What are the most popular sports in China?

Some sports have really taken off in China. This is due to accessibility of the sport, government initiatives, as well as special moments in history.

On the other hand, some sports you know and love are barely even known in China.

In this article, I’ll share the most popular sports in China, why the Chinese care about them, and some fun facts.

Plus, I’ll finish with the sports which are not mainstream at all. (As an Australian, I can confidently say they’ve never heard of Australian Rules Football!)

1. Table tennis

Most prominent sport in China

Table tennis is the national sport. Image by djimenezhdez on Pixabay.

This is the most popular recreational 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.

Deng Yaping won six world championships and four Olympic championships between 1989 and 1997, making her a household name in China.

Table tennis is still supremely popular in China as there are ping pong tables in every school, and kids get to hone their skills from a young age.

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Importantly, it’s an inclusive sport which matters 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. Maybe it’s time for a rematch?

2. Basketball

Retired basketballer Yao Ming

Famous Chinese basketballer, Yao Ming. Image by zhangjin_net on Shutterstock.

Basketball is huge in China!

There are basketball courts in all the schools, and the sport is especially loved by guys.

The sport really blew up in China in the 2000s, when Yao Ming started playing for the Houston Rockets in the National Basketball Association (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.

However, that hasn’t stopped the sport being adored by millions of Chinese.

Lots of international players also come over to China and play in the Chinese Basketball Association, which excites local fans.

Fun fact: Yao Ming owns a winery in the Napa Valley selling high-end wine with his name on it.

3. Badminton

Badminton is one of the national sports in China

Badminton is one of the top sports in China. Image by Vladislav Vasnetsov on Pexels.

Badminton is another national sport of China.

At an amateur level, badminton is like ping pong. It’s a highly accessible sport – all you really need is a racket and shuttlecock.

I’ve seen people in China – and joined in myself – play badminton without a net. The locals simply hit the shuttlecock to each other for physical fitness and 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 superpower.

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.

There’s a long way to go, though. China has played only once in the World Cup, and that was in 2002 when it lost all three games and failed to score a single goal.

And in the national league, most of the top scorers are imported players.

Fun fact: Some players overseas are enticed to play in China for hundreds of thousands of dollars per week. Find out more in the interesting video above.

5. Running

Beijing Marathon runners

Beijing Marathon runners. Image by Tangxn on Shutterstock.

Historically, jogging on the street in China drew stares. Being skinny meant you were sick or had no money!

But now, running is becoming increasingly popular especially in the big cities.

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.

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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 in Beijing.

6. Square dancing

Is square dancing even a sport?

Well, it is if you ask the millions of middle-aged and older women dancing to choreographed routines in public parks every night.

Although this kind of dance isn’t competitive, it’s great exercise and if the weather is good, the dancing goes on for hours.

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 visit 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.

7. Volleyball

Volleyball player China

The Chinese women’s volleyball team has had great success. Image by @thiszun on Pexels.

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 the 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”. Ouch!

8. Martial arts

Chinese kid doing martial arts

Kids grow up in China loving martial arts. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Of all Chinese sports, this one is the most revered.

Traditional Chinese 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.

9. Swimming

Swimming in Dalian

Dalian Beach, northern China. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

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.

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However, the Chinese 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.

At the local level, China’s middle class can now afford to give their child swimming lessons at the pool, and some parents are choosing this over more traditional extra-curricular activities like learning to play a musical instrument.

Fun fact: Chinese media has hailed female swimmer Zhang Yufei as the new butterfly queen following some amazing records in the pool.

10. Tennis

Champion Chinese tennis player Li Na

Champion Chinese tennis player Li Na. Image by Neale Cousland on Shutterstock.

China’s interest and participation in tennis doesn’t come close to tennis-obsessed Europe and the US. 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.

International tournaments held in big cities such as Beijing and Chengdu are helping develop the sport in the country.

But 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: While Li Na peaked at World Number 2 more than a decade ago, Zhang Zhizhen cracked the top 100 in the men’s competition for the first time in China’s history, at the end of 2022.

11. Formula One racing

Zhou Guanyu Formula 2 racing

Zhou Guanyu in his Formula 2 racing car. Image by Kristin Greenwood on Shutterstock.

Is driving a car a sport? Hmm, I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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 in 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.

In fact, some people tip him to become F1’s answer to Yao Ming, the Chinese NBA sensation credited with making basketball popular in China.

“To be the first ever Chinese driver in Formula 1 is a breakthrough for Chinese motorsport history,” Zhou said, as reported in The Guardian.

Fun fact: 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.

What about Olympic sports?

Chinese weightlifter Shi Zhiyoung at Rio Olympics 2016

Chinese weightlifter Shi Zhiyoung is a double Olympic gold medalist. Image by Shahjehan on Shutterstock.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten about China’s achievements in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.

Summer Olympics

In terms of the number of medals won, China’s most successful summer sports are:

  • Gymnastics
  • Shooting
  • Diving
  • Weightlifting.

And, the country has won most of its Olympic gold medals in diving and weightlifting.

However, when it comes to participation and spectating, these sports aren’t nearly as popular as the ones I’ve highlighted above.

Winter Olympics

China has also had success in the Winter Olympic Games, especially in recent years.

At the 2022 Beijing Olympics, freestyle skier Eileen Gu picked up two gold medals as well as a silver. This helped China to finish third on the medal tally, it’s best ever result.

Northern city Harbin has some amazing ski resorts which appeal to the younger generation.

And, with more investment, new infrastructure and plans to engage even more young people, China is the one to watch in winter sports.

Unpopular sports in China

Gridiron football player

American football isn’t popular in China. Image by John Torcasio on Unsplash.

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-only lanes and velodromes) isn’t developed. But mountain biking is gaining traction.

Golf is regarded as a sport that’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, and the China Baseball League folded in 2018.

And, while it’s huge in India, Pakistan, Australia, the UK and parts of Africa, cricket is virtually unheard of in China.

I hope you liked my article about the most popular sports in China. If you like lists, then check out the one 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.

Frequently asked questions about sport in China

Are sports popular in China?

Sport is very popular in China, from both a spectator and player (amateur and professional) perspective. Each year, the value of the sports industry keeps going up.

Which is the most popular sport in China?

From a participation perspective, it’s table tennis. Practically anyone can play and ping pong tables are at all the schools. Basketball is also a very popular sport, though it’s mostly guys who like to play and watch it.

What are the 4 most popular sports in China?

Table tennis, badminton, basketball, and soccer (football) round out the top four.

What sport is China known for?

China is best known for table tennis and badminton, thanks to its successes in these sports.

Which sport is China best at?

At the international level, China has had amazing results in table tennis, badminton and volleyball. In the Summer Olympics, China has won most of its medals in gymnastics, shooting, diving, weightlifting, as well as table tennis.

Which sport originated in China?

It’s said that shuttlecock (now badminton) originated in China during the Han Dynasty. Dragon boat racing, a sport mainly practised in conjunction with the Dragon Boat Festival, also started in China.

What Chinese sports are growing in popularity?

Football and e-sports are becoming increasingly popular in China, as well as Formula 1 motor racing thanks to Zhou Guanyu’s achievements in the sport.

How do you say sport in Chinese?

It’s yùndòng or 运动 in Chinese characters.