Can China Rediscover Its Love of Baseball?
Although overshadowed by some of the other headlines coming out of this year’s Asian Games, Team China’s 1-0 victory over Japan in the baseball group stage might have been one of the Games’ biggest upsets. The Japanese team was missing some of its top players, not least injured superstar Shohei Ohtani, but the unexpected win — Team China’s first-ever international victory over its powerhouse neighbor — offered a much-needed confidence boost to a Chinese side coming off a rough World Baseball Classic in March.
An American sport, baseball has achieved tremendous popularity across the Asia-Pacific region, most notably in Japan and South Korea. Reigning WBC champs Team Japan have spent most of the past decade ranked first in the world, ahead of the United States, while South Korea’s Blue Wave just beat Chinese Taipei to take home their fourth straight gold at the Asian Games.
Team China, meanwhile, has yet to medal at a major international competition. Despite some progress in recent years, the sport remains a niche activity on the mainland, with limited grassroots participation and no professional league.
That wasn’t always the case. Baseball’s arrival in China actually predates its appearance in Japan by several years, and as recently as the late 1950s it was the beneficiary of strong state support. So, what happened? And can baseball reclaim its former position in the Chinese popular consciousness?
Baseball first arrived in China in the latter half of the 1800s, when American expatriates adopted the sport and formed China’s first baseball team in Shanghai in 1863. Chinese wouldn’t take it up until the following decade, after the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) began sending groups of students to the United States to study Western science and technology. Pioneering engineer Zhan Tianyou — better known as “the father of China’s railroads” — embraced the game, organizing a Chinese team while a student at Yale University in the late 1870s.
By the turn of the 20th century, young Chinese returning from schools in the United States and Japan began organizing baseball teams at colleges across the country, including Tsinghua University, Yenching University, St. John’s University, Fudan University, and Nankai University. After the Xinhai Revolution toppled the Qing in 1911, baseball was recognized as an official sport at China’s newly founded National Games, and Chinese baseball teams went on to acquit themselves admirably in the Far Eastern Championship Games against their Japanese and Filipino counterparts.
Crucially, the national team was able to draw from a thriving inter-collegiate baseball scene in the 1920s and ’30s, and there were enough fans of the sport that recaps of Major League Baseball games appeared in newspapers from Shanghai to the northern city of Tianjin. Baseball’s popularity reached a fever pitch in late 1934, when a team of MLB all-stars led by Babe Ruth toured Japan, China, and the Philippines. Their Dec. 5, 1934, exhibition game in Shanghai was one of the most anticipated sporting events of the decade in China.
It wasn’t just China’s big cities that had fallen in love with baseball. After watching Japanese prisoners-turned-defectors playing the sport to pass the time in the Communist base area of Yan’an in northwestern China, commanders of what would one day become the People’s Liberation Army took an interest in the game as well, seeing in it a novel way to train their troops.
By the early 1940s, baseball had exploded in popularity among the Communist forces, with the famed 129th Division even organizing formal games. The division’s commander, Liu Bocheng, who would later be named Marshal of the PLA, was a proponent of sport, and he latched onto baseball as an inexpensive way to both cultivate teamwork and teach his soldiers how to better throw grenades.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, baseball became a quasi-official sport of the PLA. A 1953 article published in the People’s Daily newspaper extolled baseball’s virtues, saying it could “play a special role in exercising physical strength and eyesight and in cultivating in ordinary soldiers the brave and enterprising spirit of revolutionary heroism, agility and nimbleness, quick and decisive judgment, and systematic cooperation.”
When the first-ever PLA Games — also known as the August 1st Games — opened to great fanfare in suburban Beijing on Aug. 1, 1952, baseball was included among the events, alongside track and field, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Six military districts, the navy, and public security forces all sent teams, and the competition was as fierce as in any other sport.
The Chinese government would continue to promote baseball throughout the 1950s, issuing rules and integrating it into its sporting college curriculum. And when the PRC restarted the National Games in 1959, baseball continued to be official event, with 23 teams vying for the championship.
Sadly, political upheavals led to a rapid decline in baseball’s fortunes in much of China. In the words of the well-known baseball coach Li Minkuan: “Baseball came from the United States. It was only ‘natural’ that it be ‘reformed’ into nonexistence in the 14 years after 1960.”
Eventually, the sport all but disappeared from the Chinese mainland. With the advent of reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, however, baseball seemed primed for a revival. National competitions gradually resumed, along with more international exchanges. China has finished fourth at every Asian Games since baseball’s inclusion as a medal sport in 1994 and has sent a team to every World Baseball Classic since its launch in 2006.
Importantly, there are also signs of renewed interest in the sport among ordinary Chinese, especially in the larger cities. Beijing and Shanghai have seen the emergence of amateur leagues organized by baseball enthusiasts, and a number of popular accounts dedicated to Major League Baseball have sprung up on video streaming platforms like Douyin and Bilibili.
More recently, the Asian Games drew people from across the country eager to show their support for the sport and the home team. Baseball will take a break from the Olympics next year, before returning to the lineup in Los Angeles in 2028. Whether it can maintain its momentum on the Chinese mainland over the next five years will go a long way toward determining whether China can reclaim its legacy as one of the world’s leading baseball powers.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Cai Yineng.
(Header image: An archive photo of the baseball team of Tsinghua University after they won the North China Baseball Championship in 1923. Collected by Wang Guoquan, from @人文清华讲坛 on WeChat)