One thing that has surprised me about Chinese football has been the large amount of female fans in the stands, chanting just as enthusiastically as their male counterparts. Even though old fashioned attitudes towards women are fading, Chinese society still by and large remains a man’s realm. When I was a teacher at a college in Guangzhou, not one of my female students was allowed to play football as it was deemed to be too dangerous for them. It has only been relatively recently that there has been genuine progress towards greater equality between the sexes. 、
Women in China now hold high powered positions in business and to a lesser extent, politics. They also hold positions in football, Henan Construction was run by a woman and there are a number of female higher ups in the CFA. One thing that China shares with the West is its treatment of women in the media, female football fans are a good example of this. If you were to type ‘female football fan’ into Baidu (China’s Google), your results would show plenty of pictures of barely dressed women sat watching a game. So why do so many women attend football games in China?
Reliable statistics can be a difficult thing to obtain in China, especially on something as obscure as the gender balance of football fans. From numbers given from frequent fans, female fans make up to approximately 28% of Beijing Guoan’s “ultras”, whereas 35% was quoted for Guangzhou Evergrande. Guangzhou football’s main demographic, the majority of hardcore fans or self-styled ‘ultras’ are mainly college students aged between 18-24. Both Guangzhou Super League teams, Evergrande and R&F have a number of different supporter groups, based in Guangzhou and nearby towns. It could be argued that this is the first generation to have been heavily exposed to a large amount of easily accessible European football on the internet as well as the first to be targeted by large marketing campaigns by the top European clubs and leagues.
I found the majority of young male fans were rather dismissive of their female counterparts. They either denied that there were many female football fans or they explained that their presence at matches was because they were accompanying their boyfriend. A few male friends even said that women only went because of the handsome players and that now Guangzhou no longer has a basketball team, the football teams were the next best thing. One male fan, with tongue firmly in cheek, suggested it was because of the handsome male Guangzhou football fans. Another suggestion was that it was because of Guangzhou’s large population, and that there would obviously be more female fans. To me though, those reasons seemed demeaning and slightly shallow. I’m sure female fans must feel the same joy when seeing their team put four past a bitter rival or have the same feeling of ecstasy when their team scores a 90th minute away winner. Would they really come to a match just for the ‘eye candy’ or just to keep their boyfriends happy’?
On female Evergrande fan told me that there may be some truth to this. “As far as I know, lots of girls go initially because of their boyfriends. But many girls grow to love football gradually.” Even though I found male fans typically indifferent to female fans, it seems that once in the stadium, female fans are on a par with males. One female fan from outside Guangzhou was actually impressed by her treatment by male fans at the stadium “The male fans and I happily talked about football.” Another told me that females are treated fairly and well within fan groups. Female fans are also just as passionate and loyal as males. One female fan of Evergrande, who had been going for 7 years, told me “I joined the fan group because I wanted to show the team that they have a strong support. I just did it for two words Guang..Zhou.”.
Talking with female fans in Beijing revealed much of the same attitude. Many looked down upon the “long, white legs” (大白腿), who come to Worker’s Stadium scantily dressed and always attract attention from the photographers. One female member of Beijing’s Royal Army stated, “Female fans are just like male fans, many of them come to the match just for entertainment and aren’t real fans, but because some of them wear real short shorts or get all dolled up, they attract the attention of all the male fans and it reflects badly on those who are real fans. I’ve supported Guoan since ’97, longer than most guys and I’m chanting as loud as them, I have their respect because of that.”
China’s “One Child Policy” may have had an indirect influence on this. Fathers, instead of taking sons to games have taken their daughters to watch matches instead. One female Evergrande fan told me that it was her dad who took her to her first game and since then she has been hooked. She also added that other female friends of hers had similar experiences. Although young males are characteristically arrogant towards, and slightly ignorant of, female fans. At away matches though, the males tend to be protective of the “fairer sex”, by It certainly seems that once exposed to football, female fans will take up the game with just as much passion as males.
Chinese football, to its credit, appears not to have the masculine baggage of the European fan culture. Drinking and football violence in China are rarely a problem. Without a bad reputation, female football fans have found a home in the stands of their local teams. If they continue to participate it may mean that Chinese football will steer away from problems that have plagued the European game. This may also mean that it will escape the prying eyes and discouragement of China’s well known overbearing parents. The attendance of a young, loud and vociferous crowd at Super League games reflects the passion that young fans have for the game in China.
Having been brought up watching the fanatical fans of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona on television, they want to recreate that atmosphere at home and hopefully at the same time drum-up some pride in their local city and help resuscitate Chinese football in general. These factors combined, a form of equality has been created in the stands, in someways giving young adult women some independence and an opportunity to break out from traditional feminine roles in Chinese society.
The problems with inequality that I have described are by no means confined to China. The rest of the world should do more to encourage women to attend football matches. Statistics in England found that not only are their numbers rising but female fans are more likely to be season ticket holders than males. At a time when David Beckham is in China to promote football both at a grassroots level and professional level, the women’s game and female fans should not be overlooked. Some would joke that in a sign of equality, the women’s national team, which for years was one of the best in the world, has been reduced to also rans in Asia, not much better than the men, To try to and change the Chinese game in order to emulate the European game on the field is admirable, but China’s burgeoning young female fan-base is well worth holding on to.
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