Rural sports competitions are becoming a national sensation
By Ji Jing  ·  2023-06-25  ·   Source: NO.26 JUNE 29, 2023
Captivating competition during a Village Super League match in Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, on June 9 (XINHUA)

As night falls and lights are turned on, soccer teams from local villages stage fierce competitions at a stadium in Rongjiang County, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture in Guizhou Province. The players might be salespeople or couriers during the day, but at night, they become shining stars.

This is the Village Super League (VSL), known as Cun Chao in Chinese. Between May and July this year, 20 teams from Rongjiang County are participating in the VSL tournament on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Divided into two groups, the teams compete in round-robin matches and knockout stages, with the final scheduled for July 29.

The players come from a wide range of professions, including shop owners, drivers, carpenters, and construction workers. They also come from many ethnic groups including Miao, Dong, Shui, Han, and Yao, with their ages ranging from 15 to more than 40 years old.

Thanks to its festive atmosphere and players' outstanding goal-scoring performances, the VSL has captured the attention of media, social platforms and even overseas stars. On Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform, the hashtags and topics related to the VSL have garnered over 200 million views, and several videos of the league have received millions of likes on the short video platform Douyin, China's version of TikTok.

Former English football superstar Michael Owen recorded a video to show his support.

"I want to say congratulations to Cun Chao for all your success, for getting all the good results in football and I wish Cun Chao all the very best for the future. I'm sure you're gonna get better and better," he said.

Renowned Chinese sports TV commentator Han Qiaosheng was invited to Rongjiang to provide commentary for the matches on June 3. Han said despite covering numerous sports events, including the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, he found the village super league in Rongjiang to be unique and entertaining.

According to local government statistics, the average attendance of VSL matches has exceeded 10,000, putting it on par with the country's professional league, the Chinese Super League, the top football league in China. 

The origin of VSL 

The key to the VSL's popularity is the strong sports culture and traditions in Rongjiang. In the 1940s, when Guangxi University was moved to Rongjiang to avoid the ongoing war, sports including soccer, basketball and ping-pong were also spread to the county. In the 1990s, a soccer fever emerged in Chejiang Sanbao Dong Village in Rongjiang. Local villagers transformed a piece of farmland by a river, which had been damaged by floods, into a soccer field.

Villagers organized matches during important festivals or when they were free from farm work. At one time, there were more than 15 teams taking part in the matches and villagers brought rice, meat and porridge for the players. This was the prototype of today's VSL.

In addition to the local public's enthusiasm for the sport, Rongjiang County Government has attached great importance to soccer development and stepped up the construction of sports facilities. In the past, there were only two standard soccer fields in the county. Now almost every school has a standard field. On weekends, the county opens the fields to soccer fans for free.

In 2015, a new stadium opened to the public in Rongjiang, which became the venue of the VSL. The tournament has gained more attention since then and new media such as live-streaming and short video platforms have further boosted its popularity.

A display of culture 

The fun of the VSL doesn't lie only in the sport itself but also in the display of local culture during the matches.

Rongjiang is rich in culture as it is home to more than 10 ethnic minority groups and more than 10 nationally-recognized forms of intangible cultural heritage. 

Before a game begins, cheerleading squads, dressed in traditional ethnic costumes, carry local specialty foods including fruits and snacks on their shoulders, and play the musical instruments such as drums, gongs and reed pipes as they enter the stadium alongside soccer players.

Spectators can also enjoy folk song and dance performances during halftime breaks. During the halftime breaks of the matches on June 10, a local rock band put on a performance that combined modern musical instruments such as the drum set with the Dong Pipa Song, a type of folk song performed by the Dong ethnic group in China and also a form of national intangible cultural heritage. It is named after the pipa, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument that is played during the performance. The songs are known for their unique rhythms and melodies, which are believed to be inspired by the natural sounds of the Dong people's homeland in the mountains and forests of southwest China. The performance ignited the enthusiasm of the audience, who were waving their flags or banging drums and gongs to the rhythm of the performance.

Other forms of intangible cultural heritage were also showcased during the halftime breaks, including lusheng dance of the Miao ethnic group, in which actors make rhythmical moves and perform acrobatics to the accompaniment of the lusheng—a reed-pipe wind instrument.

Shi Qingxian, a 39-year-old local resident who is of the Miao ethnic minority group, told Xinhua News Agency that it's very rare, even for a local like him, to see so many ethnic cultural elements being displayed simultaneously.

A booster to the economy 

The VSL has also promoted the development of the local tourism industry and boosted the local economy. Since May 13, the opening day of the league, the county has received more than 420,000 tourists, generating a tourism revenue of more than 130 million yuan ($18.2 million).

Demand for food and beverages, hotels, and other related services in the county has also surged. From June 9-11, searches for food and beverages, hotels and supermarkets in Rongjiang on online platforms Meituan and Dianping increased by 74 percent year on year.

This is not the first time Guizhou has come under the spotlight for hosting grassroots-level sports events. Last summer, an annual rural basketball tournament of the province went viral online through live-streaming and short videos, acquiring a catchy name: VBA, or Village Basketball Association. The tournament was launched across the province in 2021, as part of the province's Gorgeous Countryside campaign, which promotes rural development via culture, tourism and sports.

The VBA tournament originated in Taipan Village of Guizhou's Taijiang County. The locals included the tournament as a part of the Chi Xin Festival that celebrates the harvest on the sixth day of the sixth lunar month.

The government is expanding basketball's reach to villages nationwide. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the General Administration of Sport announced on June 7 that the country's first village basketball competition will be held starting from June, with the goal of not only enriching rural residents' leisure activities but also promoting rural revitalization and the construction of a strong agricultural nation. The nationwide tournament will be held in three stages: local, regional and final. It will last four months, with the final tournament scheduled to be held in Taijiang in October.

Villages nationwide are encouraged to integrate the tournament with local culture such as agricultural activities, folk festivals and rural customs, and promote agricultural products and rural tourism, according to the statement.

Hong Tao, head of the Institute of Business and Economics of Beijing Technology and Business University, told Beijing Business Today that "As rural people's material needs are satisfied, they will definitely pursue cultural enrichment activities. Cultural life is built on material life."

"Both Cun Chao and VBA reflect local rural residents' aspirations for cultural enrichment after they escaped poverty," Hong said.

Gao Chengyuan, founder of Overlooking Marketing, a marketing consulting firm based in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, told Beijing Business Daily that VBA has helped increase rural people's incomes and provided new paths to rural revitalization. "The success of VBA has inspired us to focus on exploring and making use of rural culture and traditions for rural revitalization."

(Print Edition Title: Think Global, Play Local) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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