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Sports in China

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Sports are an integral part of every culture around the world. Sports bring people together to root and cheer for their favorite team or players. Additionally, recreationally playing sports allows friends to get together and exercise while enjoying a hobby. China’s modernization over the last half decade has led to an increase in both participation in sports and recognition on the world stage. This trend culminated with Beijing hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, where China had the opportunity to showcase its athletic power and prestige. Just like in any culture, tastes and trends popularize some sports more than others.

 

Football

 

carlos tevez shanghai shenhuaSimilar to many corners of the world, football (足球 zú qiú) is the most followed spectator sport in the country. China’s love for football starts at the top, with Chinese President Xi Jinping dubbing himself a megafan of the sport. Before taking office, he summarized three football related goals for the country: to qualify for the World Cup, to host the World Cup, and to win the World Cup. 

 

China has not yet seen much success on the global stage, but that doesn’t mean the country isn’t trying. China has tried to mimic the giant European football league systems, creating its own league, the Chinese Super League (CSL). The CSL uses a familiar relegation system, where the bottom two teams are relegated to a minor league, and the top two teams from the minor league are promoted to the CSL.

 

To build the league’s prestige, certain CSL teams have invested immense amount of money to attract foreign talent. While most of a club’s roster is reserved for native Chinese players, each squad is allowed to have four foreigners on the roster, and a maximum of three on-field. Because of the growing popularity and the lucrative salaries, the league has attracted several aging superstars to move from European and Latin American clubs, such as Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

 

Basketball

 

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Arguably just as popular as football, if not more, Chinese people are fanatic about basketball (篮球 lán qiú). Basketball enjoys not only a massive spectator following, but a large grassroots interest in pickup games for exercise and fun. The sport meshes well with urban development, and just about everyone in the world knows about the growth of China’s cities. It’s a simple fact that a basketball court takes up less space than a football pitch, leading to urban centers building courts instead of fields. It helps that the game can be played on a ½ court in smaller numbers (3 vs. 3, instead of 5 vs. 5).

 

Basketball’s popularity in China can be directly attributed to two factors: Yao Ming and the National Basketball Association (NBA). Back in 2002, the NBA’s Houston Rockets drafted 229 cm. Chinese basketball phenome Yao Ming with the first overall pick in the draft. Yao was a human mountain with a smooth game and a smoother personality that helped vault the idea of China as a basketball nation into the mainstream. Yao’s significance on China can’t be overstated, and him and the Houston Rockets were brought up to a level of a cultural icon. Chinese people love to take pride in their own, and now they had a homegrown star competing and succeeding on the world’s biggest basketball stage.

 

Although Yao was forced to retire due to nagging injuries in 2011 after a successful career, he undoubtedly pioneered the NBA and its American stars to popularity in the world’s largest country. Once Yao opened the doors, the league and stars began marketing themselves to a Chinese audience that was craving more. In addition to Yao, NBA stars such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Steph Curry claim a massive fan base in the Middle Kingdom, thanks to their on-court success as well as their annual off-season China marketing tours.

 

Although the NBA is the most followed sports league on Chinese social media, the country is growing its own domestic league, the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). The competition isn’t up to the international standards set by the NBA, but it is often considered the premier league within Asia. Additionally, several NBA stars have made career moves to the CBA and found massive success, including NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury and J.R. Smith.

 

Ping Pong

 

ping pong diplomacyTable tennis (乒乓 pīngpāng) is a favorite pastime of a large amount of China’s population. It’s the perfect sport for cramped China, requiring only two paddles, a small ball, and a short table. The sport’s popularity started in the early 1900s and exploded even more in the middle of the century. Mao Zedong declared table tennis as the national sport of China. Since then, the sport has only risen in popularity. A reported 10 million Chinese play competitively and some 300 million people play occasionally. 

 

Similar to how basketball is dominated by USA in international competitions and football by European countries, China is the unquestioned king of table tennis. Since it became an Olympic sport in 1988, China has won 28 of a possible 32 gold medals in the men’s and women’s version of the sport. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, 44 of the 172 table tennis players were Chinese-born, representing 21 of the 56 countries in the Olympic tournament. The Chinese team is so competitive, those that didn’t make the national team went and sought resident permits abroad to represent other countries.

 

Table tennis was even used as a diplomatic opening between the US and China in the early 1970s. Previously, the two countries were not on diplomatic terms or have any established economic relations, but both countries had an interest to open a dialogue. Beijing invited 9 US table tennis players, four officials, and two spouses into mainland China, signifying the first time in 20 years any American delegation had stepped foot in the country. This historic event paved the way for former US President Richard Nixon’s state visit to Beijing just a year later.

 

If you’re interested further in Chinese culture, why not consider completing an internship in China? InternAsia can help you find a perfect internship in one of many Chinese cities!

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