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  • Writer's pictureJess D

A Snapshot of What BJJ in China Looks Like

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

If you’re wondering what BJJ in China looks like or thinking about training there, here's all you need to know.

When encountering different cultures, it is very easy to talk about how we’re all different and separated. Even now, there is an even deeper separation because we don’t have the opportunity to travel and experience new cultures and people. All this focus on separation makes it hard to see the similarities.

When I arrived in China, I was also focused on separation, on how different Chinese culture would be and how those differences would extend into the jiu-jitsu gym. I thought about how I wouldn’t train so much because I didn’t understand the language, or that people wouldn’t want to train with me, or the BJJ teaching style would be completely different.

To my surprise, it was not like that as much as I thought it would be. In fact, it was more like the BJJ I was used to.

Big International Community

The BJJ community is huge in China. Speaking for just Shanghai alone, most people know everyone in the community and if not, most people are open to meeting and training with new BJJ enthusiasts around town. For expats, most of us who leave our families looking for new adventures but want to be a part of something, BJJ really makes it feel like you’re part of a family making more connections. Plus, with the many kinds of people who come to BJJ class, you're sure to meet someone new every time.

If you’re worried about the classes being only Chinese like I was, have no fear. Most classes are bilingual. There’s either a coach who is bilingual or a person who helps the coach translate in either language. Also, many of the coaches who don’t really speak Chinese or don’t really speak English try their best to describe the move in their non-fluent language. And through their process of learning the language, their English and Chinese speaking goes up.

In the cultural aspect, this is one of the greatest opportunities for you to organically learn about other people’s cultures. Although I’m super friendly, I don’t normally go up to random people and ask questions or what not (then again… I don’t think anyone really does that. But if you do more power to you). But at the gym, maybe someone escapes or passes your guard in a way you weren’t expecting, and you want to know how and why they did that.

No one has a problem with helping you and drilling with you. This then opens a line of communication that wouldn’t have been there in any other situation. I’ve learned so much about someone and gotten to know many people this way.

For you skeptics out there, you might argue that you can have the same vibes in any gym or place of fitness in China. But 1) generally people keep to themselves in these situations and 2) it usually happens that the language is only in Chinese. Because we’re a super diverse group of people who love aggressive cuddles, BJJ makes it easier to talk to the awesome folks around you. All these aspects have caused a level of comfort that draws curious people in, which makes the community grow. It may be a combination of the urge of doing something you’ve never done before, getting a new type of exercise, or longing for that community feel. Many people who try BJJ both Chinese and foreign stay and experience at least for a little while.

Multiple Gyms

Since being here in 2014, I’ve seen the growth of Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms across Shanghai and China! This gives you the opportunity to train, roll, and connect with many kinds of people within the BJJ community and experience many different training and teaching styles. If you like doing Gi only, most gyms will cater to you. If you like no-gi only, then of course there are places like that too. Wanna make your BJJ better for MMA? Don’t worry there’s a gym that has you covered. Not feeling competitive but want to make your jiu-jitsu good for self-defense situations? You guessed it! There are places and even some events for you too. Because jiu-jitsu is a big business here, the market appeals to all that goes looking.

More Women!

When I first started training BJJ, I was the only girl in the gym. Jiu-jitsu wasn’t appealing for some reason to my friends, and I honestly gave up trying to convince them to come. I mean…nice hair, long nails, and not getting your face bruised up is important to some. Then more girls, who eventually became my friends came, but at most it was four or five girls at one time. In China, there are so many women to train with [DJ1] and it’s a community of love and growth where everyone wants to see you win. Because of the original warmth within the community, many women feel brave and open to come try jiu-jitsu. Although there have been instances where women have felt unsafe, we women ban together in China, no matter where you are from.

Dojo Dynamics

In the US, I’ve always had a serious old school impression of the BJJ gym: Do your best to arrive to the gym on time, line up by belt order, etc. etc. When I arrived in China, I was relieved to see that these beliefs tracked over into China because of course, respect in the gym is universal. This gave me a sense of connection to China because it seemed like things were just like home. But in my time here, I feel there are some things that are less formal in China. In the US, I used to call my first black belt coach “professor” and all the color belt coaches “coach”. In China, I’ve never called any of my black belt coaches professor or coach. Maybe for me it is just always having the feeling of being informal or being friendly with the coaches outside of the gym. But all in all, I think that its more casual in the BJJj gym in China, where it’s more formal in the US.

And now…onto the not so nice stuff....

Although there are many, many positives that make BJJ in China great, there are some things that I noticed that make it seem a bit sad. Some of these things made me very frustrated even to the point I wanted to quit. But, as we all know, sometimes recognizing the bad things makes the good things even greater.

Separation of Chinese and foreigners

There are many people that get together despite where they might be from but sometimes a person might be too shy, they don’t speak English, or they just prefer to be around their “own people” there is an obvious separation between foreigners and Chinese people. Yes of course we foreigners grasp onto other foreigners who are living the same experience. We have common stories, common frustrations, and are always willing to give tips to make life abroad in China a bit easier. So, I can understand when my Chinese teammates stick to themselves, it might be what’s more comfortable and warmer for them. In this respect, I just feel that they might want to be left alone, causing further separation. There have been times where I see some of my Chinese teammates doing a move that I want to work on, and I kinda feel bad getting into the circle because maybe they don’t want me there or there’s a vibe they have going that could be interrupted by my presence. So, I just leave them alone.

Men not wanting to Roll with women

After my first full class at a BJJ gym in China, I was super excited to roll. I was new to the class so no one knew me and as it always goes, people grab the people they already know for a roll. I saw some Chinese guys sitting in the corner just chatting and I asked them if they wanted to roll. They said that they were tired and maybe next time and went back to talking.

A little disappointed, I went to the locker room to grab my phone to see if there were any texts from one of my WeChat groups. When I came back, I saw those two dudes rolling hardcore! I felt a bit hurt and left out…. It got worse because after the first roll, I got passed up again. I just felt alone, unwanted at the gym, and that I won’t improve if I had no one to practice with. It was probably one of my worst days of BJJ in China.

Maybe my speculations are wrong, but at that time, I felt because I was a female foreign blue belt, most of the dudes didn’t want to train with me. It just felt like that deep down. And I feel that BJJ being somewhat newish for that time, no one wanted to get embarrassed at the gym by getting tapped out by a girl. I feel this aspect is different now but the other problem that I’ve noticed is men skipping over women in positional sparring or for rolls in general.

One of my coaches mentioned that it is because of the size and strength difference which is an obvious factor… if you’re a brand-new white belt who spazzes out and wants to win. If a dude has been training for minimum 6 months or an upper belt, I believe you should roll with everyone. You do the women on your team a disservice if you avoid training with them. I understand there may be some gender or religious reservations or otherwise, but if not, everyone should roll with everyone and communicate to make sure everyone stays safe.

Not Taken Seriously as a Female Athlete

As I said, it is awesome there are more women who are inspired to try BJJ. All of the girls at the gym are open to helping other new girls who come to the gym. But the issue comes when a new girl comes, and you try to approach her to be welcoming and she has no interested in talking to you. All the interest come back to her face when one of the more handsome dudes at the gym walks by. It is then clear what she’s there for and there’s no need to try and make her feel at ease. She already does around all the beefy hunks and the make-up she’s wearing, and her sports bra and shorts shows you clearly what she’s there for…

There’s nothing wrong with going to unconventional places to meet new people. Everyone goes out to the bar in shanghai and meets people so why not switch it up? The problem is when you so have so many women looking for dudes at the gym, no one knows which woman is there for BJJ and which ones are there of BJJ minus one J. It takes a while to establish that you’re a woman that actually wants to be there to grow in the sport. This aspect has kind of died down in the gyms I go to but that problem is always there.

This feels crazy for me to say but, most of my BJJ experience has happened in China! Our differences make it seem like being in a whole different part of the world experiencing BJJ would change your mindset and it DOES. The BJJ experience in China is one that is of family, connections, and overall improvement. I can’t wait to experience BJJ in another place in the world and get rid of all the separations in the sport.

Was my view of BJJ in China what you expected? How is it the same or different?

What is BJJ like in your neck of the woods (or world)?

To tell me about or to see or know more about BJJ in China, Tips to start training, and how to put the GI in Girly by follow me on Instagram @blackgirlwhitegi_bjj

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