From Mao Zedong to Jeremy Lin: Why Basketball Is China's Biggest Sport

Long before the NBA arrived, missionaries, revolutionaries, and communists helped make the game ubiquitous here.

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LeBron James smiles during a photo session with university student volunteers in Shanghai / Reuters

Inside the cobblestone courtyard of the Forbidden City and surrounded by six-century-old palaces lies an unexpected sight for foreign tourists. As they walk under the giant portrait of Mao Zedong and pour through the dark archway of the Tiananmen rostrum, they arrive at two well-maintained basketball courts, their green astroturf and gray concrete clashing with the ancient crimson columns and the dusty yellow tiles.

Basketball is never out of place in modern China. Its ubiquitous presence often surprises first-time visitors, many of whom consider the sport quintessentially western. Ambling in quiet street parks in early mornings or walking by urban high school campuses in late afternoons, one hears chasing steps, a thumping ball, shouting voices, and the silence of anticipation followed by joyous cheers. Driving along unpaved roads on China's inland plateaus and steppes, one starts to notice the basketball stands and hoops flashing by -- lone statures amid wooden shacks and wild grass. Outside the manufacturing plants that sprinkle the nation's east coast, workers swarm into basketball courts after finishing their shifts to stretch the limbs numbed by long hours on the production lines and to break the monotonous daily routine with sweat and laughter.

An estimated 300 million Chinese people play basketball -- roughly equivalent to the entire population of the United States, according to the Chinese Basketball Association. Many Americans are just now learning of China's enthusiasm for the sport as the success of Jeremy Lin, a California-born Knicks player of Chinese heritage, becomes an international phenomenon. But the sport is almost as old in the land of Lin's ancestors, and maybe even more popular, than it is in the U.S.

"First-rate basketball players were all from the military teams."

Introduced to China over a century ago by YMCA missionaries just a few years after the game's 1891 invention in Springfield, Massachusetts, basketball has seeped into the fabric of Chinese lives. Until the NBA arrived in early 1990s, basketball had come to feel so intrinsically Chinese, most people did not even associate it with America. Unlike in the U.S., where a garden of sports -- from baseball to football to ice hockey -- all play a part in shaping a diverse athletic landscape, in China, basketball is perhaps the only true national sport, the only sport that brings together people of all backgrounds and kindles the nation.

Some of the first groups that embraced basketball in China were college students, western-minded scholars, and, most importantly, members of the Communist party, who loved the sport for its cohesive power. During the Long March (the Red Army's storied year-long retreat in the 1930s to evade the Nationalist army), Communist soldiers and officers played basketball to lift their spirits and boost solidarity.

The party continued to support the sport after it took power in 1949. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao declared war against almost all Western bourgeois affections, from classical music to novels, but he never wavered in support of basketball. Deprived of all forms of cultural enrichment and lacking the most basic athletic equipment, children and young adults roamed around their neighborhoods, setting up boards and hoops in alleys and courtyards and pouring their energy into the simple game of shooting the hoops. "At that time, China had basically only two sports: basketball and ping pong," my father, a teenager during the height of the Cultural Revolution and a devout basketball fan told me. "If you were young and loved sports, you only got these two to choose from."

The People's Liberation Army has long encouraged many of its two-million-plus active duty service members to play basketball for its ability to cultivate camaraderie and even tactical teamwork among soldiers. Under slogans such as "Boost National Image" and "Friendship First, Competition Second," basketball became the most popular pastime in the military camps. Different levels of military hierarchy were divided into something like leagues, which hold regular tournaments among their teams. For a while, many star players received high military ranks and such perks as separate dining, cars, and expensive clothes.

"From 1949 to the early 1980s, the first-rate basketball players were all from the military teams, with the Bayi at the top," recalls Wang Yongzhi, the associate editor in charge of Olympic sports coverage at Tencent.com, China largest web portal. He was referring to the Bayi Rockets, an all-military men's team named after the founding date of the PLA (bayi means August 1). It dominated Chinese basketball well into the 1990s, producing stars such as Wang Zhizhi, China's first player to enter the NBA. Though favored by the country's old military system, Bayi couldn't keep up with the changes of the 1990s and saw its dynasty decline as commercial basketball leagues entered the market and started importing foreign players. Most recently, the team captured international media coverage for brawling with players of the Georgetown Hoyas in a supposedly friendly match last fall.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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