Empire of the Scrum: the history of rugby in Shanghai

In 1839 Britain declared war on Imperial China to defend its right to sell opium to the Chinese. The British occupied Shanghai and, at the war’s conclusion in 1842, the city became what was known as a ‘Treaty Port’ with a permanent British garrison and diplomatic and business settlement. As in the rest of their imperial world, the British colonialists established a local network of social and sporting clubs.

As Simon Drakeford explains in his exhaustively researched book on the history of Shanghai RFC, It’s Rough Game but Good Sportthe settlers set up the city’s first football club in 1867. As with their other cultural activities, the expatriate British mirrored the concerns of what they called ‘home’ and at that time played a football game that was neither modern soccer or rugby. The club did not last long and in 1881 a new Shanghai club was formed, this time committed to playing according to the rules of the Rugby Football Union. This too was short-lived. Other clubs were formed but died away. It wasn’t until 1904 that the recognisable Shanghai RFC came into existence. 

Rugby union became a significant force on the Shanghai sporting and social scene and remained so until the liberation of China by Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949. The club, like the rest of Britain’s imperial legacy on the Chinese mainland, was wound up in 1950 and the balance of its assets donated to the RFU. It wasn’t until the 1990s that rugby union was once again played in Shanghai.

It’s Rough Game but Good Sport describes in forensic detail not only the story of the club and rugby in Shanghai but also the social history of the city’s British expatriate community. Spurred on both by enthusiastic players and the Muscular Christian imperatives of the educational system, rugby had become the most popular football code in the port by the outbreak of World War One. Its influence spread and during the inter-war years the game was not merely the preserve of the British in the city but encompassed the French, American and Japanese occupying garrisons, and enjoyed regular tours from visiting European army regiments and Japanese university sides.

By 1939 the city boasted not only an English-speaking league but also a six-team Japanese league, the standard of which was equal to that of the Europeans. Indeed, on 8 December 1941 Shanghai RFC was itself defeated by the local Japanese students of Tung Wen College, a portent of what was to immediately follow. The day after, the Japanese army invaded and occupied the British settlement.

The community in which Shanghai RFC blossomed will be familiar to readers of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Drakeford does not shy away from describing the racism of the British or the club. Horrendous descriptions of the way in which Chinese ‘coolies’ were treated, accounts of the arrogance of the colonialists, and of discrimination by the club itself - against both Chinese and British of the lower classes - recur throughout the text. No Chinese player took part the game until 1932, and he had been educated in England. It would be almost seventy years before significant numbers of Chinese players began to take part in the sport. 

Histories of sports' clubs are notoriously difficult to write successfully. Even the most accomplished, such as Chuck Korr’s West Ham United (1987), Richard Stremski’s Kill for Collingwood (1986) and Andrew Moore’s The Mighty Bears (1996), struggle to maintain a balance between administrative minutiae, repetitive seasons and narrative flow. Yet despite the fact that the book is almost 700 pages long, the tight integration between the sporting and social history of Shanghai means that It’s a Rough Game is never less than interesting. In terms of its command of detail, personalities and sporting history the book is comparable to Tom Hickie’s outstanding 1998 history of Sydney University FC, A Sense of Union.

Most importantly, the book provides historians with a new window into the social world of the British imperial expatriate community. Rugby was a not insignificant part of the recreational life of most British colonialist communities across the imperial world yet remains woefully unexplored beyond the usual Australia/New Zealand/South Africa axis. Yet as Ng Peng Kong’s 2003 history/memoir Rugby: A Malaysian Chapter described, rugby union played an important role both in maintaining the ‘Britishness’ of the expatriate community and in allowing them to resist or regulate the participation of the indigenous population. 

As a history of rugby and of the British community in Shanghai, Simon Drakeford’s book is an important contribution to the historiography of sport and of the British empire.

- - Simon Drakeford, It’s Rough Game but Good Sport: The Life, Times and Personalities of the Shanghai Rugby Football Club (Hong Kong: Earnshaw Press, 2014), Pp. xviii + 696. £47.20 (hb) ISBN 978-9-881-60900-7.