Christianity and the Transformation of Physical Education and Sport in China

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Huijie Zhang, Fan Hong, Fuhua Huang
  • London: 
    , May
     136 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the last few decades, the significance of sports and physical education in the cross cultural communication between the Western world and China have taken much notice from historians. A set of Chinese historians, including but not limited to Yunxiang Gao, Andrew D. Morris, Guoq Xu, and Stefan Huebner, have succeeded in illustrating the correlation between the import of Western sport, its localization, and the modernization of Chinese society in the 20th century. All of their writings, more or less, take notice of the significance of Christianity, especially the organizations YMCA and YWCA, for the promotion of the Eurocentric sport culture in eastern Asian countries. However, previously there was no book-length academic work intensely examining interactions between Western religious faith and the widespread promotion of sport as modern culture in China. In Christianity and the Transformation of Physical Education and Sport in China, sports historians Huijie Zhang, Fan Hong, and Fuhua Huang specifically investigate Christian missions and their shared “mission” of advocating sport culture in the historical context of the revival of nationalist sentiments and rising concern about the modernization of Chinese society

With the intense concern about the presence of Christian missions in 19th-century Chinese society and its engagement with the promotion of sport culture since then, this monograph primarily consists of three parts: They review the historical background of contradicted perceptions of sport in 19th-century European and pre modern Chinese societies (chapter 1), revisit the rise and fall of Christian missions in the trajectory of sport and physical education in China between 1840 and 1937 (chapters 2– 5), and finally revise the traditional assessment of those missions’ enterprise through the lens of “cultural imperialism ” (chapter 6).

Since the start of the late Qing dynasty in 1840, Western missions’ shared agenda of evangelizing and civilizing Chinese society, and strengthening the local population's bodies and minds motivated their affiliates to introduce sport culture to their Chinese brothers and sisters. As emphasized at the end of chapter 2, “physical education and sport become the most effective tools in facilitating the process of transforming Chinese society because the Chinese populace was most vulnerable to its physicality, both ideology and factually ” ( 30). Entering the 20th century, the downfall of the last dynasty of ancient China and the foundation of the new republic fostered Chinese society’s transformed attitude, from antagonism to advocacy, to the Western-styled modern sport culture. In the authors’ words, “the success of the missionary institutions’ physical program not only depended on the efforts of the missionaries and physical directors, but on the changing attitude of the Chinese elites towards modern physical education and sport and on their readiness to seek help from missionaries and physical directors in this regard.” (59 –60).

According to the authors, the first two decades of the 20th century were the heyday for the proliferation of the mission-advocated sport programs in China. However, after the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the rise of nationalist sentiments in the 1920s profoundly affected the leadership of the YMCA in the advance of physical education in Chinese schools and colleges. Consequently, the evolution of Chinese sport culture underwent an indigenized transformation. Reviewing the cultivation and transformation of sport and physical education in China between the 1840s and 1930s, Christian missions indeed functioned as one of the major forces in the cultivation of sport culture in Chinese society.

Concretely examining the interwoven history of sport, physical education, and Christianity in the late 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese society, this monograph succeeds in demonstrating the limits of the cultural imperialist interpretation of Christian missions' enterprise of physical education and sport in China. Overall, as the major outcome of Zhang, Fan, and Huang’s collaborative endeavor to explore the crucial role that Christianity played in the evolution of sport culture and physical education in pre-1937 Chinese society, Christianity and the Transformation of Physical Education and Sport in China offers an inspiring illustration of the trajectory of Western sport culture and its indigenization in Chinese society.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shu Wan is a PhD student in history at the University of Buffalo.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Huijie Zhang is a lecturer at Jiangxi Normal University, China. Her main research interests are in the areas of sports history, especially in Christian involvement in sport in modern China and traditional sport.

Fan Hong is professor in Asian studies and the Deputy Dean of Bangor College, Bangor University in UK. Her main research interests are in the areas of culture, politics, gender and sport and she has published extensively in these areas.

Fuhua Huang is a lecturer at Jiangxi Normal University. His main research interests are globalization and sport, professionalization and commercialization of sport, sport history and traditional sport.


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