Chinese Church Voices

The People and Places of Chinese Soccer

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Although the Chinese team did not qualify this time around, the 2018 World Cup still captured the attention of soccer fans around China.

In this article from Good News Today, Rebekah shares about China’s long history with the sport and how its development in China owes in part to its introduction by Western missionaries. 

Chinese Soccer Team Once Played in the Olympics!—The Glorious History of Chinese Soccer Hardly Remembered

The 21st World Cup, 2018 is in full swing. Even though there is no Chinese soccer team in the World Cup this year, Chinese soccer fans are no less invested. If we look back on history, China has actually had a long relationship with soccer. According to records, cuju (蹴鞠)[1] already existed as a sport in China a long, long time ago (around the Tang Dynasty). However, cuju lost its popularity during later waves of history.

As for modern soccer, it started in England. And even more surprising is that the development and spread of modern soccer within China is closely related to Western missionaries, as well as their promotion and demonstration in the modern schools they built.

The Glorious History of Tianjin Soccer

When talking about the history of Chinese soccer, Tianjin must be mentioned. Tianjin was one of the places in China where soccer took off early on, and the firm foundation of soccer in those early days left a glorious mark on modern Chinese sports that we can be proud of.

After the opening up of Tianjin [as one of the few trade ports open to the western world], the Tientsin Military Academy, the Chinese and Western school, the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College, the Nankai schools, and other schools in Tianjin started integrating soccer as part of their curriculum. In all these schools, the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College had the best soccer team. This was the birthplace of the very first school soccer team of Chinese players in the history of Tianjin. The Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College was a church school, formerly known as the Yangzheng Institute of the London Missionary Society. In the early days of the school, British teachers promoted soccer among the teachers and students at the school. And the most famous of these teachers was Eric Liddell.

Eric Liddell was born in Tientsin MacKenzie Memorial Hospital (renamed Tianjin People’s Hospital after the Revolution) in January, 1902. His parents were missionaries in China from the London Missionary Society. If you have seen Chariots of Fire, you will be familiar with him. The hero of the film is Eric Liddell. Liddell was a “Scotsman with a heart for China.” He won the 400 meters in the Paris Olympics of 1924, and later taught Tianjin Seventeenth Middle School for over a decade. During WWII, his wisdom saved the lives of many Chinese people. In 1942, he was jailed by the Japanese in the foreign internment camp of Weifang, Shandong Province. In 1945, he passed away from illness while still in the camp. He was 43 years old. In 1981, Britain filmed a movie about his legendary life, Chariots of Fire, and the movie won four Oscar awards.

Eric Liddell’s cultivation of Chinese athletes is worth mentioning. In the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Liddell was hired as chief coach of the Chinese Olympics team. When teaching in Tianjin, he put his best into training various young Chinese athletes, such as Liu Fuying—the triathlon athlete famous throughout the nation, or Wu Bixian—the incredible high jump athlete. These were some of the few Chinese athletes who were able to attend Olympic competitions under old China. In terms of soccer, Liddell also trained many talented players, including the famous “Iron Gate Ding,” and forward player Zhao Honglin, among others.

The school where Eric Liddell taught was the famous Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College. Liddell became the most popular teacher soon after he arrived. In addition to teaching various subjects, Liddell used the Stamford Bridge Stadium in London as his blueprint and designed a standard athletic field for the school, so that Tianjin boasted one of the best tracks in the Far East.

Under his guidance, the school trained the city-wide and nation-wide famous shooter Yuan Qingxiang (nicknamed “Yuan Three Booms”), the excellent goalkeeper Ding Xuchun (“Iron Gate Ding”), and the newcomer who could play both defense and offense—the incredibly skilled Sun Sijing (“Defending the Three Mountains”), as well as frontline player Zhao Honglin, etc.

Among them, Yuan Qingxiang played the rear right defense. He kicked especially hard, so people called him “Yuan Three Booms.” He could dribble the ball along the outer line all the way to the front right, neither going out of bounds nor losing the ball to someone else. When he kicked a volley shot it was rarely more than 10 meters. Very rarely did he kick it high. His greatest gifts were his strength and accuracy.

Ding Xuchun was a goalkeeper, and because of how firmly he guarded the goal, people called him “Iron Gate Ding.” He was skilled in all the basic moves: dive, slide, roll, and grab—he could do it all. All these people have represented the Chinese soccer team in the Far Eastern Championship Games.

The Origin of Modern Soccer in Mainland China—Yuankeng

Aside from Tianjin, another place that must be mentioned when talking about the origins of Chinese soccer is Yuankeng of Guangdong Province.

Yuankeng is part of Changbu Town in Wuhua County, which lies southwest of Meizhou City. The mountains are high and treacherous here, and have been farmed for continuous generations by the honest Hakka people. And yet, this seemingly distant mountain area is the area with the greatest concentration of Christians in Meizhou.

Over 100 years ago, foreign missionaries came here to evangelize, build churches, and build schools—such as Zhongshu Guan—to spread modern Western culture, and at the same time they brought the newly popular sport of soccer from Europe to China. Slowly, soccer spread from Yuankeng to the surrounding regions. In the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Asian soccer king Li Huitang, who represented the Chinese in the soccer games, was from Hengbei Town, not far from Changbu Town—which is where he first encountered the game of soccer.

Speaking of the origin of soccer in Changbu Town, we cannot help but mention the Yuankeng Church. Yuankeng Church was a mission belonging to Protestant Christianity, and was founded by missionaries from the Basel Mission in Switzerland. In 1866, after the Basel Mission established a church in Yuankeng, they also founded an entry-level school. Zhongshu Guan was later renamed as Cui Wen Secondary School. Today, Cui Wen Secondary School continues the excellent education tradition from Zhongshu Guan, of which the most influential part was probably the athletic curriculum the missionaries had started. They introduced the rules of modern soccer, and influenced the entire Eastern Yue region. German missionaries “Hua An” [German name unknown] and Heinrich Bender often taught here. Bender had special athletic skills and was particularly good at soccer.

Photo of Yuankeng Zhongshu Guan taken in 1933[2]

The European style classrooms and campus of Yuankeng Secondary School were scattered on the hills in a pleasing manner. Taking into consideration the sloping ground, they built a running track of 400 meters starting from the left of the campus and circling the mountain. In the valley at the foot of the mountain was a grassy field surrounded on three sides by hills. On the two opposite ends of the field were goals built from wood, where Bender taught students soccer. More impressively, Yuankeng Secondary School trained China’s first group of soccer players, such as Wei Jinxin, Jiang Aiqi, Wei Lingsheng, Li Weirong, Li Huarui, Li Qimei, Li Xinghuang, Li Fachun, and they ignited the spread of soccer within the Meizhou reigion.

Old site of Yuankeng soccer field

Because of the introduction of soccer into the secondary school curriculum, Yuankeng Secondary School became instantly famous. Not only did students from Wuhua County come flocking, but children of Christians in the various counties of Dong and Mei rivers, Dongguan, Huiyang, and Bao’an, etc. also came seeking an education. In 1876, Yuankeng Secondary School started a teaching course to train teachers to meet the mission’s need for building more secondary or primary schools. Yuankeng became the center of Basel missionary activity near the Dong and Mei River regions, and a gathering point of talent. No wonder locals spoke of Yuankeng with pride so much so that some Chinese emigrants who wrote home from abroad addressed their letters simply to “Yuankeng, China,” and the letters arrived without complication.

Cradle of Soccer in Guizhou: “Shimen Kan”

Another person who contributed significantly to Chinese soccer was the British missionary Samuel Pollard. The development of soccer in Guizhou today is largely thanks to the contribution Pollard made at Shimen Kan.

Pollard, also known as Bo Geli in Chinese, was born in Cornwall, England in 1864. He was a clever as a child. At age 23, he gave up his comfortable life, and came to China in 1887, as a missionary serving the Chinese Methodist Church Southwestern Region. He was pastor, teacher, and doctor. After many twists and turns, he came to Shimen Kan, and dedicated the rest of his life to this place. Not only did he invent a Miao script, build schools, educate the people, but he also introduced sports such as soccer.

Pollard had two athletic interests while in England. One was soccer, and the other was swimming. After coming to Guizhou, he founded a soccer team at Shimen Kan in 1914. This team played well enough to reach competitive levels.

In the 1930s, warlord Yang Sen was transferred to Guizhou as the chairman. While passing by Shimen Kan, he was very surprised to see a soccer field. The warlord himself liked soccer very much, and had a soccer team in his own army, so he arranged for his team to play against the Shimen Kan team. After three days, the Shimen Kan team won two games, and the army team won one game. Yang Sen told his team, “all of you take your shoes off and give them to the other team. What face do you have to still be wearing shoes?” This was because the Shimen Kan players did not have shoes, but played barefoot.

Shimen Kan is the “cradle of soccer” in Guizhou, and many soccer players come from this area. When New China built its first national soccer team, two of the members came from Shimen Kan.

Even though Chinese soccer has not yet fully stepped onto the World Cup scene, when looking back over the history of soccer in China, the deep historical foundation gives us reason to believe that there is still much hope for Chinese soccer. As for the missionaries who introduced and developed soccer in China, they deserve our respect and remembrance.

Original article: 中国足球也曾踢进奥运会!——细数鲜为人知的中国足球辉煌史, Good News Today.


  1. ^ Editor’s note: See Wikipedia for more information, but note there is a discrepancy between the two articles as to when cuju was first played.
  2. ^ Editor's Note: Additional photos concerning soccer in China can be found on the original article. 
Text image credits: Good News Today.
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