Sep 04, 2023

Learn Chinese Words Through 10 Popular Competitive Sports in China

Can you think of a language that doesn’t require years of diligent study to comprehend?

A universal dialect that transcends boundaries, uniting individuals regardless of nationality, age, religion, or background?

Yes, that’s right – we’re talking about the language of sports! This global lexicon has the power to connect us all, and China, with its rich history and devotion to various sports, is no exception.

China’s passion for sports is reflected not only in the international mega-events it has proudly hosted – the 2008 Olympics, the 2021 World University Games, and the 2022 Winter Olympics, to name a few – but also in its consistent performance.

Since the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, China has consistently clinched a position in the top 5, underscoring its significant presence on the global sporting stage.

So, if you’re intrigued by China’s love for competitive sports and want to communicate with your Chinese friends about their favorite pastimes, you’re in the right place!

In this post, we’re going to teach you Chinese words for ten of the most popular sports in China. Are you ready to learn some new words and talk about sports with your Chinese friends? Let’s start!

Basketball 籃球/篮球

Baseketball in Chinese

Can you guess which country boasts the largest NBA (National Basketball Association) fanbase outside of the USA?

That’s right – it’s China!

While NBA games started airing in China in 2004, the relationship between the U.S. and China regarding basketball actually dates back to the 1980s.

However, the NBA truly skyrocketed in popularity when China’s most famed basketball player, Yao Ming (姚明; yáo míng), joined the Houston Rockets in 2002. His influence significantly expanded the NBA’s market reach in China.

Surprisingly enough, the NBA sells more merchandise in China than it does in the U.S., thanks to its enormous fanbase!

But the Chinese people don’t stop at merely watching the NBA – they participate in the sport as well! In fact, basketball is even included in the Chinese school curriculum.

When it comes to sports involving a ball in Chinese, you’ll very likely encounter the character (qiú). Combining the components 玉 (jade; yù) and 求 (excessive demand; qiú), the original meaning of 球 depicted a beautiful and much-desired jade sphere.

Today, 球 is used to mean “ball” or any spherical object.

Therefore, to say basketball in Chinese, you say 籃球/篮球 (lán qiú), which directly translates to “basket ball.”

Football (Soccer) 足球

Football in Chinese

After 籃球/篮球, football (or soccer) is the second most popular team sport in China.

Much like the NBA, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) has made significant strides to establish a strong presence in the Chinese market.

When the FIFA World Cup happens, Chinese people are always excited, even when it’s hosted far away.

An interesting fact is that some experts believe football’s origins can be traced back to ancient China. But the sport’s modern prominence in China is largely credited to governmental support.

Chinese leaders, particularly President Xi Jinping, have been key proponents of football in the country. In fact, in 2011, President Xi laid out a comprehensive blueprint to promote and develop football.

From this plan, we can see China’s big goal: to be a big player in world football!

In China, football isn’t just for the professionals; it’s played by people of all ages in schools and parks nationwide.

The Chinese word for “football” is 足球 (zú qiú), literally translating to “foot ball.” The character 足 (zú) means “foot,” while 球 (qiú), as we’ve already learnt, stands for “ball.”

So next time you want to discuss the latest football match with your Chinese friends, you know how to refer to the sport!

Baseball 棒球

baseball in Chinese

What’s the team sport played by two teams of nine players and involving a bat, a ball, and gloves?

It’s baseball!

While baseball might not be as popular as basketball or football in China, it has been steadily gaining recognition and attracting a following over the years.

Even though China isn’t in the limelight of the global baseball scene yet, it’s showing promise.

Chinese players are starting to make their way into international leagues. For example, Xu Guiyuan (許桂源/许桂源; xǔ guì yuán) became the first Chinese player to sign with a Major League Baseball (MLB) team in the United States in 2015.

In China, baseball isn’t just played professionally. Schools are also starting to introduce the sport to students, and you’ll often find people enjoying a casual game in parks.

The word for baseball in Chinese is 棒球 (bàng qiú). In this term, 棒 (bàng) means “stick” or “bat,” and 球 (qiú) means “ball.” So, 棒球 literally is “bat ball” in Chinese.

Volleyball 排球


Our next sport, volleyball, sees a more balanced development between male and female teams in China.

Volleyball made its way to China in 1905, first catching on in the more developed cities in the south. It’s impressive that volleyball has been part of the Chinese sporting landscape for over a century!

Investment and development over the years have helped China’s volleyball teams earn numerous medals on both the continental and world stages.

The national China women’s volleyball team made history by bagging five consecutive World titles in the 1980s. It’s no wonder they hold a special place in the hearts of Chinese sports fans.

Volleyball isn’t just a sport for professionals, though. It’s a popular activity for students of all ages, from middle school to university. Every province even has its own team that competes at the national level.

The Chinese word for “volleyball” is 排球 (pái qiú). 排 means “to line up,” which hints at a volleyball game’s formation, the lineup. Interestingly, the term “volley” in English refers to hitting the ball into the net.

There’s a shorthand term for “women’s volleyball team.” You add 女 (female/woman; nǚ) and drop 球 from 排球, so it becomes 女排 (nǚ pái).

Want to guess how to say ‘men’s volleyball team’ in shorthand? Here’s a hint: 男 (nán) is the word for “male/man.”

Table tennis 乒乓球

table tennis in Chinese

Let’s switch gears and take a look at a sport that requires a smaller ball, a racket, and fewer players.

That’s right; it’s table tennis, or as you may know it, ping pong.

In this sport, China stands tall with an impressive record. The Chinese national team has pocketed over 100 gold medals in world tournaments since 1926, and it’s no secret that China dominates Olympic table tennis as well.

But it’s not just the professionals who love this game. Ordinary people across China are wild about table tennis.

It’s played in schools, parks, and even workplaces, where tables are set up for employees to enjoy a quick game on their breaks.

This love for the sport is so widespread that it’s often referred to as the “national ball game” (國球/国球; guó qiú). This enthusiasm has even made its way into Chinese cinema, with several films based on table tennis.

We call it “table tennis” in English, but we also use the term “ping pong.”

Interestingly, the Chinese invented the characters 乒乓 (pīng pāng) as a phonetic copy of the word “ping pong.”

Those two characters mirror the sound of the ball hitting the table. And yes, our friend 球 (qiú) is still part of the term!

Tennis 網球/网球

tennis in Chinese

Tennis, while not the most commonly played sport in China, is undoubtedly prominent in its own right.

The sport’s lesser popularity among the general public can be attributed to limited access to public tennis courts and the high costs associated with quality training.

However, college students often find opportunities to pick up a racket and enjoy the game.

Nevertheless, tennis commands a vast television audience in China. Chinese fans avidly follow international tournaments such as Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.

China has even introduced its own significant contribution to the tennis calendar: the China Open. Established in 2004, this annual event held in Beijing serves as a testament to the country’s growing interest and investment in tennis.

The Chinese term for “tennis” is 網球/网球 (wǎng qiú). The character 網/网 (wǎng) represents a “net,” reflecting the vital equipment of this sport. Meanwhile, 球 (qiú), as we have seen in multiple sports names, means “ball.” So, 網球/网球 directly translates to “net ball.”

Badminton 羽毛球

Badminton in Chinese

Badminton holds exceptional popularity in China, with roots reaching back as far as the 5th century BC.

This early form of badminton was referred to as 踢毽子/踢键子 (tī jiàn zi) in Chinese, literally translating to “kicking shuttle.”

The game’s objective was to keep the shuttle in the air using feet and any other part of the body except for hands.

Although this early iteration, 毽子/键子 (jiàn zi), differs significantly from modern badminton, there’s a connecting thread: both games involve a shuttlecock. However, the shuttlecock in 毽子/键子 (jiàn zi) is more heavily weighted.

Today, 毽子/键子 is a competitive sport in its own right, but it’s played on a badminton court without a net.

The Chinese term for “badminton” is 羽毛球 (yǔ máo qiú). 羽毛 (yǔ máo) translates to “feather,” referencing the overlapping feathers fixed on a round core base in the shuttlecock.

While the sport has significantly evolved over the centuries, the humble shuttlecock remains a constant!

Track and field 田徑/田径

track and field in Chinese

Now let’s turn our attention to a type of sport that doesn’t involve a ball or a racket but remains highly competitive and personal. We’re referring to track and field.

With over 40 disciplines in the Olympics alone, track and field is a wide-ranging sport encompassing sprints of varying distances, relay races, marathons, and more.

In recent decades, China has made a strong showing in this area. The Chinese national team has seen considerable success, largely due to the recruitment of top-notch coaches who have guided their athletes towards achieving their best performances.

Just like in other sports, track and field is not only for elite athletes. You’ll often find Chinese people running in the parks or on school tracks, with children learning the basics of track and field sports at a young age in school.

The Chinese term for “track and field” is 田徑/田径 (tián jìng). The character 田 (tián), which means “field,” represents a grass field where athletes throw or jump. While 徑/径 (jìng) refers to “running tracks.”

Taekwondo 跆拳道

Taekwondo in Chinese

Before delving into this section, let’s clarify something – taekwondo is not the same as kung fu (功夫; gōng fū).

While they may seem similar at first glance, there are key differences.

Taekwondo focuses more on effective kicking techniques, while kung fu incorporates a fluid array of techniques to combat opponents.

Furthermore, their origins differ: taekwondo comes from Korea, whereas kung fu is born from China.

So why has Korean martial arts gained popularity in China?

The answer lies in the spirit of cultural exchange and appreciation for martial arts disciplines across Asia.

Not only does it demonstrate the physical prowess of athletes, but it also encapsulates strategic thinking and self-discipline, values that resonate with the Chinese.

Interestingly, the Chinese term for “taekwondo,” 跆拳道 (tái quán dào), is actually a loanword from the Korean word 태권도 (taekwondo).

The characters were chosen to mimic the sounds of the Korean term while also reflecting the meaning of the sport. 跆 (tái) represents “to trample,” reflecting the kicking techniques, 拳 (quán) symbolizes “fist,” indicating punches, and 道 (dào) signifies “way” or “path,” denoting the philosophical element of the discipline.

Swimming 游泳

swimming in Chinese

Moving from land to water, we find a sport that has made quite a splash in China – swimming.

With a vast coastline and numerous rivers and lakes, it’s no wonder that swimming holds significant cultural and practical importance.

However, it’s in the competitive arena where Chinese swimmers have truly made their mark.

China has consistently produced world-class swimmers who have excelled at the highest level, especially in the Olympics.

Chinese athletes have brought home numerous medals in various swimming disciplines, with performances in events like the 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter individual medley particularly standing out.

But competitive swimming is just part of the story!

Swimming lessons are widely offered in schools, while public pools and natural bodies of water provide ample opportunities for people of all ages to enjoy this sport for fitness, relaxation, or simply to beat the summer heat.

The Chinese word for “swimming” is 游泳 (yóu yǒng). 游 (yóu) can mean “to swim” or “to wander” as a verb, indicating the effortless glide of a swimmer through the water.

On the other hand, 泳 (yǒng) translates to “swim” as a noun. The combination 游泳 (yóu yǒng) perfectly captures the harmonious interaction between humans and water that is at the heart of the sport of swimming.

In wrapping up our exploration of sports vocabulary in Chinese, let’s reflect on what we’ve discovered.

Our keyword, 球 (ball), found its way into many sports names, demonstrating how a single character can tie together diverse activities. Meanwhile, loanwords like 乒乓球 (ping pong) and 跆拳道 (taekwondo) remind us of the ways language can cross cultural and geographic boundaries.

As you continue your journey in learning Chinese, remember that making vocabulary personal can greatly enhance your retention.

Focus on the sports that spark your interest the most, learn their Chinese equivalent, and perhaps even try using these words in real-life conversations.

Happy learning!

By Chineasy | A Super Chineasian

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