Individualism and Chinese Athletics


In my fieldwork at 地大 I found that the vast majority of the students playing soccer were from Africa, while the Chinese players remained on the basketball courts.  This evidence led to my hypothesis that playing soccer is simply not very popular with Chinese college students; in fact, this seeming revelation was the theme of my previous blog post.  I had been told that a greater number of Chinese players used the fields at Tsinghua Daxue, which left me with a last glimmer of hope for researching collegiate pickup soccer in China. Upon visiting the Tsinghua fields I was immediately disabused of the idea that soccer was unpopular with Chinese college students.  Almost every day starting in the late afternoon the fields bustle with students; although you can spot the occasional foreigner, the vast majority of the players are Chinese students going to Tsinghua.  I took footage from the fields at 地大and Tsinghua respectively, although both unfortunately taken with shaky hands resulting from playing soccer.  The Tsinghua fields are surprisingly unused in the video because the day I went to take the video was extremely hot so there were fewer players.  Still, although it is hard to see because of the inability to zoom during video with an iPhone, it is possible to compare the difference between one Chinese soccer player at  地大 versus an entire game of Chinese students at Tsinghua.  The discovery that Chinese college students actually frequently played soccer had an interesting effect on my research; while the initial effect was to damage my previous hypothesis, it opened an entire avenue of research into the role of individualism in Chinese athletics.

Upon switching my fieldwork location to the fields at Tsinghua, I was finally able to interview Chinese college students about soccer culture.  Immediately both the passion for the sport and the intensity at which they play shone through, erasing my doubts basketball eliminating soccer.  My most notable interview came from a Tsinghua sophomore named Xiaoyang. Our conversation started in Chinese, but slowly gave way to English as it became clear that his English far surpassed my Chinese ability.  The most notable element to our conversation was the reason why he chose his soccer position.  By his own admission he was not a particularly good player, which he said was reflected by his choice to play defense.  Apparently to him, and several other people I have interviewed, the positions in soccer are stratified by skill level.  The players with the highest level of skill play on offense, where they get attention and showcase their ability.  The apparent overarching goal of Chinese players is to become skillful enough to stand out from the rest of the team.  He emphasized a lack of emphasis on teamwork, instead in individual ability.  If the team wins then the praise will always be targeted towards a select number of individuals.  In his eyes, the core of the team was merely glanced over in respect to the attention that the best players received.  This information echoed my previous fieldwork, particularly in a greater emphasis on individual skill than in the team as a whole.

The role of position and individual skill was also emphasized by an interview with Fang Laoshi.  Interviewing him was not ideal due to familiarity, use of English, and him not being a Tsinghua student, but I had failed to previous recorded my other interviews and I had difficulty getting good interviews the day when I went back to do fieldwork.  Interestingly, his viewpoint was very similar to the views of the others students to whom I had spoken.  He emphasized the importance of ability on both position and social standing.  His viewpoint so closely mirrored that of Tsinghua students that I found this interview very valuable.  I now see that this pattern of thought about individual skill is not necessarily restricted to Tsinghua.  One factor that might have influenced my previous interviews is that they were all Tsinghua students, but Fang Laoshi is an outsider to that specific group.  Still, he did go to a very good university, which means that, like the students at Tsinghua, he might have an extremely competitive way of thinking.  The question remains of whether this emphasis on individuality comes from the fact that these students attend a very competitive and difficult university.

Chinese players typically wear uniforms of European teams

Chinese players typically wear uniforms of European teams

One other possible reason for the central role of the individual in soccer is the influence of Western culture.  Soccer appears to have a certain European attachment in China, which can be seen in both the players and teams that Tsinghua students idolize and support.  When I asked Xiaoyang about his favorite player, he replied 齐达内.  Although originally I did not recognize the name, I eventually understood we was referring to Zinedine Zidane- a famous French player who played for some of the most notable soccer teams in Europe.  In every interview I have conducted, each Chinese player has responded that his or her favorite player is not Chinese.  The importance of the West, particularly Europe, can also be seen through the uniforms worn by Chinese students.  The majority of players are wearing uniforms of famous European club or national teams; very rarely do you see anyone wearing a uniform from a Chinese team.  The picture on the left is an example from my previous research at 地大.  The outfit that this player is wearing comprises the complete uniform for the Spanish national team.  The European influence on Chinese soccer might be at least partially responsible for the increased focus on the individual.  In psychology, Western culture is commonly presented as more individualistic, while Eastern culture contrasts with a collectivist worldview.  Countries like the United States and many in Western Europe are vertical individualist cultures, which means that these cultures value characteristics such as competitiveness and individual ability (Triandis, 2002).  The authors also insinuate that the influence of the United States’ vertical individualistic identity has slightly influenced the cultural worldviews of several collectivist countries.  Therefore, the increased influences on both general societal and the specific sport might be responsible for the emphasis on individual ability in Chinese soccer.

One interesting tie-in to this exploration on the role of individualism in Chinese athletic is the recent game between China and South Korea in the East Asian Cup.  The game ended in a 0-0 tie; a tremendous result for China, which has historically been dominated in soccer by their neighbors.  The result was significantly influenced by曾诚, or Zeng Cheng,  the PRC Goalkeeper.  A recent string of photos has come out in response to an iconic incident where he was kicked in the face during the match.

Photo of 曾诚's heroics against South Korea

Photo of 曾诚’s heroics against South Korea

The part of this event that has corresponded with my research has come from the public response to this result.  There has been an incredible glorification of 曾诚, which is clearly evident when on Weibo.

The hottest result on Weibo

The hottest result on Weibo

The response to this result has focused almost completely on 曾诚, with the comments below this all praising him immensely.  This emphasis on the individual rather than the team as a whole is not completely surprising from the perspective of a Westerner, but I found it interesting that it was so pronounced in China.  It ties in with increasingly individualistic tendencies toward sports, meaning that the trend towards emphasizing individual ability might arise from a large-scale trend and not simply occur in college students from good universities.  Going forward, I need to conduct interviews with players at the Tsinghua fields, but this time record them for media evidence.  After that I need to focus on research articles; I am guessing that trends in Chinese individualism is a subject that has been studied.


Triandis, H.C., & Suh, E.M. (2002) Cultural influences on personality. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 133-160. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135200