Whether it’s for exercise, stress relief, just plain fun, or some friendly competition between coworkers, friends, or class mates, sports is an important part of life for many people in China. The sports popular in China may differ from those popular in the West, but they still serve the same function. Here’s a list of the most popular.
After work, after school, at work, or at school, weekends, or weekdays, you can’t escape the sound of a little white plastic ball bouncing back and forth on a wood table when in China. Ping Pong is by far the most popular sport and has been for a long time. It doesn’t take up much space and can be played indoors – perfect for a place where space is limited.
It’s very common to see businessmen playing at lunch, school kids playing after school or during break times, and people playing on beaten up tables in neighborhoods. But the importance of ping pong doesn’t stop with recreation. It has actually played an important role in international diplomacy. On high level visits, the Chinese president will often play a game with foreign leaders – much like golf is used in the West. The act has even been termed “Ping Pong Diplomacy”.
When it comes to Olympic sports, nobody beats China in ping pong. In fact, China has won more medals in ping pong than any other country and furthermore, no country has dominated any sport in the Olympics like China has in table tennis. China’s dominance in Badminton is not far behind.
Close behind ping pong in popularity is badminton and while it normally needs a net and an outdoor area, it can easily be played for fun without a net, and even indoors. Therefore, it is played in most areas of the country. Professional players are followed on TV and, as stated above, it is China’s second most successful Olympic sport.
Popular among children, teenagers, young adults, adults, and even senior citizens, badminton is enjoyed on weekends, after school, after work, on concrete laden apartment complex common areas, grassy fields, and basketball courts. A net is usually optional.
Not “American football”, but international association football. What exceedingly few people in the West know is that the very basics of the game were actually invented by China. The game was called “Cuju” which dates back to the Song Dynasty from around 1000AD. While England is credited with inventing the modern version of the game and many societies have had games that involved the kicking of a ball, Cuju is the earliest known form of a ‘kickball’ game with complex rules similar to modern football rules.
Football is still popular among students and adults alike – both to play and to watch. On most weekends in spring through fall, recreational groups play on fields across the nation – from the green grass of the East, to the brown sand of the Central and West. Exclusive private fields are being built in hundreds, if not thousands, of upper class apartment complexes complete with artificial turf and scoreboards.
While China hasn’t achieved the same success on the world’s stage as European and South American teams, it’s still enormously popular to watch with English’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga topping most people’s lists of their favorite teams. It’s also very popular to play and is one of the few sports in China that has adult recreation leagues. China has its own up-and-coming national league called the CSL, “Chinese Super League”. The current president, Xi JinPing, noted for being a football fan himself, has stated that his goal is to get the Chinese national football team to the world cup. To accomplish this, the government recently allocated special funds to develop football programs in primary and middle schools.
In the 1990’s, a diminutive man of 7’ 6” (2.29 meters) named Yao Ming was recruited by the NBA’s Houston Rockets. While they never won an NBA championship during the years Yao played for them, simply having a Chinese basketball star (Yao had previously played for a team in the Chinese CBA league) playing in the US created tremendous interest in the NBA. Currently, and similarly to the CSL mentioned above, the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association) has seen increasing popularity, partly due to some less-successful NBA stars playing for Chinese teams and some popular NBA stars making special visits during the summer off-season for promotional events.
Basketball could easily compete with the previous three sports in terms of popularity – especially among the younger generation. On college campuses, in high schools, and neighborhood courts, throngs of men and boys take to the court seemingly every chance they get to practice their skills.
Since the early 1990’s, as China’s economy steadily improved and moved more people into a middle class, fitness has also steadily become more popular. Now, gym memberships are all the rage in big cities and whether or not you belong to one, a pair of running shoes, and a track or empty sidewalk/road is all you need to work off those extra calories. Marathons take place across China and ‘creative races’ are also becoming quite popular – for instance, races that take place along sections of the Great Wall. Imagine that view!
The popular version in China is Snooker and it has its own international competitive league and world championships. In China, it’s popular as a social activity, mostly among adult men. Heavily used pool tables are usually easy to find in back streets and neighborhood gathering places and it’s cheap. Sometimes played outdoors, or at least just outside the pool hall on the street, it can be easy to pick up a game with a complete stranger.
For those unaware, Martial Arts (Judo, Karate, and Taekwondo to be specific) are Olympic sports. Martial Arts have a long history in Asia and most Westerns will associate “Kung Fu” with China. This is correct and in fact, Karate (which hails from Japan) is based on Kung Fu. The term “Kung Fu” is often misused in the West as if it was just one form of Martial Arts. In fact, Kung Fu has many systems and styles so one can think of it as a broad umbrella term and not just one specific set or style of movements. This is one of the sports in China more popular with people who practice it as opposed to who watch it on TV. Also, many Chinese boys learn basic Kung Fu during their childhood so there is widespread familiarity with the sport throughout the country.
Enjoyed by older students and adults alike, this is a natural evolution onto the big court in a country that’s already ping pong crazy. It has seen increasing popularity in the past several decades both in colleges and by adults as more courts have been built and as professional Chinese tennis players have achieved greater heights on the ATP and WTA tour – for example, Li Na who reached the women’s number 2 ranking in 2014.
Its moderate level of exercise combined with being a non-contact sport has made it increasingly popular over the last few decades. Commonly played at colleges, in neighborhood common areas, at schools, and on the beach, Volleyball is quickly becoming a favorite of the younger generation.
A sport which has traditionally been associated with the wealthy, in a country where more people have become wealthier faster than perhaps at any other time in history – oh yeah, golf has definitely taken off in China. Courses are popping up everywhere, business deals are getting done, and more Chinese are tuning in to an ever-growing field of professional Chinese golfers. Internationally, China hasn’t quite reached the same level of success as in other sports, but there are plenty of male and female golfers quietly inching up the rankings – with millions of fans back home watching.
F1 has captured the imaginations of Chinese for decades. Sleek, sexy, and super-fast cars weaving back and forth through different courses all over the world. Currently, both Shanghai and Macau have Formula One Grand Prixes with huge followings across the country.
Winter sports haven’t been traditionally as popular in China as summer sports mostly due to mild winters across most of the country and a large percent of mountains being inaccessibly high or too far away from urban centers. However, there is a growing interest within the new generation for the speed and aerial heights one can only get on snow – and let’s not forget about that cool, alt culture found amongst snow boarders. In Freestyle skiing (5 Olympic events) and Snowboarding (5 Olympic events), Chinese athletes have turned in impressive performances over the last several Winter Olympics adding to the growing interest.