Boxing In China: The Evolution

Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping Greets Muhammad Ali
Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping Greets Muhammad Ali

By Zhenyu Li in Beijing, China: China has a centuries-old boxing history, yet it’s rather different from boxing today.

The history of Chinese boxing dates back to 3.7 thousand years ago when China was in the Late Shang Dynasty. It’s one of the subjects for military training conducted by aristocrats. By the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), boxing became the mandatory subject for soldiers.

Unlike boxing of the early-times in western countries which was a mixture of both the boxing and wrestling, boxing in China was apparently distinct from wrestling as early as 3.7 thousand years ago. The book, The Combat Arts of Two Hands, which was written exclusively for boxing, appeared around 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, this book wasn’t handed down from generation to generation. Moreover, wearing boxing gloves and protections first came into being in China approximately 700 years ago. We can conclude from the above that China has a long boxing tradition.

Modern day boxing in China, which was initially called "western boxing", was first introduced in the late 1920s in the port city of Shanghai, along with a book, titled "The Technique Of Western Boxing", which was then translated into Chinese.

In the 30s, some sports academies put boxing classes in their major curriculum and fostered a number of Chinese boxing talents. At this stage, the sport of boxing was mainly carried out in the city’s western rental area, where the majority of players were western sailors, soldiers and merchants, only a handful of Chinese took part.

Before the Anti-Japanese War, boxing became prevalent in some port cities of China when the middle schools and colleges founded by Christian and the Catholic Church listed boxing as one of the major subjects in their physical education classes. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, China assigned 69 participants, two of which participated in the boxing competitions, but they were all dumped in the qualifying matches.

By the start of the Japanese invasion, western professional boxers began to withdraw from China, and the number of local fighters grew. The professional bouts, at the time in China, are limited to four, six, eight and ten rounds, at maximum, which was for the championship fight. In the early 1940s, boxing agents began to show up. It was reported that one local fighter received a maximum premium of 4000 yuan (approximately 570 US dollars) for a single bout.

After the liberation war, various forms of boxing matches were held in such big cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. Probably one of the grandest boxing pageants in Chinese history -- 20-city boxing championship with the total number of competitors of 142 was staged in Beijing in 1958. Judging from the case in this period, the number of athletes taking part in assorted boxing matches was growing, and the host region of boxing was becoming larger and larger. Although there were no international Chinese boxing champions up until the 60s, the national tournaments held in this period laid the foundation in China for future development of this sport.

In 1959, the first National Games, which was the biggest domestic sports event in China, was held, and the Committee once listed boxing in the National Games’ lineup. However, due to the Great Leap Forward of this sport and its violent nature, a number of incidents concerning serious physical injuries of participant occurred. After several incidents, the committee felt that it was not the right time to develop boxing in such a large scale. Consequently, they temporally removed boxing from the National Games. In March of the same year, boxing was outlawed by the government as a result of several unannounced reasons.

As Hong Fan, a scholar who specializes in China’s athletic history, puts it, "People believed that boxing was very brutal, very ruthless. So it was banned."

Two decades later, boxing was revived in China. The philosophy of the "Ping Pong Diplomacy" triggered the restoration of the fight game.

In December 1979, the former undisputed heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali paid a visit to China at the invitation of Chinese Chairman Deng Xiaoping. The little giant man hugged the boxing titan. They sat. And the word that boxing could also be the factor to push for the understanding and friendship between the Chinese and the Americans, went out. Right after that, boxing began to regain its status and exhibition matches were carried out.

The year 1986 and 1987 are two significant years for Chinese western boxing. In March 1986, boxing officially returned to validity. The next year in April, the China Boxing Association was officially founded. In May, the first national boxing championships were held and in June, the China Boxing Association was officially admitted into the International Amateur Boxing Association as the 159th member. From then on, China began to appear on the international boxing stage.

Another two decades has passed and China has experienced even more great changes in the sport of boxing. The hidden Eastern Dragon finished the evolution and is now set to soar into the heaven!

Zhenyu Li is the bilingual sports and culture columnist for People’s Daily. His agent can be reached at

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