the outstanding players in Guangdong helped me greatly. My skills progressed rapidly.”
At 13, Ding won his first award by finishing third in an Asian Invitational Tournament. In 2002, he amazed the snooker world by winning both the Asian under-21 and senior titles and the World Under-21 Championship in Latvia. By the age of 15, Ding had been already unbeatable in China, winning various national and regional snooker youth championships and making waves on the Asian circuit.
Before Ding’s major victories at the China Open and U.K. Championship in 2005, plenty of insiders had already noticed the emerging star.
After his rapid improvement and outstanding performance, Ding turned professional in 2003. The same year, the 16-year-old set off for Wellingborough, U.K.
Understandably, Ding had a hard time at first. He slept in a small bedroom in a modest flat and practiced seven or eight hours a day thanks to a lack of friends and family. “I was scared,” he recalled. “Nobody came to the U.K. with me. I was so far from home, and I didn’t speak English.” Ding endured long stretches of loneliness and benefited greatly from the more systematic training in the U.K., which led directly to his first major professional successes in 2005.
However, as his progress continued, Ding felt pressure piling up. “In China, people don’t just ‘want’ me to win, they ‘believe’ I will,” he continued. “But I am just human. The pressure becomes huge.” Professional players have ups and downs, and they need the ability to climb up from low points. But for a long time, questions surrounding Ding’s ability to control his temper and emotions remained. For a while, insiders even suggested that compared to his perfect mechanics, Ding’s psychological shortcomings would relegate him below top tier.
Several situations contributed to this theory. In 2007, when Ding was defeated by Ronnie O’sullivan in the Masters final, he was in tears before the match was over. From 2007 to 2010, he failed to get past the second round of the World Championship
in Sheffield. “I even broke my cue,” Ding admitted, “and I complained about the table when I lost.”
Luckily, Ding and his team began to place more attention on the problem in recent years. “I believe Ding’s poor control of his temper is caused by a sense of insecurity,” remarked Ren Haojiang, a snooker promoter and close friend of Ding. “Traveling around to play since a young age has damaged his sense of security. For a young kid, losses result in lost confidence. But as time goes on, Ding has become a more mature and tougher player.”
In the modern sports world, individual players are seldom able to dominate for extended periods of time. However, iconic figures are always helpful in promoting marginalized sports to new audiences. After years of effort and hard work, not to mention mental maturity, Ding is well positioned to serve as such a role.
Rise of Chinese Players
Throughout his career, Ding has always been watched closely in his home country, where more people play pool than in the rest of the world combined. With Ding’s rise on the international stage, many believe that China may see more “quality” participation in the snooker world.
China is certainly a huge market for the game. An estimated 50 million people in the country play, and snooker clubs have mushroomed in recent years. Shanghai alone had about 1,500 snooker clubs in 2015, soaring from 200 in 2008. With snooker’s increasing popularity in the country, many major tournaments are now broadcast live in China, with an average audience of 79 million. Major competitions featuring Ding easily attract more than 100 million viewers.
According to the Chinese Billiards and Snooker Association (CBSA), many young talented players could soon join Ding on the world stage. CBSA believes that although Ding was a lone wolf when he caused the first wave of development more than a decade ago, the second wave is represented by millennials such as Xiao Guodong, Liang Wenbo and Cao Yupeng, and the third is led by teenagers such as Yuan Sijun and Zhou Yuelong.
With the huge number of highly skilled Chinese players emerging, even World Snooker Chairman Barry Hearn once remarked during an interview that soon half of the world’s top 16 players could be Chinese.
While Ding’s rise a decade ago successfully changed the image of snooker in China, which was once considered for dropouts and the unemployed, the country is now eyeing something bigger for the game.
Nestled in the northwestern part of Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China, the Greater Khingan Range is an important state-owned natural forest region that serves as a biological protective screen for northeastern and northern China. Since 1964, the Greater Khingan Range has provided much of the timber that supported the country’s economic development, which led to a dramatic drop in its forest resources.
To restore the environment, commercial logging was banned in the Greater Khingan Range on April 1, 2014, which resulted in 30,000 woodcutters losing their jobs. In a move aimed to enable the people inhabiting the area to continue making a living, administrators of the Greater Khingan Range are working to transform its economic structure while protecting the environment.
Source of Income under Tree
“The Greater Khingan Range covers 83,000 square kilometers, about 10,000 of which grows wild blueberry,” beams Tian Fuhe, head of Amuer Blueberry Plantation. “Its output accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s total and Amuer accounts for as much as 25.4 percent.”
The Greater Khingan Range features coniferous forests growing in acidic soil and a wide difference in day and night temperatures, conditions agreeable for blueberries. “The sun rises at 3 a.m. and sets at 9 p.m. The fact that this resource is caused by the climate gives us a sort of monopoly. Our blueberry is uniquely delicious.”
Located in the northern part of the Greater Khingan Range, the Amuer Forestry Bureau is considered the “home of wild blueberries in China.” During harvest season, locals wake up at 3 a.m. and take motorcycles up the mountain to collect blueberries. Picking wild blueberries becomes more difficult and dangerous as available plants are harder to find, according to Tian Fuhe. Because of this, the Amuer Forestry Bureau founded the Amuer Blueberry Plantation seven years ago to breed blueberry seedlings and train technicians. Today, the plantation covers 10.1 hectares and grows 1.2 million seedlings. All the blueberry fields under the administration of the bureau now cover 40 hectares. Along with plantations, the bureau also succeeded in attracting investment to build the Arctic Ice Blueberry Chateau and a Blueberry Town, which attract many tourists each year.
Actually, Amuer is not the only place in the area developing the blueberry industry, which has widely become a primary source of income in the Greater Khingan Range. Over 160 blueberry products have been developed, ranging from blueberry juice, wine and dried fruit to healthcare products. Lingonberry Boreal Biotech Co., Ltd. has invented more than 30 products from extracts of blueberries and flora in the frigid zone. In March 2015, the company went public.
Today, the Greater Khingan Range’s reserve for wild blueberries has expanded to 7,450 hectares and its area of cultivated blueberries has reached 130 hectares. The production value of the blueberry industry measured 480 million yuan last year, making it the main source of income for locals. Meanwhile, others plant mushrooms such as black fungus and Hemlock varnish shelf in places that have been logged, which has also increased incomes.
Known as “China’s north pole,” the Greater Khingan Range is the northernmost tip of China, where Russia can be reached by crossing a river. On the northern slope of the Greater Khingan Range, Beiji (literally, “North Pole”) Village is the country’s northernmost village and has the best spots to see the northern lights. Many visit the village seeking China’s northernmost amenities and structures and its snowy and icy scenery in winter.
At the entrance of the village is a family hotel owned by a local couple who used to be farmers. In 2007, they renovated their house into a family hotel. In order to accommodate more tourists, they later expanded the house so they could offer six rooms instead of four. The business earns tens of thousands yuan a year and has become the main source of income for the family.
“Villagers used to subsist on farming and forestry,” explains Li Xueming, head of Beiji Township. “Their average income was less than 10,000 yuan a year. Thanks to the development of tourism, over 140 of the 680 households in the village operate family hotels and the per capita income in the village increased to 21,000 yuan last year.” In peak season, they welcome as many as 3,000 tourists a day.
The Greater Khingan Range has rich tourism resources including forests, snow and ice scenery, stone forests, wetlands and prehistoric cliff paintings. Since 2014 when commercial logging stopped, the region has sprouted ecological tourism, which has been given top priority among the six primary industries amidst the region’s transformation.
“We have beautiful landscapes as well as snow and ice,” notes Jia Yumei, secretary of the Party Committee of the Greater Khingan Range Region. “Tourism, especially winter tourism, is key to our brand.”
Hailed as one of the Top 20 Most Attractive Places in China, the Greater Khingan Range has become a new tourist hub in northern China. In 2015, the region received 4 million tourist trips and earned more than 4 billion yuan in tourism revenues. From January to August of 2016, the figure reached 3.548 million and 3.43 billion, up by 19.5 percent and 22 percent year on year respectively.
“As a tourist attraction, the Greater Khingan Range is highly dependent on nature, so we have to follow environmentally-friendly guidelines,” Jia emphasizes. “We have to carefully plan every development, strengthen environmental monitoring and protection and improve ecological capacity.”