Having surged into a 4-0 lead, the Chinese were overhauled by a rampant Dutch fightback and trailed 5-4, before the hosts levelled the scores at 5-5 near the end of regular time.
After a miss by the Netherlands' second shooter Carmen Wijsman, China’s Zhang Jinrong calmly added to her two regular-time goals to send the capacity crowd into a frenzy, and the Dutch camp into stunned disbelief.
Team China stands united before the hockey5s gold medal match
“It’s been life or death for our team all week and tonight was no different,” said China captain, Tu Yidan, after her side had won 3-2 in the shoot-out.
“The gold medal is something we’ve all trained for as a team and something we’d all give anything for.
“We were really calm [going into the shoot-out] and we were ready because it’s something we practise a lot in training, so it was very familiar to us.”
Somewhat ominously for their rivals, China’s hockey success in Nanjing appears to be only the beginning of a long-term plan.
“The Youth Olympic Games is something we’ve all been practising for for a long time and the next step for us is to get together properly as the national team,” Tu said.
“We already live together, we eat together, we play hockey together and we have a good future together.”
China coach Guo Xudong (CHN) shares the captain’s vision. “This is just a step on a long road for us,” he said. “We showed tonight that we can match any opposition.”
The gold medal decider had more ebbs and flows and twists and turns than the Yangtze River which runs next to the hockey venue.
The pre-tournament favourites, the Netherlands had conceded only three goals in the competition but had given away more than that number by the 16-minute mark with China goals from Lijia Zhang, Tu and a double from shoot-out star Zhang Jinrong.
The Dutch looked shaken but fought back spectacularly by scoring five goals in an explosive eight minutes.
But the tide had not completely turned and when Zhang Xindan (CHN) broke a 14-minute China goal drought to score the equaliser with five minutes on the clock, it was game on yet again.
Netherlands captain Elin Van Erk said her team will regret their slow start for some time, although she admitted China’s intensity in the first period was not unexpected.
“We knew China were really strong and focused and it didn’t really surprise us when they came out so hard in the beginning,” she said.
“It wasn’t good when we were three-nil behind, that was actually really sad, but we decided we needed to fight and get back in the game.”
Senior hockey teams from China and the Netherlands win medals consistently at World Cup, Champions Trophy and Olympic Games hockey competitions and both nations have well-established junior development programmes.
Van Erk acknowledged China’s growing emergence as a hockey power.
“China can play really good hockey,” she said. “We never give up though.”
The bronze medal was claimed by Argentina with a 5-2 win over Japan.