Mingbai: Know your sports stars: The most famous female athletes in China

Mingbai (明白, meaning “understand”), written by Christian Føhrby and Deng Jie, is a daily newsletter that drops knowledge on things “everyone in China knows, but almost nobody outside the country knows.” Sign up for it at GetMingbai.com.

In China, as we know, it’s women who dominate the sports scene. Many female athletes have become household names, winning the hearts of the public not only with their strength, skill, and speed, but also with their stories and personal quirks.

Today, Mingbai zooms in on past and present sports legends known by everyone in China.


Lang Ping 郎平 is the head coach of the Chinese female volleyball team and a former outside hitter. She has been instrumental in bringing home the gold in multiple Olympic tournaments, both as a player and as a coach.

Lang is known as the “Iron Hammer,” an apt name that takes into account her powerful smashes and the fact that her family name sounds like the “láng” in 榔头 (lángtou), meaning “sledgehammer.”

For a while, Lang coached the American women’s volleyball team, which led to some grumpiness in Chinese homes when it won silver in the Beijing Olympics — but all has since been forgiven. She became the first person to ever win an Olympic gold medal as a player and a coach when Team China won gold in 2016 at the Rio Olympics. (She previously won as a player in 1984 in Los Angeles.)

The success of the Chinese women’s volleyball team has inspired the phrase 女排精神 (nǚpái jīngshén), “female volleyball spirit,” which is used to describe an attitude that prioritizes hard work and team spirit. Even President Xi Jinping has pointed out that the whole country should learn from the mentality of the team in order to achieve national rejuvenation.


Alongside her name are the words “Chinese-Japanese friendship.”

福原爱 (Fúyuán Aì), or Ai Fukuhara in Japanese, is a professional ping-pong player — and perhaps China’s favorite Japanese person.

Fukuhara speaks fluent Chinese, having learned her craft in Liaoning Province beginning at age 7. For this reason, she has a strong northeastern Chinese accent — one considered quite rough and straightforward, and therefore often used in parodies. Japanese women, by contrast, are stereotypically viewed as quiet and well behaved, and therefore many Chinese people find it insanely funny to hear a baby-faced Japanese girl speak like this.

Fukuhara is good friends with the Chinese Ping-Pong team, having even acted as bridesmaid for one of the members. She is famous for crying when she loses, but also universally loved, so players and journalists alike are quick to give her a comforting hug.

She recently had a daughter with a Taiwanese Ping-Pong player, and everyone is ecstatically debating whether the daughter will speak with a northeastern or Taiwanese accent.


Penguins make the best trophies (Image: Baidu Baike)

Yang Yang 杨杨 is one of China’s Olympic miracles. One of the best speed skaters of all time, she is swimming in international titles, including several Olympic medals and six consecutive world championship wins. Plus, she’s likable!

Yang Yang regularly appears in Chinese media, not least because her name has sparked general public mirth: After Yang Yang joined China’s speed-skating team, she soon got a new teammate named — guess what — Yang Yang (with the same tones, even!). Although the names use different written characters, things got a little complicated, so the two have since been affectionately known to the public as Big Yang Yang and Little Yang Yang.

After amazing the world with her blinding speed, she quit skating, but continued pursuing her sports dreams: She’s the first Chinese athlete to sit on the International Olympic Committee, and right now, she’s planning the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics for y’all, so get excited.

Come back next Wednesday for more Mingbai, and remember to sign up for the daily newsletter.