An immediate observation made at Chinese Football games is the consistent employment of a Capo figure in blocks of fans and Ultras within the stadium. At all Chinese Super League matches I’ve attended in the People’s Republic, a Capo has been present at every single one.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, a “Capo” is simply a fan selected to lead groups of supporters during the match by coordinating their behaviour in order to collectively create a more intense and impressive atmosphere. In other words, the Capos are the guys standing in front of the Ultras shouting at them through a megaphone, I’m guessing you’ve seen them.
It is worth taking the time to note that in an increasingly globalised world, a Capo is a very common sight at Football games in 2018, from Chicago to Canton via Casablanca. In countries such as Italy or Germany, the Capo has been an integral part of many fan groups’ supporter culture for decades, and in countries with a growing taste for Football such as the USA and Vietnam, fans that want to build impressive atmospheres within their stadia are turning to the tried-and-tested Capo model that can deliver quick results. China, being a country that has opened up gradually (and only gradually) to foreign media and ideas in the past twenty years, can be added to the latter list. However, I would argue that the Han Chinese culture makes fans of professional Chinese Football clubs particularly predisposed to opt for the Capo model of support.
Confucius Say, Everybody Else Do.
Several key institutions have played a huge role in defining Han Chinese culture, behaviour and attitudes over the past two millennia; Mahayana Buddhism, Communist rule and Maoism, subjugation to foreign rule on several occasions and a focus on meritocracy by most Chinese Dynasties. But inarguably Confucianism and its teachings have shaped Chinese culture enormously and continue to influence the way in which average Chinese citizens think and behave today.
Confucius was a scholar born to an aristocratic family in the early Eastern Zhou dynasty, probably around 540BC, who worked for various regional governments for brief periods before spending years in exile. Though we only have secondary sources of his teachings written after his death, the extent to which later Chinese scholars wrote about Confucius, his ideas and his teachings has enabled them to survive in great detail. Confucianism and its ideals continue to form the basis for the way the Chinese think about effective governance, education and relationships. Thus, in order to understand Chinese culture and behaviour, Confucian doctrine is a good place to start.
Confucian doctrine covers a broad range of topics, and while we will not cover all of them here, its fundamental teachings about hierarchies, relationships and authority can help us understand why modern Chinese Football fans have so readily adopted the Capo model of fan support. Confucian thinking explicitly outlines where authority lies across many relationships, with a father superior to a son, an older brother superior to a younger brother and a husband superior to a wife (sorry to all our female readers; Confucius wasn’t particularly kind to you). This makes it very easy for an individual to understand his or her position in Chinese society, and to whom the individual must maintain respect. The superior individual should not abuse his or her position of power for their own gain, instead acting benevolently and selflessly to maintain an optimum society for all. But ultimately their will and orders should be obeyed by their subjects with little question. The conventional notion of the strong Chinese ruler therefore has its roots in Confucian thinking.
While various Dynasties and even two 20th century revolutions have come and gone since the Eastern Zhou dynasty, the Confucian Classics continue to outline the basic ideals for the structure of Chinese society. The outcome is a culture that places an importance on an individual knowing his or her place in society and paying respect to his or her superiors by following their orders. Obeying commands comes naturally to the Chinese.
It can be little surprise therefore that Chinese Football fans would choose to listen to an explicit authority figure who is easily identifiable at games in order to build impressive and intimidating atmospheres. How the Capo authority figure is chosen probably differs for each fan group, but the Chinese culture of clear social hierarchy and obedience makes the Capo model a very natural fit for the Chinese. One man stands before all others and barks specific instructions through a megaphone that fans can easily follow.