Many Chinese people have a keen interest in sport.
Whether it’s participating in sport or simply being a spectator, more and more people are getting involved.
In fact, the value of the sports industry in China keeps going up each year. It was almost 3 billion yuan annually at last count.
Some sports in China are more popular than others, and some are hugely popular. This is for a range of reasons including accessibility, history and even government initiatives.
Equally, some sports – which are popular in other countries – are not mainstream or even known in China at all.
In this article, I’ll lay them all out for you.
1. Table tennis
This is probably the most prominent sport in China.
Way back in the early 1950s, Chinese leader Mao Zedong declared table tennis a national sport. Its popularity spread throughout the country, making Chinese athletes the strongest in the world within a short period of time.
The sport is just as popular now as it was decades ago. There are ping pong tables in every school, so kids get to learn from a young age.
It’s an inclusive sport which is important for a socialist country like China. No matter your age, gender, wealth or even your level of fitness, table tennis is for the masses.
The game also doesn’t require a lot of space, which is ideal in a crowded country like China.
Fun fact: The United States’ table tennis team was invited to play the game in China in 1971. Dubbed ping-pong diplomacy, it heralded a thaw in diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Basketball is huge in China!
There are basketball courts in all the schools, and the sport is particularly enjoyed by guys.
The sport really blew up in China in the 2000s, when Yao Ming started playing for the Houston Rockets in the NBA.
A few Chinese have played in the NBA since then, but none have come close to making such a big impact as Yao Ming.
To this day, Ming is still one of China’s most famous athletes, if not the most famous.
On the international stage, the Chinese men’s and women’s basketball teams are not very successful. The men’s team didn’t even qualify for the Tokyo 2020/21 Olympics.
But that hasn’t stopped the sport being adored by millions of Chinese.
Fun fact: Yao Ming owns a winery in the Napa Valley selling high-end wine with his name on it.
Badminton is another national sport of China.
At an amateur level, badminton is like ping pong. It’s a highly accessible sport – all you need is a racket and shuttlecock.
I’ve seen people in China – and joined in myself – play badminton without a net. They simply hit the shuttlecock to each other as a way of participating and having fun.
For elite badminton players, the Chinese government takes care of everything including housing, meals and training. This helps the country dominate the sport.
Possibly the greatest badminton player of all time, Lin Dan completed the Super Grand Slam by the age of 28. He won all of the nine major badminton tournaments available, including the Olympic Games, World Championships and World Cup.
He remains the only player, male or female, to achieve this feat.
Fun fact: Some historians say that badminton is a derived version of the traditional Chinese game, ‘jianzi’. In this sport, players use their feet instead of a racket to hit the shuttlecock.
4. Soccer (football)
Soccer is another big sport in China.
The Chinese Super League boasts 16 teams which are privately owned. Matches are widely covered by Chinese TV stations.
Just as Mao Zedong declared ping pong would be a national sport 70 years ago, current leader Xi Jinping has pledged to turn China into a football power.
Soccer pitches will be built all over China, aiming to attract millions of players.
The ultimate goal? Xi Jinping wants the country to first host and then win a World Cup by 2050.
Fun fact: Some international players are enticed to play in China for hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. Find out more in the interesting video above.
Historically, jogging on the street in China drew stares. But it’s now becoming increasingly popular.
According to Runner’s World, upward of 20 million Chinese are now taking to urban streets and village trails.
Chinese people began running because of its accessibility, as more middle class began exploring new recreations. But soon after, many stumbled onto the more social, communal aspects – the identity and support that comes from belonging to a larger running tribe.
Sadly, 21 ultra-marathon runners died in Gansu province in May 2021 due to poor planning by race officials.
(You can find out more about Chinese provinces here.)
Fun fact: If you’re a fitness fanatic and want to explore China’s best attraction while you run, check out the Great Wall Marathon.
6. Square dancing
Is square dancing a sport?
Well, although it’s not competitive, it’s a good form of exercise and it’s immensely popular in China. And that has to count for something.
You’ll see mostly middle-aged and older women dancing to choreographed routines in public parks all over the country. If the weather is good, the dancing goes late into the night.
The name ‘square dancing’ is not named because of the dance moves. It’s because the dancing happens in a city square or plaza.
Dancing in public parks became a low-cost form of exercise and entertainment for many women who lost their jobs at state-owned enterprises in the 1990s.
It’s remained popular ever since because anyone can join in, and it’s a good way to socialize and make friends.
Also, square dancing is a sport that requires memory. This appeals to the locals who have to memorize thousands of Chinese characters throughout their school years.
If you ever make it to China, make sure you walk through one of the city parks. You’re bound to see some square dancing in action.
Fun fact: ‘Dancing grannies’ have been deemed a nuisance in some Chinese cities and many groups now have to use headphones instead of blaringly loud speakers.
Volleyball is another popular sport in China.
The Chinese women’s volleyball team has had a long history of success, including dominating the world stage in the 1980s and winning the gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Players like Zhu Ting are now household names in China after their success in Rio and their continued dominance in international competitions.
In 2020, patriotic film Leap was released. It features famous Chinese actress Gong Li who also stars in Disney movie, Mulan.
Gong Li plays legendary Chinese volleyball player and coach, Lang Ping.
Fun fact: China recently appointed a new coach to train the struggling men’s volleyball team. The coach said “the players must learn the spirit of the Chinese women’s volleyball team”.
8. Martial arts
Martial arts have been engrained in the Chinese culture for thousands of years.
Kung fu, or ‘gongfu’ in Chinese, is the most well-known and dates back to the Zhou Dynasty (1,111–255 BC).
Combined with spirituality, kung fu is a form of exercise and unarmed mode of personal combat. It’s similar to karate or taekwondo.
There are various movements in kung fu, most of which are imitations of the fighting styles of animals like the snake as well as the mystical dragon.
Martial arts movie icons, including Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan, have kept martial arts like kung fu very much in the mainstream.
Fun fact: China is the second highest performing country in the Olympic Games, behind South Korea, for taekwondo.
Swimming is growing in popularity in China.
A few decades ago, China wasn’t winning any medals in the Olympic pool, but is now considered an emerging swimming nation.
In 2012, Sun Yang became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.
However, the Chinese swim team has not gone without controversy. Yang was recently banned from international competitions for four years for cheating, causing shame and reputational damage for China.
Fun fact: Chinese media has hailed female swimmer Zhang Yufei as the ‘new butterfly queen’ following some amazing records in the pool.
China’s interest and participation in tennis doesn’t come close to tennis-obsessed Europe. But it’s still enjoyed by many Chinese at an amateur level, and the interest is growing.
There are 10 million regular female tennis players in China according to Tennis Head. In a population of 1.4 billion, you can see how much opportunity there is for even more participation.
Tennis tournaments held in big cities including Beijing and Chengdu are helping develop the sport in the country.
The glory days of Chinese tennis were arguably in the 2010s when top women’s player, Li Na, won the French Open and Australian Open grand slams.
Fun fact: Na peaked at world number 2.
One to watch
Traditionally, Formula One racing hasn’t been popular in China despite its annual race in Shanghai.
However, Zhou Guanyu recently became the country’s first-ever full-time driver to compete in the motorsport series, signing with Alfa Romeo for 2022.
Now that the Chinese have a local hero they can support, F1 is likely to become a lot more popular in the sports-watching scene.
“To be the first ever Chinese driver in Formula 1 is a breakthrough for Chinese motorsport history,” Zhou said (as reported in The Guardian).
Prior to Zhou, the only other Chinese racer with F1 experience is Ma Qinghua. But that was a decade ago and he didn’t have a full-time race seat.
Unpopular sports in China
There are a few sports that aren’t popular in China at all, particularly from a participation standpoint.
Professional cycling isn’t big in China at all. The roads are crowded and dangerous for cyclists, and the infrastructure (e.g. cycle lanes and velodromes) isn’t developed.
While golf is gaining in popularity in China, it’s only played by the rich and elite. Since that doesn’t gel with Communist Party ideals, there have been numerous golf course construction bans over the years.
Contact team sports like rugby, gridiron and ice hockey have never been popular in China. However, the inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games may mean increased interest in contact sports in the future.
Baseball hasn’t taken off in China either. There’s a lack of facilities and no grass roots involvement, while the China Baseball League folded in 2018.
And, while it’s huge in countries like India, Australia and the UK, cricket is virtually unheard of in China.
I hope you liked my article about the most popular sports in China. If you like lists, check out the article I wrote about the most popular drinks in China. Or, get a little bit cheeky and discover the world of Chinese dating!
Main image credit: djimenezhdez on Pixabay.