Why is the garden city of China a hotbed of amateur radio direction finders?
I am running along the remains of the 2,500-year-old wall surrounding the Chinese city of Suzhou, and the beep is getting louder. “Find where the volume is lowest,” says 17-year-old Shen Wenjie, a junior at Suzhou Middle School and, as it happens, an amateur radio direction finding (ARDF) player since he was in the third grade.
The radio signal appears to be quieter on the left, so we scramble down the slope to a newly landscaped path alongside one of the city’s myriad canals. Freshly planted grass and camphor trees border a classical garden-style walkway made of inlaid stones and pavers.
Until last year, residents planted vegetables on the area where we are now standing, Shen tells me. Some of the farmers dug up the grass this year to grow their usual watermelon crop: quite the headache for local government authorities, apparently. The radio signal is so low now I can hardly hear it through my headphones. We are very close to achieving our goal: finding the radio receiver concealed somewhere in the greenspace. I look around, only to be admonished by Shen. “No, don’t use your eyes,” he says. “Listen and think.”
It’s my first time ever playing ARDF, and already I’m cheating.
Earlier that Sunday morning, the Suzhou ARDF team and I had gathered underneath one of the six bridges that traverse the moat surrounding this rapidly modernizing city of 2.2 million people. I had come along to watch the team’s weekly training program, in which about 40 kids, ages 13 to 18, outfitted with headphones, antennas and ham radios, had to locate in consecutive order seven transmitters hidden by the coaches.
According to Li Xuelong, head coach for the ARDF Suzhou city team, the Soviets first introduced ARDF to China during the Communist Revolution in the 1940s. The Chinese Nationalists, the Kuomintang, apparently also used ARDF as spy technology. Fast forward to the 21st century. Two years ago, Suzhou took ninth place when it represented China in the World ARDF championships.
It’s not clear if the city’s special love of the sport has something to do with Suzhou’s sophisticated, tech-savvy reputation. In 2001, Newsweek singled out Suzhou, located 30 miles from Shanghai, as one of nine emerging high-tech cities in the world. An ancient city of gardens and canals, Suzhou now manufactures 8 percent of China’s IT products.
Li has his own opinion about the value of playing ARDF. “It is a game that requires both mental and physical fitness,” he says. “That is why it is good for China.” Kids must be sharp enough to interpret radio signals and to think geometrically about the shortest route to their target. And they must be fit enough to run up to 10 kilometers and beat the other team’s time. ARDF players, in short, have to possess a triumvirate of skills: running, listening and analyzing.
For the last couple of years, the ARDF club has been the most popular school club at Suzhou Middle School, an institution that traces its history back to 1053, during the Song dynasty. Today, the kids are learning what Shen dismisses as “basic techniques,” such as the 90 degree rule, in which players initially approach their target at right angles, instead of on a diagonal. They are also reminded that the Suzhou canals confuse the radio signals by reflecting sound just as water reflects light.
Li asks why ARDF isn’t very popular in the United States. Hazarding a guess, I say American teens like technology when it comes in the form of video games, but might balk at the physical activity associated with direction finding. Actually, after returning home, I discover that Americans are taking a growing interest in mobile transmitter hunting; the third annual USA ARDF championships took place in Cincinnati last summer. But in true American style, the sport usually involves driving, not running.
Shen, who took fourth place in Suzhou’s National Day ARDF competition, held in October, has more than recreational reasons for playing the orienteering game. If he takes first or second place in next year’s competition, he’ll be able to add 20 points to his physical education score on the national examination: the one-shot comprehensive test that determines the fate of every Chinese high school graduate seeking a place in the nation’s hyper-competitive university system.
ARDF players learn to navigate different kinds of terrain, from urban parks to woodland areas. The Suzhou team often practices on an island in the middle of Lake Tai, the third-largest freshwater lake in China. It’s about 50 kilometers from Suzhou proper. In the next couple of years, however, the Suzhou New and High-Tech Industrial District will expand by 100 kilometers to create a continuous industrial park from Suzhou to the water’s edge. During an ARDF competition last year, several girls reportedly got lost on the Lake Tai island for three hours. “They should have been carrying their cellphones,” Shen says.
As for the gripes local peasants have with the government’s beautification plans, which are transforming plots of farmland all over Suzhou, they are not shared by the ARDF team.
“Last year, this was just mud,” says Shen, pointing to the neat rows of azalea bushes. “We got so dirty.”
Although I came close, I never did find any of the receivers. Shen consoles me, albeit in a slightly condescending, teenage boy sort of way. It’s just knowing Morse code and math, he says, when I ask him what I am hearing and where we should be going. “But I’ve been doing this for years,” he adds. “You would learn if you practiced.”
Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Oregon. More Linda Baker.
More Related Stories
- Stop what you're doing and go watch "Borgen"
- Teenage girl claims she was beaten up for looking like Taylor Swift
- Mike Judge: "Bowling for Columbine" made me pro-gun
- New York chef serves up eight-course meal around "Arrested Development" jokes
- HLN: Jodi Arias "pleading for her life" got us a ratings win!
- Michael Ian Black on Maron feud: He "considered me a poseur"
- Chekhov's story mirrors Russia's own
- Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina denied parole
- Joe Francis apologizes for calling jury "retarded"
- Mary Karr: David Foster Wallace and I kept each other alive
- Morgan Freeman sleeps during televised interview
- J.J. Abrams reveals deleted shower scene with Benedict Cumberbatch
- Is the anti-gay backlash on?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11