History of Skiing in China

Winter sports, as we know them today, are a relatively new phenomenon in China.

Twenty years ago, there was only a handful of places in China visited predominantly by the wealthy elite who could not only had disposable income, but also the free time. China’s meteoric economic growth led to a boom in luxury goods and resorts, including ski resorts.

By the time Beijing was announced as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics in 2015, China was home to over five-hundred ski areas all over the country. Since being awarded the Olympics, the government has made huge efforts to get the masses involved in winter sports.

Today, millions of people flock to the hundreds of ski areas across the county each season. Due to this recent boom, most view skiing as something that only developed in the last ten years or so. However, skiing in China is older than most would imagine.

Ancient Origins

One of the earliest descriptions of skiing in the world was written by a scholar in the West Han Dynasty; sometime between 206 BCE and 225 BCE:

… people of the Dingling nationality living in the Altay mountains of northwest China sped like goats in the valleys and on the flatlands wearing the “horns of goats” – a kind of knee high fur boot under which is bound a wooden board with a hoof-shaped front tip.

In 1993, ski historian and former Nordic national champion Shan Zhaojian was led to a cave in the Altay mountains outside of Khom. Inside the cave is a wonderful painting of five men on skis hunting ibex. Although cave paintings are notoriously difficult to date, many claim that they are roughly 10,000 years old (with others saying anywhere between 6,000 and 30,000 years old), making them the oldest known depiction of skiing in the world.

Although hunting and chopping down trees are now banned in the area, there are still those in the area that cling to the traditional ways of skiing. After shaping the wood found from fallen trees, they boil the front end to add the signature bend to the front of the skis. They then cover the bottom of the skis with horsehair to gain traction for going uphill and to glide effortlessly downhill. Instead of using two poles as skiers do today, Altai skiers sit quite low to the ground and lean much further back, leaning on a long, single pole that is used for support, braking, and steering.

Here is a video of traditional Altai skiing

Although the traditional ways are becoming less popular, steps have been taken to preserve this skiing history. For years, there have been annual Altai traditional ski races drawing roughly a hundred competitors. The locals also organized their own competition that involves skiing and archery. The New York Times described it as “akin to a Stone Age biathlon, and in line with the region’s hunting ancestry – an authentic representation of what these handmade tools were meant to do in deep powder snow”.