Enemies in The Ring, Friends Outside It
The fighters at this all-female gym in Shanghai bond over breaking gender norms and finding their inner strength.
"In Good Company" is a series about athletic teams and clubs that are challenging the status quo.
In an understated boxing club in Shanghai, a group of women—teachers, managers, stay-at-home mums and everything in between—lace up their boots and wrap their knuckles. Hot-pink hand weights and flashy gloves line the reception room. The sound of gloves hitting pads syncs with high-energy, high-volume electronic beats. Laughter bounces off the walls of the Princess Women's Boxing Club as members of the club crack jokes before stepping into the ring.
The boxing club plays host to a community of female fighters who come for the workout, but end up staying for the camaraderie. While you may not consider boxing a team sport, this place and these women prove it most certainly is: Together, they train to boost confidence, build physical and mental strength, and give any naysayers a left jab, good-night right.
Jin Yang practises her shadowboxing.
The club got its start in a rented dance studio in 2010. Organised by Gong Jin, who was initially just looking to provide a space for a handful of her female friends to box in, Princess Women's Boxing Club is now a fully fledged club with two Shanghai locations, a dozen coaches and hundreds of members.
Meeting multiple times a week in classes of 10 to 15, the women have formed bonds that transcend boxing. "We're like a family", says Gong Jin, who first put on the gloves at the age of 12, encouraged by her father, who boxed in his youth. Six years later, she started fighting professionally, and now, at 32, she's still going strong.
Zou Qiang, He Yue and Li Chaoqiong watch their teammates in the ring.
From left: Zou Qiang, He Yue, Li Chaoqiong, Sang Ying and Wang Lei watch their teammates in the ring.
Among her charges is Han Beiying, who recently made the transition from student to part-time coach, and Zhong Zheng, who has been training with the club twice a week for more than four years. Together with seasoned Princess veterans Ge Fangxin and Du Jingjing, they discuss how young Chinese women are defying old ideas in order to define new ones.
We talk fighting bonds, KOs and adding fuel.
So no boys allowed at Princess. Why is it important to have a female-only boxing club?
Gong Jin: The male way of fighting is more focused on strength and toughness. For women, it's more about technique, accuracy and the right strategy. In a group with a bunch of boys, I feel like I have to prove myself. I wanted to train with other women, but there was no place for us to practise at the time. That's how it started.
Han Beiying: You don't see a lot of women's boxing gyms in China and, actually, I think we were the only one when we started. It provides a safe place for us to practise where we don't have to worry about the punches being too heavy.
Zhong Zheng: I enjoy the privacy of training with small classes of my close friends, as well as the high level of coaching with women who understand where you're coming from.
Why all the pink?
Gong Jin: [Laughs] I know not every girl likes pink. It's just my personal favourite. It doesn't mean a female-only gym has to be pink.
What is it like to be part of this community?
Gong Jin: We really support one another. When our teammates are fighting, we shout out their names and cheer "Pǔ lín jiāyóu". ["Pǔ lín" is the first two characters of the gym's Chinese name, which is the first part of the transliteration of "Princess". "Jiāyóu" translates to "add fuel" in the encouraging "go for it" or "come on" sense of the phrase.] The whole gym is usually filled with our loud cheering voices.
Chang Yiting observes a sparring session.
What has boxing with this club taught you?
Han Beiying: It's taught me teamwork and tolerance. Although it's a one-woman show in the ring, you have a coach and you have partners training with you. It's truly a team sport. I mean, it's really terrifying when you see a punch coming towards your face, but with practice and teamwork, you learn to throw a perfect punch.
Gong Jin: It's taught me to be brave and made me independent. Boxing is not about initiating the fight, but about being able to stand up for yourself.
Zhong Zheng: At first when I had fights, I was nervous and only cared about winning. But as time went by, I learnt that [boxing] is more about showing respect to my rival by applying all the skills I've learnt from training and my teammates and trying my best.
Gong Jin's corgi, Wukong, leads a team huddle after class.
How do the bonds formed in the gym translate to life outside the ring?
Gong Jin: We have become close friends. We chat when we're getting ready and often go out to eat together after training. Many of us have known one another for a long time, so we've formed really close bonds.
Han Beiying: In the ring, we punch like enemies, but when we're outside the ring we're more than just training partners. We complain about our bosses and our co-workers in WeChat groups. We have this pressure release with boxing that we all share. And when you're in trouble, whether it's in work or your personal life, you have this incredible support network that's there for you.
From left: Xu Jie, He Yue, Zhong Zheng, Wang Lei, Zou Qiang
How is boxing changing the perception of women in China?
Ge Fangxin: Back when I first started [six years ago], there weren't many women willing to give boxing a try. But as time goes by, more step in and stay. It's moving to see more women learning about their power through boxing.
Du Jingjing: More people are starting to accept boxing as a female sport, rather than just associating it with violence. We are owning the beauty of our power.
After training, Gong Jin slips off her gloves and unfurls her knuckle wraps. Her corgi, Wukong, bounds over and she scoops him up onto her knee before flipping him on his back for a tummy rub. The other girls crowd around and laugh. They're the same women who entered the boxing studio just a few hours earlier. But you can tell from the way they're now carrying themselves that something has shifted. Through a series of fighting rounds, they've palpably reconnected with this power Du Jingjing spoke about. Now they're ready to take on whatever comes their way. A big match, a board meeting, a bad day: bob, weave, punch—knockout.
Words: Crystal Wilde
Photography: Luo Yang
Reported: September 2020