Liu Changchun, China’s first Olympic athlete, competed as a sprinter in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Chinese sports have been influenced by the more harmonious physical disciplines of Chinese tradition, as well as the need for military preparedness, but in the modern post-opening era Chinese athletics are starting to more closely resemble western sports in their practice.

Chinese physical culture has always oscillated between two poles: at one extreme, violent competition; at the other, the peaceful quest for physical and spiritual harmony. Boxers, wrestlers, and other athletes embody the first extreme; devotees of tai chi (taijiquan), a kind of graceful gymnastic exercise, represent the second. Chinese sports, which fall by definition into the first category, have often been modified by influences from the second. For millennia, Chinese culture has had gentle sports as well as rough ones. Good form has often been prized above competitive success.

Traditional China

In ancient China, as in European antiquity, most sports were rough. Extant references to sports frequently refer to them in conjunction with military preparation. During the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE), for instance, soldiers ran, jumped, threw objects of various sorts, wrestled, and practiced their skills as archers, swordsmen, and charioteers. They seem also to have demonstrated their prowess as weight lifters. Kangding (tripod lifting) was popular as early as the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE).

Wushu and Archery

By the time of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), foot soldiers and mounted knights had replaced charioteers as the mainstay of the army, and the practice of wushu (military skills, also translated as martial arts) was highly developed. Although the unarmed techniques of wushu were especially prized, archery too had numerous devotees, and the sport was immensely popular during the Song dynasty (960–1279). An eleventh-century district survey found 588 archery societies enrolling 31,411 members, nearly 15 percent of the local population. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), China’s Manchu rulers preferred that their subjects not practice the martial arts. Wushu nonetheless experienced a surge in popularity during the nationalistic reaction to Chinese defeat in the First Opium War in 1842.

Ball Games

Ball games, played with carefully sewn stuffed skins, with animal bladders, or with found objects as simple as gourds, chunks of wood, or rounded stones, are universal. Ball games of all sorts were quite popular among the Chinese. When they began is unknown, but stone balls have been dated to the sixth millennium BCE. Cuju, which resembled modern soccer football, is mentioned in the Shiji, one of the oldest extant Chinese texts. The famed Han dynasty poet Li Yu (50–130 CE) also wrote of football. Games similar to modern badminton and shuttlecock were played in the first century CE.

Racket Games

Through most of China’s recorded history, racket games were popular among women. A Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) scroll painting, “Grove of Violets,” depicts elegantly attired ladies playing chuiwan, a game combining elements of modern billiards and golf. According to the Wanjing (1282), the players took turns striking a wooden ball and sending it into holes marked with colored flags. The ethos of the game stressed fairness and harmony among the players.

The Mongols

Harmony seems not to have been foremost among the values of China’s Mongol rulers. The martial arts flourished, and mounted archers were the backbone of the army. If the Venetian traveler Marco Polo (1254–1324) can be believed, the Mongol rulers produced a royal heroine comparable to the Greek girl Atalanta, who raced against and defeated a number of suitors. Princess Aiyaruk was said to have owned more than ten thousand horses, winning one hundred at a time as she outwrestled a long line of doomed suitors.

Mongol emperors like Khubilai Khan (1215–1294) were passionate about the hunt, but the golden age for that sport seems to have been during the Manchu Qing dynasty. Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722, ruled from 1662) was said to have hunted with a retinue of seventy thousand horsemen and three thousand archers, which suggests that his prey had very little chance of survival.

Aristocratic Disdain and Archery

Throughout Chinese history, aristocrats obsessed with the quest for harmony tended to disdain sports, a tendency strengthened by the arrival of Buddhism during the Han dynasty. In the moralistic eyes of Confucian sages, playing ball games was little better than drinking, gambling, and womanizing. Yet even Confucian scholars succumbed to the seduction of archery and granted the sport a half-hearted endorsement. “There is no contention among gentlemen,” wrote Confucius (551–479 BCE). “The nearest to it is perhaps archery.” It was not, however, the warrior’s grimly competitive archery. “Even the way they [the archers] contend is gentlemanly” (Riordan/Jones 1999: 28).

Archery was also a sport for women. It was practiced by a number of court ladies, including the Dowager Empress Chonga. For men and women who found archery too bellicose a pastime, there was touhou, which required the player to toss an arrow into a vase. In time, the game was refined to the point where nine officials were required for a two-person match.

Kite Flying and Dragon Boat Racing

Adults as well as children flew kites, some of which were fanciful works of art in paper and wood. This form of amusement was known as early as the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) but became a national obsession during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). In its competitive version, contestants sought to maneuver their kites so that they cut the strings of their opponents’ kites. A much older sport, dragon boat racing, elicited the same aesthetic impulse. This sport evolved from impromptu races among boats decorated with images of dragons that protected the crews from storms. Eventually, races were held to commemorate the drowned. The most famous of these races was in memory of the poet Qu Yuan, who perished in 278 BCE. By the Tang dynasty, there were fixed dates and strict rules for the races, which had become major events. Some of the boats were “manned” by female crews. The Dragon Boat Festival (Duanwujie) is today one of China’s most important traditional Chinese festivals, falling on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar.


Polo, which probably had its origins on the plains of Central Asia, reached China in 627 CE. It became a passion among those wealthy enough to own horses. All sixteen emperors of the Tang Dynasty were polo players. One of them, Xizong (reigned 874–888), remarked that he would take top honors if civil-service examinations were based on polo. The army used the attractions of the game as a way to improve its men’s equestrian skills. This may not have been a good idea. When the Mongols invaded, several Chinese generals were said to have been more competent at polo than at warfare. If numerous terracotta figures can be trusted as evidence, polo was also played by aristocratic Chinese women. The sport lost favor during the Song dynasty.

Introduction of Western Sports

Western sports came to Chi
na toward the end of the Qing dynasty. Europeans resident in China established the Canton Regatta Club in 1837. The first modern track meet was held at St. John’s University, a Christian school, in 1890. Six years later, American missionaries introduced basketball at the Tianjin YMCA. YMCA workers were responsible for the first national sports festival, held in Nanjing in 1910, and for the quadrennial Far Eastern Games (1913–1934), at which Chinese athletes competed against those from Japan and the Philippines. Other Americans founded and directed educational institutions such as the Chinese Physical Training School (Shanghai, 1914).

As the Confucian scholar’s disdain for the merely physical waned, Western sports increasingly influenced the behavior of Chinese men, especially those of the urban middle and upper classes. In time, modern sports revolutionized the lives of middle-class and upper-class women. In the course of the twentieth century, images of the ideal female gradually changed from the delicately immobile court lady barely able to hobble on her deformed feet to the robustly active young girl racing up and down a basketball court. Female athletes became “icons of desirable sexuality” (Hong 1997: 275). From a feminist perspective, modern sports have been emancipatory.

From 1912 to 1949, modern sports were mainly an urban phenomenon. Although national sports festivals were an increasingly salient aspect of Chinese culture, the nation’s athletic elite did poorly in international competition. China’s National Olympic Committee was not officially recognized until 1931. At the 1932 Olympic Games, where Japanese swimmers astonished the world by winning eleven of the sixteen medals in the men’s competition, sprinter Liu Changchun was the lone Chinese representative. He was eliminated in the heats.

The low level of elite sports (and the generally unhappy state of Chinese physical education) from the 1920s to the 1950s can be explained by the trauma of civil war and foreign invasion. Communist victory in the Civil War over the Nationalists in 1949 heralded the transformation of Chinese sports as well as the rest of Chinese culture. Mao Zedong (1893–1976) had written in 1917 that physical education is “more important than intellectual and moral education” (Hong 1997: 131), but resources were scarce in 1949, and progress was slow. In 1951, the government inaugurated an inexpensive way to enhance the nation’s fitness. China’s masses began to perform early-morning out-of-doors gymnastic exercises in accordance with commands broadcast by state radio. The sequence of national sports festivals was resumed in 1959.

In this first decade of Communist rule, the emphasis was on national defense. The government’s physical culture program included not only tai chi and conventional sports like track and field but also paramilitary training with bayonets, hand grenades, and other weapons.

Although the regime’s avowed aim was to promote fitness and sports for the masses, the state-run All-China Athletic Federation recognized that athletes who broke world records and won international championships contributed to their country’s prestige. Limited government support for elite sports bore early fruit in the 1950s. Chen Jingkai set a world’s record in bantamweight weight lifting; Zeng Fengrong and Rong Guotuan won world championships in high jumping and table tennis. Quarrels with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over the status of Taiwan culminated in 1958 with Chinese resignation from the committee. At the same time and for the same reason, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) withdrew from the international federations for soccer and other sports. The PRC did not make its debut at the Olympic Games until 1984.

The Republic of China (Taiwan) continued to send teams to the Olympics. In the 1960 games, held in Rome, Yang Chuan-kwang barely lost the decathlon to his close friend, the American Rafer Johnson.

Unfortunately for those who dreamed of international supremacy, the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) drastically altered the regime’s approach to sports. Mao’s motto was “Friendship first, competition second.” Sports contacts were, however, limited to friendly nations like the People’s Republic of Korea. Athletes and coaches who had had international experience were suspect: Were they truly committed to Maoism? Some of them, like Zhuang Zedong, the world champion in table tennis (1961–1966), were sent to prison. Others, like table tennis stars Rong Guotuan and Fu Jifang, committed suicide. At the elite level, Chinese sports were devastated.

During the PRC’s ten years of turmoil, athletes representing Taiwan continued to compete internationally. One of the island’s most successful sprinters, Chi Cheng, was third in the 80-meter hurdles at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Two years later, competing in the United States, she set world records in the 100-yard and 200-yard sprints (10.0 and 22.7 seconds) and in the 100-meter hurdles (13.2 seconds).

The policy of the PRC veered again in the 1980s. The new motto was “Break out of Asia and advance on the world.” To achieve this goal, the government invested heavily in sports infrastructure. Although physical education was required in all schools, gifted athletes received special attention. Borrowing from the model developed by the Soviet Union, the government established a network of special schools to train an athletic elite. By 1990 there were 150 such schools (while the Soviet Union had a mere 46). Large sums went to build sports facilities. Research into sports physiology and sports psychology was strongly supported at Beijing University. To maximize performance in Olympic sports, the government decided in 1997 to eliminate all traditional Chinese sports (except wushu) from the annual national sports festival.

Current Emphasis on International Sports

The system worked. The achievements of Chinese athletes have been spectacular. Thanks in part to substantial government investment in sports infrastructure and relatively generous subsidies to athletes, the Chinese began to win international championships. At the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, Chinese athletes won sixty-one events and ended thirty-one years of Japanese domination. Two years later, Chinese Olympians returned from Los Angeles with fifteen gold, eight silver, and nine bronze medals.

To ensure Olympic success at Seoul in 1988, the PRC spent over a quarter of a billion dollars, more than fifty million dollars for each gold medal earned. Generous rewards for individual athletes were a part of the regime’s program; diver Fu Mingxia’s victory brought her a bonus that was three hundred times a teacher’s annual salary.

In the 1990s, female runners like Wang Junxia set new world records by astonishing margins. Wang Junxia’s time over 3,000 meters was 8:06.11 minutes, an unprecedented improvement of 3.28 percent over the old record. (No previous track record had ever been lowered by more than 2.51 percent.) At the 1994 world swimming championships, Chinese women won twelve of a possible sixteen gold medals. In response to the suspicion that such performances were drug enhanced, Chinese coaches referred to hard training and the ability of peasant women to “eat bitterness.” It was true that Chinese athletes trained harder than their Western counterparts, but it was also true that Chinese men had failed to achieve such stellar performances and that a large number of female athletes tested positive for anabolic steroids. Between 1972 and 1994, ten of the world’s elite swimmers had failed drug tests; in 1994 alone, eleven Chinese swimmers failed.

In 1993, the desire to “break out of Asia
and advance on the world” motivated the government to modify its ban on openly professional sports and launch a twenty-four-team soccer league (followed by leagues for basketball and volleyball). In keeping with the regime’s new openness to capitalist development, soccer teams pay their players ten times the salary of the average Chinese worker. Transfer payments are allowed and foreign players are lured with bonuses. The money comes not only from ticket sales but also from corporate sponsors such as Hyundai, Samsung, Panasonic, and Pepsi-Cola. The sports of the People’s Republic seem more and more like the sports of Europe and North America, a tendency that was accelerated in 2008, when Beijing hosted the summer Olympic Games.

The 2008 Olympics were an athletic success for China, and were also an economic success and a political success. China had, for the first time, more Olympic champions than any other nation. They also experienced a huge boom in tourism and advertising revenue, and short of several small incidents, the Olympics were also a political success, avoiding any major pitfalls. The chief accomplishment of the Beijing Olympics to history will probably be as a symbol of China’s rise as an athletic superpower and the increasing presence of sports in China as a westernized, commercial activity.

Further Reading

Brownell, S. (1995). Training the body for China: Sports in the moral order of the People’s Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brownell, S. (2008). Beijing’s games: What the Olympics mean to China. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Fan Hong. (1997). Footbinding, feminism and freedom: The liberation of women’s bodies in modern China. London: Frank Cass.

Knuttgen, H. G., Ma Qiwei, & Wu Zhongyuan, (Eds.). (1990). Sport in China. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Kolatch, J. (1972). Sports, politics, and ideology in China. Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David.

Riordan, J., & Jones, R. (Eds.). (1999). Sport and physical education in China. London: E & FN Spon.

Wagner, E. (Ed.). (1989). Sport in Asia and Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Source: Guttmann, Allen. (2009). Sports. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2077–2082. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A silk fan painting from the Song dynasty shows a gathering of ballplayers and spectators. The different and colorful costumes, which were strictly regulated by occupation during the Song dynasty, shows a total disregard for social status in the sporting world. ATTRIBUTED TO SU HANCHEN, TWELFTH CENTURY.

A poster advertising baseball, with a racist image of a Chinese man missing a catch. China has had to overcome a stereotypical reputation for having a physically unfit populace.

Members of the Chinese Women’s national soccer team. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

Basketball has exploded in popularity in recent years amongst Chinese youth. PHOTO BY BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING.

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