Need expat info for China?

Connect with fellow expats in China
Join exciting events and groups
Get information in our China guides
Exchange tips about expat life in China

Traditional Activities and Chinese Opera

People in China love to partake in a wide range of Chinese sports, games, and leisure activities, which you can observe during a stroll in the park or at traditional festivals or competitions. Maybe you can even learn a few yourself! In this article, we cover the most popular Chinese sports and activities.
Chinese opera performers are known as “disciples of the pear garden”.

Traditional Activities

There are also many sports and leisure activities which are deeply rooted in China’s long and rich cultural history. Many of these traditional sports were derived from activities necessary for everyday life. For example, for the Kazaks, Tibetans, and Mongolians living on vast grasslands, good horsemanship and archery skills were vital for their survival. Thus, their traditional sports are focused on these two areas.

Lions, Dragons, and Bamboo Poles, Oh My: Traditional Dances

Dancing can be both a part of traditional festivals as well as a competitive type of sport. The Bamboo Pole Dance of the Li ethnic group, for example, is performed during traditional festivals. In this dance, graceful dancers artfully move between the bamboo poles, being careful not to get caught between them.

Yangko dancing originally was enjoyed as a recreational dance by farmers after a long day of work. This folk dance is often accompanied by singing and dancers are dressed in costumes, holding fans or handkerchiefs. There are four main famous sets of steps in different regions of China. Nowadays, there is a standardized routine incorporating parts of all four variations which is used during national competitions.

Dragon and lion dances are also often performed at folk festivals in China. As well as providing entertainment for the spectators, these dances are a competitive type of sport, during which the performers carry out martial-arts-style technical movements.

2,000 Years of Dragon Boat Racing

Dragon boat racing is quite popular in southern China, especially in the Guangdong and Fujian Provinces. Its practice dates back over 2,000 years. Participants decorate and paint the boats to look like dragons and race them on a lake or river. Boats are usually about 20 meters long. In addition to the oarsmen and oarswomen, each boat has a coxswain, gong beater, and a drummer, who keep the rhythm for the rowing. You can read more about the festival dedicated to dragon boat racing in our article on Chinese Festivals and Holidays.

Karaoke Parties and Chinese Opera

Another popular leisure activity enjoyed equally by the young and old in China is karaoke. Although Chinese people might often seem quite reserved, just hand them a microphone and you might be surprised at the result! Usually a bit of alcohol is also involved to help people overcome their natural inhibitions. Chinese people will often sing karaoke at class reunions or even during business meetings or dinners. If you are asked to participate, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter if you sing off key!

Disciples of the Pear Garden

For some more cultured singing, you shouldn’t miss seeing at least one opera during your stay in China. Chinese opera, together with Greek tragic-comedy, and Indian Sanskrit opera, is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), one emperor founded an opera school with the poetic name “Pear Garden”. Since then, Chinese opera performers have been known as “disciples of the pear garden”.

It wasn’t until the 13th century, however, that Chinese opera fully developed into a traditional art form. It combined folk songs, dances, music, and literature into a single performance on the stage. The actors sing unique melodies and present beautiful dialogues with a high literary value. They are accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as the erhu (two-stringed fiddle), gong, or lute.

The different styles of facial make-up are very distinctive of Chinese opera. A red face symbolizes loyalty and bravery, a black face stands for valor, yellow and white faces denote duplicity, while golden and silver faces mean mystery.

Kunqu, Qinquiang, and Beijing: Regional Opera Styles

Over the centuries, many different regional styles developed. These include Kunqu Opera, which was added to the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001. It was developed in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty and is characterized by its gentleness and clearness. Qinquiang Opera, on the other hand, is known for its wildness and loudness. This art form, developed in the Shaanxi region, often features special effects such as fire-breathing and acrobatics. The Beijing Opera developed as a combination of the different regional styles and is the most well-known form today.

Traditional Chinese opera, along with many other traditional Chinese customs and art forms, were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). Since 1976, however, Beijing opera and other forms were revived and the traditional operas are being performed again. New operas are also being written, but they are sometimes censored if their message is deemed to be too controversial.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.