By way of introduction, there are three contexts in which an understanding of football in China may be located: the Chinese, the Asian, and the global, and although this chapter will focus primarily on the Chinese context, the Asian and global contexts add another layer of understanding.
In global terms, football is the prime example of omnipotence in sport. Affiliations to FIFA now stand at over 200 countries and international football competitions on all five continents together with the World Cup, underline the pervasive appeal and spread of the game. Thus, China's involvement in football is neither surprising nor unique. On the contrary, it would be remarkable if a country the size of China were not a member of the football community. First affiliating to FIFA in 1931 (the year after the first World Cup), China failed to get beyond the preliminary or the qualifying rounds until 2002.
China, already a full member of the United Nations, has now become a member of the World Trade Organisation and has actively and successfully sought sporting recognition at world levels, especially since its re-entry to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in November 1979. Now, in the twenty-first century, it is no longer in sporting isolation.
The Asian context is more complex. The subcontinent was an important part of the British Empire of the nineteenth century, itself a key part of the spread of the (British) games tradition, through various means such as tradesmen, government officers, army personnel and Christian missionaries, of whom over 3,000 were reported as working in China around 1900 (Geil 1904:42). Asia was also the fertile breeding ground of ancient Chinese secular and non-secular ideas, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, which developed religion, civil society and philosophy in ways quite distinct from the ideas and practices of the early European (including British) invaders. Interestingly too, Asia spawned many distinct languages that had few, if any, European roots in ancient Latin or Greek.